When the next academic year starts on July 1, 2024 it will mark a significant point for realignment. Oklahoma and Texas are leaving the Big 12 to join the SEC. Oregon, UCLA, USC, and Washington are leaving the Pac-12 to join the Big Ten. Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, and Utah will leave the Pac-12 to join the Big 12. California, SMU, and Stanford will head to the ACC. While most of the headlines will focus on college football and basketball, realignment will have a substantial impact on Olympic sports such as softball.
For those that don’t follow softball, the biggest move is the Oklahoma to SEC. No team has been as dominant as the Sooners in the last decade. Since 2013, Oklahoma has won the NCAA Softball title six times and made the WCWS nine of the last 10 tournaments. Their only “bad” season was a Super Regional loss against Alabama in 2015. The Sooners are unparalleled in collegiate softball in a similar way that North Dakota State dominated the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) Playoffs since 2011.
While it’s easy to understand how the top-level movement involving Oklahoma helps the SEC, we wanted to provide some data to help illustrate the magnitude of the changes in softball. We’ll take a look at how some conferences will be impacted by the realignment changes starting with the 2025 softball season.
Context and Data
Before we dive into the results, let’s provide some background information. We are only looking at the NCAA Softball Tournaments since 2016, which is 7 tournaments worth of data. We chose 2016 simply because that was the earliest season with readily available information for the softball selections (specifically conference membership). The fact that 2016 coincides with Oklahoma winning a title is purely coincidental and we were not cherry-picking data to support our findings. If anything, using 2016 undervalues some of the findings for the SEC.
We measured six metrics – the number of bids, national seeds, super regional appearances, WCWS appearances, second-place finishes, and national championships. We separated those six metrics into two categories called previous conference and new conference. We took the NCAA Softball tournament teams from whichever conference they were a member of at the time of the bid and categorized that as the previous conference. For the new conference designation, we use the membership for each team starting with the 2024-25 academic year. A full list of the future realignment changes can be found here.
Finally, let’s go over the NCAA Softball Tournament format. 64 bids are given out each year with half of those given as automatic qualifying bids to conference or conference tournament winners and the other 32 are given to at-large teams. There are 16 national seeds ranked each season with those teams selected as the host of the opening regional round (in most cases). The Regional round consists of those 16 seeds hosting a double-elimination regional round in groups of four. The 16 winners of the Regional round advance to the Super Regionals at the higher seed. The winners of the 8 Super Regional matchups advance to the Women’s College World Series held in Oklahoma City each year.
With all the context and background complete, let’s begin looking at the impact on the NCAA Softball Tournament starting at the top of the pyramid and the SEC.
The SEC is its Own Softball Superconference
There’s been a lot of talk about how College Football is heading towards a superconference of the best teams across the nation. For softball, the SEC was pretty close without Oklahoma and Texas in the fold. With those two? They dominate in every metric we measured but let’s start with the national seeds.
Every year, the NCAA Softball Committee ranks the 16 national seeds as a way to determine the regional host. The SEC already had a big advantage before realignment with 43% of the national seeds from 2016 through 2023 going to SEC programs. With Oklahoma and Texas, it goes up to 52%. It’s important to stress how vital a national seed is in softball. A top 16 seed is a guaranteed regional host (with rare exceptions like Duke in 2021) and a top 8 seed is a guaranteed Super Regional host if the team makes it that far. The SEC had 17% of the top 8 seeds before realignment and with the 2024-25 realignment changes, that goes up to 22%.
The ultimate goal for every program is to make it to the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City and the SEC was already good at that. From 2016 through 2023, the SEC made it 29% of the time (16 of 56) but with OU and UT that goes up to 43% of the time (24 of 56). In other words, the 8-team WCWS will have an average of 3 to 4 SEC per year based on the 2024-25 conference membership. Remember, this data only goes back to 2016 and does not include 2012 through 2015 when the SEC membership as of 2025 accounted for all 4 Champions and 17 WCWS appearances during those four seasons. We’ve put a pair of pie charts to help illustrate the points made above.
One thing to consider starting in 2025 is whether the conference will become top-heavy and take bids away from itself. Between 2016 and 2023, the SEC had 91 possible bids to get all 13 teams in the tournament (7 tournaments times 13 possible bids) and the SEC ended up getting a total of 86 bids out of the 91 possible. There's not much room to improve and you have to wonder if the limit will remain at 12 or 13 with programs like OU and UT. How the committee views the SEC beginning in 2025 through the NCAA Tournament lens will be intriguing in terms of bids but also in terms of national seeds that allow schools to host a Regional.
The Big Ten Gains the Most But is Still Well Behind the SEC
While the SEC strengthened its grip as the top softball conference with the changes, the Big Ten is the conference that gained the most. Like the SEC with Oklahoma and Texas, this is unsurprising. The Big Ten will welcome Oregon, UCLA, and Washington in 2025 while USC doesn't currently have a softball program. In terms of the top Pac-12 programs, the Big Ten did quite well to add these three, and only Arizona would have made it even better. Of course, softball isn't what drove the most recent realignment decisions.
UCLA is the most accomplished softball program in the history of the sport. The Bruins have made the WCWS 34 times, played for the title 22 times, and won 13 National Championships. They're an excellent program and are consistently ranked near the top of the polls but have been behind Oklahoma for the last decade. Washington has only a single title to its credit back in 2009 but is a dangerous postseason team with 4 WCWS appearances since 2016. Oregon isn't as accomplished as UCLA or Washington but has made 8 WCWS appearances all-time. While they haven't been as strong since the departure of Mike White after the 2018 season, they're still a strong program that should compete for titles in the Big Ten.
We went through all that because the Big Ten needed a boost on the softball stage. Historically, Michigan has been the top team followed by Northwestern while Minnesota has been strong over the last several years. There's no reason to believe that the three former Pac-12 squads will see a drop off in the Big Ten on paper. The Big Ten almost always manages to get at least one national seed a year and that number should go up as long as the three newcomers maintain their consistency.
The ACC and Big 12 are a Mixed Bag but Can Still Contend for 2nd Best Conference
Beginning in 2025, the race for the second-best softball conference will be spirited. We already mentioned the Big Ten getting a boost but the ACC and Big 12 are also gaining some Pac-12 teams that will help them. We'll start with realignment's impact on the Big 12 and then discuss the ACC.
The Big 12 was a winner and loser from realignment in terms of softball. They lost the powerhouse in Oklahoma but gained consistent tournament teams like Arizona, Arizona State, BYU, UCF, and Utah. Arizona is the second-most accomplished program in softball behind UCLA heading into the 2024 season. What's amazing for the Big 12 is that they end up with more historical bids under realignment but have the exact same number of national seeds despite the losses of Oklahoma and Texas (15 national seeds in both scenarios). The Big 12 also has fewer WCWS appearances without Oklahoma and Texas as we would expect but it's a small difference overall (13 down to 10).
Unlike the Big 12, the ACC didn't see any of the categories we measured fall, which ought to be the case since they are only adding members right now (we'll see what happens with Florida State's legal challenge to the ACC's Grant of Rights). The ACC is a lot like the Big Ten with a clear dominant team (Florida State) and some consistent tournament teams (Clemson, Duke, and Notre Dame). The addition of Stanford should help the ACC as they've made the last four tournaments with a WCWS and Super Regional appearance from those four appearances.
The biggest concern for the ACC, Big 12, and Big Ten is how the travel will impact all the schools, particularly the newest members. For the ACC, teams will have to make numerous cross-country trips if the conference doesn't plan to have a neutral site for games to be played. While it will hurt all programs, Cal and Stanford are isolated from the rest of the conference so they'll be impacted the most. The same is true for the Big Ten with its three new softball-playing members. The Big 12 is in the same boat with Arizona, Arizona State, BYU, and Utah facing the possibility of traveling to UCF for a softball series (and vice versa).
It's not difficult to envision the amount of travel hurting the schools' ability to recruit top talent, which would then impact on-field performance and lessen their chances of making the NCAA Softball Tournament. The simplest fix would be to allow football-only conferences at the FBS level, which would then let schools create more logical geographic conferences for Olympic Sports. We can only hope that something changes that will remedy the ridiculous travel faced by athletes as a result of the upcoming realignment changes.
Impact On Mid-Majors is Uncertain
While there's an element of uncertainty to any forecast, it's especially true in softball because the committee isn't afraid to give at-large bids to mid-major programs. Since 2016, there have been 32 at-large bids handed to teams outside of the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC. Of those 32 bids, only four went to programs that will be in one of the Power 4 conferences beginning in 2025 (Houston and UCF).
On one hand, it seems that the changes won't be detrimental to the mid-majors as if the bids were to be redistributed to Power conferences. The cause for concern is that there are now only four power conferences and the mid-majors that joined them (BYU, Houston, and UCF) were already a constant presence in the tournament. In turn, they may take bids away from the remaining mid-majors. Furthermore, the dispersion of the Pac-12 teams into the remaining Power 4 conferences may lead to a stronger concentration of softball power. As a result, those conferences may receive more bids than normal and take additional bids away from mid-majors.
One conference in particular is interesting to watch going forward and that is the Sun Belt. The SBC consistently receives multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament thanks to strong programs in Louisiana and Texas State. The addition of James Madison in 2022-23 only strengthened the conference and it could begin to pick up additional at-large spots going forward.
Realignment within college sports is nothing new and it's been happening for decades. The upcoming changes for the 2024-25 academic year have already claimed the Pac-12 Conference as we know it and will continue to have profound change going forward. For softball, the SEC consolidated its hold on the sport by bringing Oklahoma, which has been the best program in the sport for the last decade. The other major conferences are scrambling for second place and have brought in their own new members, primarily from the Pac-12. It will be interesting to see how the composition of the NCAA Softball Tournament changes as a result of realignment. It's likely the SEC will continue to dominate but the question becomes to what extent can the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, and mid-major conferences mitigate that dominance.
Appendix: Data Table
Below is the table showing all the conferences and how they performed for each metric. All numbers shown below are percentages.
Photo courtesy of Oklahoma Athletics