In August of this year, the largest women’s baseball tournament in the world came to the United States for the first time. Held in Viera, Florida, the Women’s Baseball World Cup showcased teams from 12 countries. The U.S. Women’s National Team came in fourth place and was comprised of a mix of veteran talent and exciting young players.
Most people didn’t even know the tournament was happening.
There was a near media blackout about the tournament, with only a handful of U.S. outlets sending reporters and only a few more writing anything about it. Most notable was Alyson Footer’s coverage for MLB.com, along with Jessica Luther’s for Huffington Post, Jeva Lange’s at The Week, Natalie Weiner’s at SBNation, and Emma Baccellieri’s at Sports Illustrated. It’s worth pointing out that the majority of journalists who covered the event were women, and more than a few either had to cover partial expenses or fought to be assigned to the tournament.
It shouldn’t take male players promoting and co-signing the women’s game to get people to take it seriously. But in a patriarchal society that still views female athletes as second-tier, that support matters.
However, the most deafening silence came from Major League Baseball and its players. During the tournament, I didn’t see any superstars of baseball tweet or acknowledge that it was happening. Rob Friedman’s @PitchingNinja Twitter account and retired MLB pitcher Dontrelle Willis complimented USWNT player Jade Gortarez’s pitching mechanics and were notable exceptions within the Baseball Twitter community. The Canadian team won a bronze medal at the WBWC, and while the Toronto Blue Jays congratulated the team, no mention was made on the team’s public Twitter account.
“We’re extremely fortunate and appreciative of the support that they provide for all of our National Teams including our national women’s program,” a team representative said when reached for comment. “Not only do they contribute to these programs but they also support 11 Baseball Canada National Championships including three female events (Women’s, 21U and 16U). This year our training camp was held in Florida prior to the World Cup but in previous years the program has held camp at Rogers Centre and have been on-field guests of the Jays prior to games.”
Women’s baseball is still an incredibly underfunded, under-resourced, and under-covered sport, despite efforts from organizations like Baseball For All to grow the game. For their part, MLB has tried to fill this gap in recent years, expanding their Play Ball youth initiative to more explicitly support girls’ baseball, starting their Trailblazers Series tournament, and holding other girls baseball events.
But the truth is, it’s probably going to take the respect and attention of Major League Baseball players before we see a major leap in coverage and attention on the sport. For an example of this, we can look to the NBA. During the WNBA playoffs this year, superstar players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant were tweeting support and commentary on the games; multiple players congratulated Diana Taurasi when she broke the WNBA’s scoring record in 2017. For The Players’ Tribune, Isaiah Thomas wrote an impassioned piece about the skill of the WNBA players and Pau Gasol wrote a nuanced take about why women deserve more coaching jobs in the sport. The support that WNBA players receive from their male counterparts is likely helped by the fact that the two seasons don’t overlap, but the support was front-and-center nonetheless.
This season, a new campaign was announced, sponsored by the NBA and WNBA, called #HerTimeToPlay, which seeks to keep girls in the game. It’s probably not a coincidence that the WNBA had an incredible year, ratings-wise. ESPN reported in June that its ratings for the WNBA’s first three games of the season were up 58 percent on ESPN2 compared to the first three games during the 2017 season. Television viewership went up, clocking in at 33 percent better for the Finals this year than one year ago, and the best ratings for the Finals since 2010. And according to Forbes, regular season viewership was up 31 percent, League Pass digital subscriptions were up 39 percent, and merchandise sales were up 66 percent.
It shouldn’t take male players promoting and co-signing the women’s game to get people to take it seriously. But in a patriarchal society that still views female athletes as second-tier, that support matters. It’s a small way that male athletes — at the top of their games — can use their privilege to lift up the women who deserve the spotlight, too.
MLB is starting to do this behind-the-scenes; during the WBWC, several of the MLB-run Twitter accounts were instructed to tweet about the tournament: @Cut4, @PlayBall, and @MLBDevelops among them. While MLB didn’t operate the tournament, it was still an opportunity to bring attention to the women’s game on their home soil, and one that feels like it was squandered in many ways.
Women’s baseball is clearly something that MLB is aware of, yet the support was not front facing.
“Prior to the last couple of years, we didn’t have a dedicated focus on women’s baseball,” says Tony Reagins, the Executive Vice President of Baseball and Softball Development at Major League Baseball. “We recognize the importance [of it]. Our sport can do a better job across the board, not just promoting girls baseball and specific events, but of getting our message out there about the things we’re doing in the youth space.”
This progress is significant and deserves to be applauded, but it’s not visible to most fans. If MLB wants there to be real progress, they need to be encouraging their players to openly support the women who play the game. It can also send a strong signal to young girls watching at home that there’s a place for them in the sport they love, and it can help the game continue its growth.
As NBA players have shown, even sending a supportive tweet can go a long way towards bringing attention and respect to the female athletes who absolutely deserve it.