Professional Softball in Mexico: A New Frontier for Women in Latin America

In many parts of Latin America, baseball is a popular and well-established sport with men’s professional leagues in Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, among others. But women wanting to play baseball’s cousin — softball — professionally had only one option: to leave. They had to go to the United States or Japan.

Until now.

In what is believed to be a first in Latin America — a region where men often have more opportunities than women, particularly in sports — a professional women’s softball league has started in Mexico. On Jan. 25, when the inaugural season began, 120 women on six teams got to call themselves professional softball players, many for the first time.

“Before, there wasn’t even a question of, ‘Should there be a professional sport for women?’ It was a given that it didn’t exist. Period,” said Stefania Aradillas, an outfielder for the Diablos Rojos Femenil of Mexico City. “But we’re finding our place in society, not just in sports, but in all areas.”

The women’s softball venture was created by the Liga Mexicana de Béisbol, the country’s nearly 100-year-old professional men’s baseball league. The regular season lasts until March 3, followed by playoffs ending in mid-March.

Though it is a short season, officials and players have said it has already shown some promise: 13,408 people filled the Monterrey stadium on opening night, a record for a softball game in the Americas, and the half-dozen teams drew a total of 109,000 fans through the first four weeks, according to the league.

“This project is about breaking barriers,” said Adriana Pérez, a Mexican American who put aside the softball training facility in Lubbock, Tex., she owns to serve as the manager of the Bravas de León, one of the new women’s teams.

Yuruby Alicart, a Venezuelan shortstop for another team, the Charras de Jalisco Femenil, added, “This is something extraordinary for our gender.”

Horacio de la Vega, the president of the Mexican men’s professional baseball league, seeking to grow the sport, first raised the idea for a women’s baseball or softball division during a league meeting three years ago.

Officials settled on softball because of its growing popularity, particularly in the United States, where players often go to play in college, and an encouraging future in Mexico (the national team finished fourth in its first Olympics appearance at the 2021 Tokyo Games). And with baseball stadiums largely unused during its off-season, a softball league could bring in extra money.

But Mr. de la Vega said club owners raised concerns about the financial viability of a league and about protecting players from sexual harassment, which has been a major issue in women’s sports such as soccer and gymnastics.

So over the next two years, league officials refined the project, creating sexual harassment protocols, including a mandatory online course for executives and coaches. Mr. De La Vega said he got the needed ownership approval and secured key business deals, such as television rights, last year.

“This is something that we should’ve done some time ago,” Mr. de la Vega said, “but things happen for a reason and at the right moment.”

The strategy for establishing a softball league took a leaf from the launch of women’s pro soccer in Mexico in 2017, which involved the men’s franchises starting a women’s team of the same name. But in that case, nearly all of the 18 soccer franchises created a team. The softball league began smaller.

At first, Mr. de la Vega said, nearly half of the men’s baseball franchises (there were 18 then, and 20 as of this year) showed interest in starting a women’s softball team. But after requiring an initial three-year commitment from interested owners, the league whittled it down to six clubs: one each in three of the country’s biggest cities — Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey — plus in León, Tabasco and Veracruz.

While the majority of the league’s players are from Mexico, there are also some Mexican Americans, Cubans, Venezuelans and one Colombian.

And most of the teams have female leadership: Five of the six managers are women, as are three of the general managers.

Andrea Valdéz had worked in the front office of El Águila de Veracruz’s baseball club, where her father is the general manager. But when the softball league formed, Ms. Valdéz, 25, became Veracruz’s softball general manager.

“People always talk about professional sports for men, but this is a big opportunity for women to be on display,” she said. “I love working in sports, and I love that my first responsibility of this kind is with women.”

Some of the players like Ms. Alicart, 38, of Venezuela, and Ms. Aradillas, 29, of Mexico, both of whom were on their national teams in the Olympics, earn a living solely off softball. Ms. Alicart plays in a semiprofessional league in Italy, while Ms. Aradillas has commercial sponsorships. But many of their teammates work full time at jobs unrelated to softball.

Dafne Bravo, 22, a catcher for the Mexico City team, was working at a Star Wars ride at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., when she heard about the new league.

Ms. Bravo had all but given up hope about her own career, after two up-and-down years playing at California State University, Dominguez Hills. But her mother bought flights for both of them to Mexico City last November after hearing about league tryouts there. After Ms. Bravo was drafted, she was granted two months’ unpaid leave from Disneyland to play in Mexico, where she earns roughly $3,000 a month.

I’m representing my family, just making them proud,” said Ms. Bravo, whose parents were born in Mexico and emigrated to the United States.

When Lolis de la Fuente, a catcher for León, took the field before the season opener, she wiped away tears, overwhelmed with emotion while wearing a professional softball uniform in front of her sons, ages 3 and 7.

“I never thought this moment would come,” she said.

Ms. de la Fuente, 31, grew up playing softball in the state of Coahuila, which borders Texas, and representing her state in regional and national tournaments, and Mexico at international ones.

After the 2010 Central American and Caribbean Games, she said she had to choose between attending college or dedicating herself to softball, where the dream is usually to land an athletic scholarship to a university in the United States. She chose college in Mexico, graduated and started a family. She teaches English at a school in Coahuila.

For the past seven years, Ms. de la Fuente stayed active in softball, playing in a local recreational league. After being drafted, she said she got two months of unpaid leave from her school to play in the league, where she will earn $1,000 monthly and live in an apartment provided by the team.

“A dream come true,” she said. “I never thought they could do something like this in Mexico because there wasn’t much support.”

Mr. de la Vega said he hoped the Mexican version would endure, unlike past professional softball leagues in the United States that folded. Starting small, he believed, was an advantage. And, he said, most of the teams are at least breaking even financially, and the league is profitable because of a “real appetite” from sponsors and television networks.

“For sure we’re going to make mistakes,” he said, “like any big project, and we have to make corrections, but it’s part of the growth.”

Mr. de la Vega, who represented Mexico in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics in modern pentathlon, said the league could also provide a platform for Mexican players to develop ahead of softball’s return to the Summer Games, in 2028 in Los Angeles.

At the opening game in León, the stands were filled with men and women of all ages. The team unveiled a new lioness mascot, and the public address announcer thanked the crowd for coming to support the women on the field.

Montserrat Zuñiga, 36, said she and her 5-year-old daughter, Emilia, had attended the León men’s baseball games for two years. But when the softball league started, Ms. Zuñiga said her daughter asked to watch the women play. She bought Emilia a pink Bravas hat for the occasion.

“It means something in these times,” she said, “to be inclusive of women, not just men.”