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A year later, Odicci Alexander’s viral run leaves lasting impact

Odicci Alexander led James Madison to the semifinals of the Women’s College World Series in 2021. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

During the 2021 Women’s College World Series, Odicci Alexander (pronounced “odyssey”) exploded onto the national stage when she led unranked James Madison University to the semifinals. The Dukes upset top-seeded Oklahoma in Game 1 before the eventual champion Sooners brought their Cinderella run to an end.

In that remarkable postseason campaign that capped her college career, Alexander threw 94 strikeouts in 76 2/3 innings and finished with an 8-3 record, earning wins over four top-10 teams and a spot on the WCWS All-Tournament team. She pitched every single inning for her team at the WCWS until the fifth inning of their final game. She was named D1 Softball’s Woman of the Year and Softball America NCAA Pitcher of the Year, and she was nominated for the Best Female College Athlete ESPY Award.

The performance was as impressive as the list of stats and awards suggests, but the significant part of Alexander’s story is what she helped reveal about the market that exists for women’s sports and its athletes.

In 2021, the WCWS averaged 1.2 million viewers and outperformed the men’s tournament by 60 percent. Each time Alexander took the mound in the Oklahoma City heat that June, she gained thousands of new followers on social media. People couldn’t get enough of her. As one of a small group of Black players in the sport, especially on the mound, the timing of her success on the big stage was powerful — the summer after George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police ignited a movement of racial reckoning in the U.S.

“I always felt like I was the only Black girl around most of the time at tournaments,” she recalled on Sweat the Details about her experience growing up in the sport. “It really opened my eyes at the World Series when I was the only Black girl pitching on that platform.”

But it was more than the color of Alexander’s skin or the black and white numbers on the scoresheet that drew fans in. It was her poise, her passion and her heart of the ultimate underdog — all of which were distilled into one of the most spectacular plays ever seen at home plate, when she charged a bunt, scooped it mid-stride and laid out into the air, tagging the base runner out by inches to maintain the Dukes’ 2-1 lead over Oklahoma State and earn her team a spot in the semifinals.

Alexander’s superhuman feats on the diamond are balanced by a down-to-earth humility off of it.

“You can be the best athlete, but being a good person makes you an even better athlete. People overlook that part of sports,” she told Sports Illustrated earlier this year. “At the end of the day, in any sport you play, it doesn’t define who you are as a person. I try to instill that in these younger girls: Be true to you, be who you are, be the best person.”

The NCAA’s new NIL legislation allowing student-athletes to profit off of their name, image and likeness while in college didn’t go into effect until several weeks after Alexander threw her last pitch. However, as soon as Alexander walked off that field on June 7 to a standing ovation from a crowd of 12,000-plus, most of whom were Sooners fans, her college career officially ended, and she could sign any deals she pleased.

Within days of arriving back to campus in her home state of Virginia, Alexander began capitalizing on the massive following her performance generated. She hired a manager, signed a contract with the USSSA Pride pro softball team and released her own apparel merchandise. Over the summer, she picked up several endorsements, the most notable when she signed on as an Under Armour athlete that August. Today, she has tens of thousands of followers on Twitter and TikTok and nearly 100,000 on Instagram, and she takes her newfound influence to heart.

“I now have a voice and I’ve impacted and inspired so many girls that look like me or who don’t look like me, or who play the same sport as me,” Alexander told Sports Illustrated. “While I’m on this huge platform, my motivation is to continue to grow the game in a positive way.”

When Title IX was passed in 1972, exactly 50 years ago this month, the underlying goal was equal opportunity. Decades later, the fruits of that groundbreaking legislation are personified in athletes like Alexander, whose scholarship would not have existed without it. But the long-term result of Title IX is blossoming into much more than equal access. The immense popularity of Alexander and her historic WCWS run demonstrate that, 50 years later, the consumer interest and marketability of women’s sports and their athletes are just beginning to unlock.

“For 20 years and more we have been trying to guilt people into watching women’s sports. But everyone in this space has to understand that sports run on hype, not guilt,” says Haley Rosen, Just Women’s Sports Founder and CEO. “To get where we want to go, we’ve got to talk about women’s sports like the 200-billion-dollar industry it’s projected to become in the next decade.

“We have to remember that sports are entertainment and lean into everything we love about them. … Women’s sports should feel exciting, dramatic, fun. When we do this, when we focus on the sports, it works.”

Since 2003, NCAA softball revenue has increased by 339.6 percent, according to Department of Education data. It’s one of the fastest-growing sports in the NCAA, yet there are still minimal opportunities for softball’s best athletes to earn a decent living playing professionally.

The summer Alexander graduated, National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) — which had been the main professional softball league in the U.S. since its inception in 2004, albeit with dismal salaries — announced it was suspending operations. In its place, new opportunities sprouted.

Athletes Unlimited burst onto the scene in 2020 with a fantasy-style model, where the top four players from each week become captains and draft new teams, and the player with the most individual points at the end of the five-week season is crowned as champion. This year, they added a condensed two-week version that strategically followed right on the heels of the WCWS.

Another traditional style league, Women’s Professional Fastpitch (WPF), is also kicking off this summer made up of the USSSA Pride and a brand-new pro team, the Smash It Sports Vipers of Rochester, N.Y. Although they are starting with a condensed, exhibition-style schedule, WPF’s goal is to grow into a sustainable pro league.

After playing in Athletes Unlimited’s second season in 2021, Alexander opted to take her skills abroad this summer to Japan’s Diamond League as a member of Toda Medics.

Playing in Japan, the USA’s biggest global rival in the sport and where women’s softball has been a mainstay pro sport for many decades, is a common trend for top players from the U.S. and an experience Alexander eagerly sought out. Whether her Diamond League commitment will permit her to return stateside to re-join USSSA Pride or step into the circle for Athletes Unlimited later this season remains to be seen. As one of the biggest names in the game, she’d be a highly sought-after addition for both leagues.

Jocelyn Alo, Alexander’s friend and WCWS rival, recently announced she’s joining the WPF for her first professional foray, giving the new league a huge boost. The two-time USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year signed with the Vipers shortly after leading Oklahoma to its second consecutive WCWS Championship earlier this month.

Watching Alo leave the field to her own standing ovation and emotional farewell interview with ESPN’s Holly Rowe a year after Alexander’s similar exit from the college scene serves as a reminder of the limited options for world-class softball athletes beyond the NCAA. But the public frenzy and massive followings that both Alo and Alexander have garnered also bolster the vision of how rich the future could be for pro softball in the U.S.

The mantra, “If you build it, they will come,” has been touted by many in the women’s sports industry, as viewership records are repeatedly broken and athletes like Alexander garner unprecedented fame and attention.

The first 50 years of Title IX were spent “building,” and in many arenas the mantra needs to be updated. What athletes like Alexander have revealed is, “If you promote it and put it on TV, they will come. They will come in droves.”

Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.

WNBA teams make history with 2024 season ticket sell-outs

Arike Ogunbowale on the wnba court for the dallas wings
The Dallas Wings are now the third team to sell out their entire season ticket allotment in WNBA history. (Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images)

For the first time in history, three different WNBA teams have completely sold out of season ticket plans well before the league's May 14th kick-off.

Call it the Caitlin Clark effect, attribute it to this year’s tenacious rookie class, or look to the skyrocketing visibility of veteran players across the board. But no matter the cause, facts are facts: Tickets to the 2024 WNBA season are selling like never before. 

On Monday, the Dallas Wings became the third team to sell out of season ticket memberships in the league’s 27-year history. The announcement from Arlington came shortly after the Atlanta Dream issued their own season ticket sell-out statement, also on Monday, and almost seven weeks after the back-to-back WNBA Champion Las Vegas Aces made headlines by becoming the first-ever WNBA team to sell out their season ticket allotment.   

According to the Wings, season ticket memberships will fill nearly 40% of the 6,251 seats inside their home arena, College Park Center. The club also said that their overall ticket revenue has ballooned to the tune of 220% this year, spanning not just season tickets but also a 1,200% increase in single ticket sales. There’s currently a waitlist to become a Dallas season ticket holder, a status that comes with extra incentives like playoff presale access and discounts on additional single-game tickets. 

In Atlanta, season tickets aren't the only thing flying off the shelves. The Dream also announced that they broke their own record for single-game ticket sales during a recent limited presale campaign. Sunday was reportedly their most lucrative day, with five different games totally selling out Gateway Center Arena. Individual tickets for all upcoming matchups will hit the market this Thursday at 8 a.m., while a waitlist for season ticket memberships will open up next Tuesday at 10 a.m.

"Excitement around women's sports, particularly basketball, is at an all-time high and nowhere is that felt more than here in Atlanta," Dream president and COO Morgan Shaw Parker said in the team’s statement. "We’ve continued a record-setting growth trajectory over the past three years under new ownership — both on and off the court — and 2024 is shaping up to be our best season yet."

As of Tuesday, season ticket sales revenue for Caitlin Clark’s hotly anticipated Indiana Fever debut haven’t yet been announced by the club. But if these numbers are any indication — not to mention the explosive demand for Fever away games felt by teams around the country — it won’t be long before we see some scale-tipping figures coming out of Indianapolis.

Nelly Korda ties LPGA record with fifth-straight tournament win

Nelly Korda of the United States celebrates with the trophy after winning The Chevron Championship
Nelly Korda poses with her trophy after acing her fifth-straight tour title at The Chevron Championship on Sunday. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

25-year-old American pro golfer Nelly Korda secured her spot in LPGA history on Sunday, notching her fifth-straight title at this weekend's Chevron Championship in The Woodlands, Texas.

Ranked No. 1 in the world by Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings, Korda joins Nancy Lopez (1978) and Annika Sörenstam (2005) as just the third LPGA player to rack up five consecutive tour wins. She is also the third No. 1-ranked player to capture The Chevron Championship victory since the rankings debuted in 2006, accompanied by Lorena Ochoa and Lydia Ko.

The Florida native shot three-under 69 in Sunday's final, besting Sweden's Maja Stark despite Stark's valiant come-from-behind attempt in the 18th. Korda finished with a four-day total of 13-under 275, celebrating her two-stroke win by cannonballing into Poppie's Pond, much to the crowd's delight. She left The Club at Carlton Woods with $1.2 million from an overall purse of $7.9 million.

It wasn't long ago that the two-time major champion's current winning streak seemed unimaginable. After maintaining her No. 1 position for 29 weeks, Korda underwent surgery to remove a blood clot from her left arm in 2022. She returned to the course not long after, but failed to win a single tournament in 2023 before seeing a surge in form during the first four months of 2024. As of today, she hasn't lost a tournament since January.

Korda will attempt a record sixth-straight win at next week's JM Eagle LA Championship at Wilshire Country Club in Los Angeles, where she'll vie for a cut of the $3.75 million purse.

Smith and Swanson shine in action-packed NWSL weekend

sophia smith celebrates after a goal for the portland thorns
Sophia Smith's 27th-minute goal paved the way for Portland's first win of the season. (Soobum Im/USA TODAY Sports)

USWNT regulars Sophia Smith and Mallory Swanson furthered their cases for Olympic inclusion with their respective club victories on Saturday and Sunday.

After a roller coaster of a week that saw former Thorns head coach Mike Norris reassigned and a flurry of last-minute roster reshufflings as Friday's trade window closure loomed, the NWSL sprung to life over the weekend with standout performances from ninth-place Portland and third-place Chicago, among others.

After her blocked attempt at goal set up a volleying sixth-minute opener from veteran Christine Sinclair — now the only player in history to record a goal in all 11 NWSL seasons — Smith swiftly netted her own in the 27th minute off a breakaway run that eluded Houston's backline. The goal represented Smith's third of the season as well as her 35th for the Thorns, ultimately leading to the home side's first win of the season in a 4-1 routing of the Dash.

But that wasn't Smith's only stat of the evening. The star forward also lapped former Chicago Red Star Sam Kerr to become the youngest player to reach 50 NWSL goal contributions across all games, chalking up 40 goals and 10 assists at the age of 23 years and 254 days.

"Obviously it feels good to get a win," said Smith in a post-match press conference. "But this is the standard the Thorns have always had. So a win is great, but a win is the expectation — we're hungrier than ever after the way we started."

170 miles up the road, Lumen Field similarly showcased some promising Olympic prospect footwork on Sunday. In Chicago's 2-1 victory over the lagging 13th-place Seattle Reign, striker Mallory Swanson racked up an impressive counterattack assist on fellow forward Ally Schlegel's fourth-minute goal. Swanson went on to find the back of the net herself before halftime, lacing an explosive ball into the top corner in the 31st minute, her second of the season after returning from a lengthy sidelining injury.

Speaking of injuries, fellow USWNT favorites Alex Morgan and Tierna Davidson were not as fortunate as their national squad teammates this weekend. Each exited their club matches early, Morgan with an ankle knock in San Diego's loss to Orlando and Davidson with an apparent hamstring incident early on in Washington's win over Gotham.

LSU takes first-ever NCAA gymnastics title

Kiya Johnson of the LSU Tigers reacts after winning the national championship during the Division I Women's Gymnastics Championships
Gymnast Kiya Johnson celebrates LSU's win at the NCAA Division I Women's Gymnastics Championships. (Photo by C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

LSU came out on top at the 2024 NCAA women's gymnastics championship in Fort Worth on Saturday, besting Cal, Utah, and Florida to capture their first-ever title.

The Tigers' win was far from a landslide. LSU took the first rotation handily thanks to 2024 All-Around winner Haleigh Bryant's team-leading 9.9375 backed by four additional 9.9+ scores from her teammates. But Utah then responded with three strong beam performances of their own, causing the Red Rocks to slide confidently into second place by the end of the second rotation.

By the halfway point, all four teams fell within .288 points of one another before Utah overtook the pack with a dominant floor showing after three rotations. LSU then went on to ace the beam event with Konnor McClain's meet-leading 9.9625 score, coming away with the highest collective score ever awarded to the event in NCAA championship history. The achievement propelled the Tigers to victory, ensuring them the title after the final rotation.

"This team is full of individuals that have incredible character and integrity and love for each other and all the things you hear from coaches when they sit at a podium like this in a moment of victory, but I promise you it's a real thing," said LSU coach Jay Clark in a post-meet press conference. "I'm just so happy for them."

Contributing to Saturday's atmosphere of excitement was the absence of last year's champion and this year's heavily favored Oklahoma Sooners. Hot off earning the highest team score in NCAA history just last month, the top-ranked Norman squad suffered a shocking loss in the semifinals, where five major mistakes contributed to a third-place finish and a season-low team score of 196.6625.

With Oklahoma out, it was truly anyone's game.

"Every team was out there fighting for their lives — all four teams, it could have gone any of four ways out there," Clark told reporters. "As much as I feel for what happened to Oklahoma in the semifinals, I think it made for a championship that became so packed with emotion because every team out there believed they could do it. It was just tremendous."

LSU is now the eighth program in the sport's history to earn an NCAA women's gymnastic championship.
They share the honor with Georgia, Utah, UCLA, Oklahoma, Alabama, Florida, and Michigan.

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