How Title IX Changed College Softball

February 20, 2024

14 min read

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Since its passage almost 50 years ago, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 has significantly changed the educational and athletic landscape for young people. 

Originally passed to keep sex-based discrimination out of classrooms, Title IX quickly became the driving force behind women’s participation in high school and collegiate sports. 

And it’s thanks to this legislation that many of the country’s most popular women’s sports, like fastpitch softball, were able to grow. 

What did softball and women’s sports look like before 1972? How did Title IX open doors for women academically, athletically, and professionally? And what unintended negative consequences may have resulted from Title IX?

Let’s dive in.

Women’s Sports Before Title IX

By looking at the participation numbers only, you can see the impact of Title IX on collegiate athletics.

Before Title IX was passed in 1972, female participation in college sports was low. Fewer than 30,000 women played college sports that year. 

As of the 2017-18 season, the NCAA counted 216,378 women athletes. 

Women now make up 44 percent of the total student-athlete population. And the number of women’s NCAA teams outnumbers that of men’s, making up 54 percent of the total.

Women’s sports also only received about two percent of universities’ athletic budgets pre-1972.

This meant that young women who wanted to play collegiate sports couldn’t get scholarships to do so. 

When Title IX took effect, women’s rights groups pressured colleges and universities to allocate more money to women’s sports. 

As of 2010, 48 percent of the money for athletic scholarships at Division I schools go to female athletes. 

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The Deseronto Ponies girls' softball team circa 1928-30.

Fastpitch Softball on the Decline before Title IX

If it weren’t for Title IX and the gateway it created for fastpitch softball players, it’s possible the sport would’ve sputtered and died out. 

Softball did have a rich social history in the United States before Title IX came along.

The sport was played by both men and women on amateur fastpitch teams that competed all over the country in the 1940s and 50s. 

But it actually goes back further. For a full history of softball, look no further.

It was historically a community game, played on fields smaller than baseball diamonds, and for shorter durations.

Since softball was for amateurs only, however, players couldn’t make a career out of it.

Men still had professional baseball they could pursue but women didn’t – the major leagues banned female athletes until the 1990s. 

Women kept playing fastpitch softball, but without funding or more interest, the sport had started losing players.

And, sadly, once fastpitch softball started to become a distinctly women’s game, it was seen as less competitive than baseball – even though men had played it for decades. 

Throughout the 1970s, softball instead became synonymous with slow pitch softball to the general U.S. population, which differs greatly from fastpitch. 

When Title IX passed and was finally implemented, universities decided fastpitch softball would be the female equivalent of baseball. 

Teams started receiving more funding and were able to offer scholarships, and programs were allowed to finally flourish.

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The Corbin Lock women's softball team in 1940

The Growth of College Softball after Title IX

Softball has become one of the most popular college sports in the country. 

The Women’s College World Series, abbreviated as WCWS, has taken place since 1969 and attracted high numbers of viewers each year. 

In 2015, the WCWS attracted 31 percent more viewers than its baseball counterpart, the College World Series (CWS).  

That Women’s College World Series record for viewership was broken in 2019, with 1.5 million people tuning into the championship series.

That season, ratings were also up by 40 percent for regular-season games. 

While softball’s popularity has benefited from Title IX boosts, the sport has also gained recognition thanks to greater ESPN coverage, according to Softball America. 

ESPN has held the rights to broadcast college softball since 1979 but didn’t start showing the WCWS until 2000. The network didn’t begin broadcasting all 1,200 regular-season games each year until 2015, either. 

Longstanding broadcast shortcomings aside, since 2003-2004, revenue for Division I softball teams has increased by 200 percent – a jump that came only a few years after ESPN first broadcast the WCWS. 

It’s possible that the sport’s growth and the network’s coverage have mutually reinforced each other, adding to softball’s fanbase and securing more funding for collegiate programs across the country.

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National Anthem plays before a game at the 2007 World Cup of Softball in Oklahoma City

How Did Title IX Change Women’s Sports and Education?

Of course, softball wasn’t the only women’s sport to benefit from Title IX. Nor was athletics the only domain in which gender equality has increased.

Women advanced academically and professionally as well.

Before Title IX, women were discouraged from taking what the time considered “male-oriented” college courses like plumbing, welding, or engineering. Similarly, men were told not to sign up for nursing or teaching programs. 

Now men and women can sign up for whatever courses they want, of course. 

Before 1972, women earned only seven percent of all law degrees and only nine percent of all medical degrees. And there was also only one woman out of every five college faculty members. 

Today, women earn almost half of all law and medical degrees and they make up 40 percent of full-time college faculties.

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Critiques of Title IX

Title IX has obviously improved opportunities for women’s education and participation in athletics. But no solution of this magnitude is completely free from consequences that are less than ideal. 

The purpose of Title IX is to ensure that all students and athletes have the same opportunities, not to sacrifice men’s sports programs to make room for women’s ones. Some higher education institutions may have interpreted the legislation this way, which has led to various critiques of Title IX. 

Another common criticism levied has been the marked drop in female coaches. 

As women’s sports programs gained more prestige and funding throughout the 1970s and 80s, they attracted more and more male coaches. 

Before 1972, 90 percent of head coaches of women’s college teams were women. In 2010, the proportion of women’s teams to women coaches was still just 42.6 percent

Lastly, as more funding is poured into women’s college athletics, high school and middle school athletes are feeling pressure to specialize in their sport much earlier, to secure a scholarship.

Overuse injuries and stress fractures have become common among young female athletes as an unintended result.

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Final Thoughts on Softball and Title IX

On the whole, Title IX has done more for women’s college athletics than any other legislation in modern history. 

While it’s not without a few problems, Title IX has shown what happens when institutions make concerted efforts to lift up women’s sports and educational opportunities. Softball is just one of the many sports that has seen an increase in both participation and popularity since 1972. 

Although the sport had a decent fanbase in the first half of the twentieth century in amateur leagues, Title IX helped paved the way for more competitive softball at the college level and the formation of professional fastpitch softball leagues.

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About the Author

Courtney Withrow

Professional Writer

Originally from the U.S., Courtney is a Brussels-based freelance writer with a Master’s degree in International Relations. She grew up playing softball and still loves the game.

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