Carlson: Softball returns to Olympics after decade’s absence. Why it’s stronger than ever in US.

Haylie McCleney was only a few days shy of her 11th birthday when her sport got dropped from the Olympics.

It was July 8, 2005, when the International Olympic Committee voted out softball. The sport had been added in 1996, but after the 2008 Games in Beijing, it would no longer be part of the Olympic program.

The news rocked a burgeoning softball community in America.

McCleney was part of that community. She was just a kid in small-town Alabama, but she was already dreaming big dreams. While softball’s Olympic exclusion was a meteor strike, it didn’t knock her off track. She became one of the top prep players in the country, then one of the best collegians during her career at Alabama.

Now, McCleney is part of Team USA.

Yes, softball is back in the Olympics, added to these Games by the Tokyo organizing committee but hoping to make a permanent return in the future.

“I think our sport is one of the best sports in the world,” McCleney recently told reporters, “and it should be included in the Games full-time.”

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When softball was dropped, there was much hue and cry in the United States. Most felt the sport was being pushed out because of American dominance in softball’s first three Olympic appearances, and many thought the expulsion would hurt softball in the States. Remove the possibility of going to the Olympics, and girls might play something else. Participation could plummet. Momentum could die.

But Haylie McCleney is one of the poster children for what happened to softball.

It kept right on going.

Frankly, it got better.

Numbers from the youth and prep levels have remained steady. Look at the 2004-05 academic year — the last before the IOC removed softball from the Olympic program — and you’ll see almost 365,000 girls playing high school softball, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations annual participation survey.

Participation was higher in 10 of the next 14 years.

The years it wasn’t higher, it was still above 360,000, so virtually a tie.

(Statistics for 2019-20, by the way, weren’t available because the pandemic knocked out spring sports seasons, which in most states includes softball, while statistics for 2020-21 have yet to be released.)

The expectation of softball’s demise was greatly exaggerated. The pipeline of players from the youth ranks feeding into the high schools remains strong, Ditto for the prep players fueling the college programs.

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Honestly, it’s easy to argue the college game has never been better. Oklahomans have been witness to it as the Women’s College World Series continues to be more and more unpredictable. We’ve gotten to the point where every team that comes to Oklahoma City could win it all.

This past June, lots of folks thought OU would take the title, but frankly, after watching all of the teams play, would anyone have been shocked had Arizona or UCLA or Alabama had won it all? And between them, they won only three games in the entire series.

Think, too, of the teams that didn’t even make it to OKC. Florida. Washington. Arkansas. Texas.

The days of one or two teams dominating are over. The depth of quality programs continues to grow.

So does the fan base.

Everyone here knows about the recent expansion to Hall of Fame Stadium, an addition of an upper deck that added 4,000 permanent seats and pushed WCWS’s capacity to nearly 13,000. We also know that pretty much every seat was filled for pretty much every game in this year’s series.

The TV numbers were every bit as impressive as the attendance ones. ESPN notched all kinds of records during this year’s series, including being the most viewed WCWS ever with an average of 1.2 million viewers and having the largest finals average audience at 1.8 million viewers.

Remember, those best-of-three finals included a decisive third game moved by weather to the middle of a Thursday afternoon. Lots of folks said that would kill the audience.

Nope.

“There’s a lot of people that like both baseball and softball,” Team USA pitcher Cat Osterman recently told reporters. “You get a lot that loves our game because it’s a little faster than baseball. You don’t have to sit through 3 1/2, four hours to get an outcome.”

Whatever the reasons, people have fallen for softball — and it has happened with softball absent from the Olympics stage for more than a decade.

This isn’t to say I want softball kept out of the Games — I’ll be watching as many games as possible over the next week or so — but the resiliency the sport has shown in the U.S. during the Olympic absence should be encouraging. It should make the players and the parents, the coaches and the fans, and anyone who champions this sport proud.

It should hearten them, too. Softball, after all, isn’t expected to be on the 2024 Olympic program in Paris and will only be in the 2028 Games if the Los Angeles organizing committee adds it.

“Hopefully,” Haylie McCleney said, “a gold medal helps.”

That may help convince the folks in SoCal to add the sport to the 2028 Games, but Olympic inclusion isn’t a make or break for softball.

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