The best, most consistent source of sporting drama the past week has been Oklahoma City, home of the 2021 Women’s College World Series.
Wednesday night was no different. The top-ranked Oklahoma Sooners were down to their final six outs, trailing 2-1 to Florida State with one runner on first in the sixth inning of Game 2 of a best-of-three championship series, when their best hitter stepped to the plate and took a mighty swing.
“Jocelyn Alo!” yelled Beth Mowins, on the play-by-play mic, as the ball shot toward the outfield seats. “Oklahoma takes the lead!”
It was a truly thrilling moment. The home run gave Oklahoma a 3-2 lead and the Sooners would add a few more, securing a 6-2 victory and forcing a winner-take-all Game 3 on Thursday. First pitch was set for 3 p.m. ET on ESPN2 (more on that in a moment).
It was just another moment in a Women’s College World Series that’s captured the attention of sports fans across the country.
Ratings are up because interest is up, and interest is up because the stories are compelling — and the stories are readily available. As Dani Wexelman — host of Sirius XM shows on MLB Network Radio (Channel 89) and ESPNU (Channel 84) — told Sporting News today, the people working behind the scenes have done a great job advocating for the softball players, with profiles and features helping to steer the spotlight where a spotlight has too often been absent in the past.
“The numbers prove that people are purposely turning on college softball,” Wexelman said. “It’s not because there’s nothing else to watch, it’s because they want to watch, they want to support — and by the way, it’s some of the best athletic talent that you’re going to see — and that’s why people are watching. It’s exciting.
“We missed an entire postseason for spring sports, so there are eyeballs galore, not only because we’ve been deprived of a championship for an entire season, but because the sport has grown so much and people are realizing the importance of investing in young women.”
Wexelman is co-hosting a WCWS postgame show along with The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach. Their Game 3 coverage starts on ESPNU Channel 84 at 5 p.m. ET. You can bet Wexelman and Auberbach spent a lot of time after Game 2 talking about that Alo home run.
“It’s scripted and it’s dream-worthy, but it’s something that Jocelyn Alo has had coming for her entire softball career,” Wexelman said. “Not only was it the go-ahead last night to get them up 3-2, it was her 33rd of the season, her 87th career and the 159th for the Sooners, breaking Hawaii’s record — where Jocelyn Alo is from — that was set back in 2010. And it was expected. I keep telling people to expect the unexpected with college softball. This was expected. She steps up with an opportunity and she took it.”
Alo isn’t the only player seizing the moment. Odicci Alexander’s incredible efforts on the mound lifted James Madison nearly to the title game, not just with her arm as a pitcher — she threw 64 2/3 of JMU’s 73 innings — but with her athleticism as a player.
March Madness makes legends of college basketball players, and with more eyeballs on the WCWS, that’s happening more this year for softball players.
“That’s the beauty of turning on the Women’s College World Series. It’s the best talent, the best players coming together and now we get to fall in love with not only the athlete, but the person,” Wexelman said. “You’re watching the culmination of years — in Jocelyn Alo’s case, in Odicci Alexander’s case — of hard work, and now you can see their hero moment. Or someone like Tiare Jennings, who’s the freshman of the year for Oklahoma, and now you get to watch her flourish for the next several years and watch her story unfold.
“Softball wins because you learn more about these women. It doesn’t matter if you turn on (for Game 3) for the first time, or if you’ve been watching every game. … They’re getting spotlight moments, and deservedly so.”
For an event like this, broadcasting a game that’s the culmination of an incredible season — especially after a season lost to the pandemic — at 3 p.m. ET on a Thursday is wrong.
“It’s a disservice to the women who have worked their asses off to make it to this point, to put them in a time slot that is not conducive for getting max amount of eyeballs,” Wexelman said. “That could have been changed. It is not set in stone that you have to air this on your channel at this time. There’s a person who could make a decision to say, ‘We’re going to change this.’ It is not set in stone. No one dies because we change what’s on the television. For you to not give them the prime-time spot in Game 3 — this is their Game 7! — a winner-take-all, and you’re going to put them on in the afternoon on a Thursday? It’s disappointing. I’m embarrassed that they couldn’t figure out something better. I’m embarrassed for the NCAA that they couldn’t give these women a better schedule, so they’d have the opportunity to have Game 3 in prime time. I’m embarrassed.”
Maybe things will change. Maybe the record ratings for the 2021 WCWS will convince the powers-that-be at the NCAA and ESPN that this event deserves broadcast times worth of the competition and effort and intensity put forth by the athletes and coaches, matched by the passion of the fans. Maybe. Hopefully.
“I heard A.J. Andrews the other day, and she said, ‘We don’t want to bet on women because that means that they could lose, right? We want to invest in women.’ I thought that was so poignant because it’s true,” Wexelman said. “Yeah, I have hope that it will change. I hope everyone is listening. Not just hearing, but truly listening to what everyone is saying about it. They’re putting up the numbers, and that’s what matters at the end of the day.”
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