NPF “Charges” Toward Expansion, Establishes Team in Dallas

Texas is a place where warm weather and southern hospitality are as common as the state’s appreciation for the game of softball. That is why it made perfect sense when the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) officially adopted the Lone Star State as the home of its newest team, the Dallas Charge, on Jan. 8.

NPF Commissioner Cheri Kempf announced that the Charge would join the league as its fifth affiliate team, and will play its home games in the Dallas/Fort Worth area at two separate locations in McKinney and Arlington. The Charge will compete against the NPF’s four other teams—the defending champion USSSA Pride, Chicago Bandits, Akron Racers, and Pennsylvania Rebellion—when play resumes at the end of May.

The addition of the Charge is big news for the NPF, which has traditionally struggled to retain franchises and maintain ticket sales over the past ten years. The league was founded in 1997, folded in 2001, and then relaunched again in 2004.

After a decade marked with folding and moving franchises and a general lack of growth within the league, the NPF now has legitimate reasons to be excited about the future of professional softball.

Fresh off its best-ever year of television coverage in 2014, during which ESPN and the CBS Sports Network covered a combined 30 games during the three-month summer season, the NPF experienced a great surge in attendance and social media attention. Kempf believes these advances, along with the opening of a new market for professional softball, could help take the league to new heights.

“With increased attendance in all markets in 2014, along with the sheer volume of our television coverage, we realize expansion will naturally happen, but to be able to permeate into one of the nation’s hotbeds for fastpitch softball makes this addition really special,” said Kempf, the NPF’s commissioner since 2007.

Don’t let the state’s nickname fool you, however, as Texas has been anything but a “Lone Star State” for softball talent. Whether in the amateur, college, or professional ranks, Texas has been known for generating quality products on its softball diamonds for decades.

Some of the sport’s best homegrown stars have been cultivated and developed at both the University of Texas and Texas A&M University, which are annually among the top teams in Division I college softball. Players like two-time Olympic gold medalist Christa Williams, All-Americans Amanda Scarborough, Blaire Luna, and Taylor Hoagland, as well as Cat Osterman, who is arguably one of the best pitchers to ever play the game, all hail from Texas and completed their illustrious college softball careers there.

With less than five months remaining until the first pitch of the NPF season, Dallas’ General Manager Kevin Shelton is hard at work assembling his team and coaching staff, with the help of marketing consultant and former NPF-great Jami Lobpries.

Shelton gained his experience in team operations while at the helm of the Texas Glory youth organization, which is one of the premiere travel softball programs in the country. Lobpries, a native of Texas and former standout player at Texas A&M, has her Ph.D. in sports marketing and branding in women’s sports, and will decide the Charge’s marketing strategies and development methods going forward.

“The NPF is growing and we are pleased to be a part of that growth to provide these gifted women a chance to compete in the sport they love as professionals,” the league’s newest GM said. “North Texas has a vibrant fastpitch community. I am confident that our entire area will benefit from a professional women’s fastpitch team’s presence.”

“Adding a team in Texas is a huge step towards growth in professional softball and the sport in general,” Lobpries, the four-year veteran of the NPF stated. “As a former NPF player and someone passionate about our sport, it’s exciting to help build a new organization in my home state and be a part of growing the game.”

If everything really is bigger in Texas, then the NPF could have found the golden market for professional softball that it has long been searching for. And if that is the case, the growth of the sport is just getting started.

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Mobolaji Akiode’s Passion Ignites Her Purpose for African Female Athletes

(Courtesy of ESPN)

(Courtesy of ESPN)

Mobolaji Akiode is the type of passionate individual who makes others better by her very presence alone. The sort whose palpable aura of determination is understood just through hearing her speak. Yet, it has been a combination of Akiode’s unrelenting passion for success and commanding presence that has created a life full of purpose both on the basketball court during her time as a star player at the Division I and international levels, and with the non-profit organization she started in 2010 called Hope 4 Girls.

“I can remember during her freshman year (at Fordham University), the team was down by two points against Marist with one second left and Mobo was at the line for two shots,” recalled Eric Sanders, Akiode’s academic advisor at Fordham. “She made the first, but missed the second, then took off right for the bus crying because she thought it was her fault that the team lost the game. She was that kind of passionate leader.”

That fiery spirit is the reason, in part, why the 32-year-old American-born Nigerian found herself on espnW’s inaugural Impact 25 list of the most impactful people for women’s sports in 2014.

Akiode, a 2004 Olympian and former co-captain of the Nigerian women’s national basketball team, was stunned to see her name among those of women’s sports trailblazers like Serena Williams, Becky Hammon, Mo’ne Davis, Robin Roberts, and even First Lady Michelle Obama.

“To be on the same list as people who are all superstars in their own right is just amazing,” the 2004 graduate of Fordham University said. “It’s such an honor for me, especially because my work doesn’t deal with sports here in America. I don’t know if I’ll ever be on the same list as Michelle Obama again.”

Don’t let Akiode’s humility and unassuming nature fool you about the tremendous impact she has made for African females, however. Akiode’s organization is based in both America and Nigeria and is dedicated to the increased participation and empowerment of young and disadvantaged African women in basketball. Her groundbreaking work as the founder and executive director of Hope 4 Girls has made her a spearheading leader for international women’s sports initiatives.

Following her three-year stint with the Nigerian women’s national basketball team after college, Akiode worked as an accountant for ESPN in Bristol, CT until 2009. It was then that she felt motivated to start Hope 4 Girls, in order to serve others on a larger scale.

“When I was working at ESPN, I had the opportunity to do community service,” Akiode recollected. “It made me think about Nigeria and what it’s like to grow up as a girl there and I just felt compelled to act. So, I decided to jump two feet in with Hope 4 Girls, and here we are now.”

Since 2010, Hope 4 Girls has created a gateway to basketball for young African women through a series of camps and clinics run by Akiode throughout the calendar year. At each Hope 4 Girls event, the messages delivered to participants go far beyond basketball instruction. Akiode and her staff work to mentor girls about the need for education, health, wellness, and social awareness in today’s global society.

“The mentoring is the most gratifying thing about Hope 4 Girls,” Akiode said. “I have a great time playing big sister, both as a disciplinarian and voice of reason.”

Akiode’s work has extended beyond the confines of the African continent and stretched into the American college basketball landscape. To date, Hope 4 Girls has helped six African girls land basketball scholarships through its fundraising and recruiting efforts, including Division I offers to Virginia Tech, Texas, Northwestern, and Butler.

As a standout during her own college career, Akiode was an All-Atlantic 10 Conference performer who finished her run with the Rams ranked in Fordham’s top 10 all-time in scoring and rebounding with 1,167 points and 554 rebounds, respectively. She was inducted into the Fordham Athletics Hall of Fame last January.

Aside from basketball, however, Akiode knows the value of a great education in an enriching environment. The Gabelli School of Business graduate developed her talents and found her voice while at Fordham.

“I really blossomed during my time at Fordham, and not just athletically and academically, but also personally and emotionally, learning that I could be anything that I wanted to be,” Akiode stated. “It was a great foundation that prepared me for the global life that I live now.”

The self-discovery that Akiode experienced as a student-athlete at Fordham is what motivates her to help other African girls find themselves through basketball.

“The girls in Africa don’t know what the possibilities for their lives can be through sports, and that’s something I want to continue to expose to them,” Akiode said. “I want to show girls that they can be leaders in whatever they choose to do.”

Although the recognition she received from espnW serves as a delightful reminder that she is living her purpose and aiding in the progress of African female athletes, Akiode is far from satisfied with her efforts.

“Working towards building a concession of role models in the continent of Africa that young girls can look up to is what motivates me on a daily basis,” Akiode revealed. “I never wake up feeling satisfied.”

While Hope 4 Girls has made great progress for young African women in basketball, plenty of barriers still exist for females interested in sports within the turmoil-ridden continent. And due to the absence of sports for girls in most African schools and a general discouragement of female participation in sports in Africa, Akiode believes it will take an aggressive effort by women across the world to create meaningful and lasting global changes.

“I think that we women need to have somewhat of a chip on our shoulders that says we haven’t come far enough, and we’re not just going to relax because we’ve made some progress,” Akiode stated. “We can do more, and if we continue to work and fight like we haven’t achieved that much, then I think we will continue to break more barriers.”

As long as Mobolaji Akiode and other impactful trailblazers are leading the charge for women in sports both in America and abroad, you can bet an unparalleled amount of passion and purpose will be on full display, and continue to make females eager to tackle any obstacles standing in their way.

Lessons Learned in Softball Propel Broadcasting Success

Smith and Mendoza in the booth during the Women's College World Series. (Courtesy of ESPN)

Michele Smith and Jessica Mendoza. (Courtesy of ESPN)

In a fast-moving sport like college softball, where nuances such as the grip of a pitch, path of a swing, or angle taken to a batted ball can determine a game’s outcome, it is easy for inexperienced eyes to miss the finer details of the game.

For college softball broadcasters Michele Smith, Jessica Mendoza, Amanda Scarborough, and Kayla Braud, picking up on the nuances of the game is second nature. Their high-level softball experiences, at the Division I collegiate level, internationally, and professionally, have been invaluable assets in their careers behind the mic. These former softball stars turned broadcasters serve as the storytellers and sense-makers of many of the ESPN college softball broadcasts during the spring season.

Despite playing in different decades, on dissimilar teams, at varied positions, this quartet of All-Americans is connected by their shared ability to bridge the gaps of understanding for softball fans of all ages and experiences. Their unparalleled first-hand experiences in the sport allow viewers the opportunity to see the game beyond the bat and ball.

In making the transition from the playing field to the broadcasting booth, these women have similarly incorporated lessons learned on the softball diamond into their professional careers on television.

“I think the processes involved in being a successful broadcaster are similar to being an athlete,” said two-time Olympic gold medal winning pitcher Michele Smith. “You’re constantly learning and constantly critiquing yourself.”

Smith, ESPN’s lead color commentator for women’s college softball and one of the most familiar faces in the sport, recently won the 2014 Bill Teegins Excellence in Sportscasting Award. She says the secret to her successful transition from the playing field to the booth has been her ability to approach broadcasts much like she did the pitching circle: with precision and attention to detail.

“When I was playing, I would go back and look at tape of myself to see how my pitches worked and what batters’ approaches against me were,” the two-time All-American at Oklahoma State said. “It’s the same thing with broadcasting, I will go back and listen to my tapes and think of different ways to say the same things to avoid sounding redundant and give my broadcasts as much color as possible.”

Amanda Scarborough during an ESPN broadcast. (Courtesy of ESPN)

Amanda Scarborough. (Courtesy of ESPN)

For Smith, who became the first female analyst to call a Major League Baseball game in 2012, the transition to the booth involved a great amount of learning on the fly and studying of other analysts.

“I had no formal education in media or communications, so when I first started broadcasting, it was like learning a whole new language,” Smith recalled. “There is so much that goes into broadcasting. Whether it’s knowing the terminology, realizing how broadcasts work, or understanding all of the jobs involved in a single broadcast.”

Much like being a student of the game of softball, Smith has been a student of the craft of broadcasting since her on-camera career began in 1994.

“For me, it’s been a lot of studying, asking for advice from people in the industry, listening to other analysts, talking to them about what they think is relevant, and trying to tweak all of these things to add them into my own game plan,” the eight-time Japan Professional League MVP stated candidly.

Like Smith, Jessica Mendoza, a four-time All-American at Stanford, uses similar tactics in her broadcasting career as she did on the softball diamond.

“I find the pressure you feel in big moments as a player is very similar to the pressure and adrenaline when you are live on air in front of millions when that red light goes on,” the ESPN analyst and reporter revealed. “I crave and love that challenge and knowing it is all or nothing, similar to that one pitch or opportunity you get as a player.”

Mendoza’s ability to perform gracefully under pressure, much like she did while establishing herself as one of the best hitters in the history of the sport, has allowed her to expand her broadcasting career beyond the white lines of the softball field. The Olympic gold and silver medalist is also a college football sideline reporter for ESPN, as well as the first woman to ever co-host Baseball Tonight.

Like the aforementioned Smith and Mendoza, Amanda Scarborough, a two-time All-American pitcher at Texas A&M, has carried over skills into her broadcasting career that were vital to her on-field success.

“In college,  I understood that the harder I worked outside of game day and in my own time, the better results I was going to get and the more confident I would be on the field,” the current ESPN and Longhorn Network softball analyst said. “So with broadcasting, I am big on preparation before going into a game I am commentating. Preparation is where my confidence comes from.”

Kayla Braud. (Courtesy of ESPN)

Kayla Braud. (Courtesy of ESPN)

The preparation that Scarborough still practices today, as well as the confidence she exudes in her broadcasts, have allowed her to expand her broadcasting repertoire, much like Mendoza. After four seasons of broadcasting college softball, Scarborough began covering men’s and women’s college basketball, as well as college football, as a sideline reporter for the Longhorn Network in 2013.

In learning from those who came before her, broadcasting newcomer Kayla Braud, a three-time All-American and 2012 National Champion at Alabama, similarly draws from her college softball experiences to propel her young broadcasting career.

“I constantly look back on my softball experiences at Alabama, especially overcoming adversity and dealing with failure,” the 2013 Senior CLASS Award winner said. “I know that when things aren’t going as smoothly as planned when I’m calling a game, I can adjust. I don’t get too rattled in pressure situations on the job because softball has already put me in tons of pressure situations that I’ve been able to handle just fine.”

While the transition from the diamond to the booth comes with its fair share of adjustments, it is a struggle that parallels what nearly all softball players encounter at some point during their playing days.

“The transition to broadcasting is like learning a new position and a new way of thinking about the game you already know so well,” Scarborough said. “Just like in the game of softball, the older you get and the more reps you receive, the more the game slows down and you become comfortable with your ability to express your thoughts in order to perform your best.”

For Smith, Mendoza, Scarborough, and Braud, the ability to make adjustments and perform at their best has created quite the recipe for success, both on the field and in the booth.