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 who wanted to play baseball’s cousin, softball, professionally had only one option: 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 tend to have more opportunities than women, particularly in sports, a professional women’s softball league has started in Mexico. On January 25, when the inaugural season began, 120 women from six teams came to call themselves professional softball players, many of them for the first time.

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

The women’s softball project was created by the Mexican Baseball League, the country’s nearly 100-year-old men’s professional baseball league. The regular season runs through March 3, followed by the playoffs that end in mid-March.

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

“This project is about breaking barriers,” said Adriana Pérez, a Mexican-American who left the softball training facility she owns in Lubbock, Texas, to serve as 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 genre.”

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

Officials decided 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 Olympic appearance at the Tokyo 2021 Games). And with ballparks largely unused during the offseason, a softball league could bring in extra money.

But 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 problem in women’s sports such as soccer and gymnastics.

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

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

The strategy to establish a softball league took its cue from the launch of women’s professional soccer in Mexico in 2017, which involved men’s franchises starting a women’s team of the same name. But in that case, almost all 18 football franchises created a team. The softball league started smaller.

At first, de la Vega said, almost 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 demanding an initial three-year commitment from interested owners, the league narrowed it down to six clubs: one in each of the country’s three largest cities (Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey), plus León , Tabasco and Veracruz.

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

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

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

“People always talk about men’s professional sports, but this is a great opportunity for women to be present,” she said. “I love working in sports and I love that my first such responsibility is with women.”

Some of the players like Alicart, 38, of Venezuela, and Aradillas, 29, of Mexico, who were on their national teams at the Olympics, make a living solely from softball. Ms. Alicart plays in a semi-professional league in Italy, while Ms. Aradillas has commercial sponsorships. But many of her teammates work full-time jobs unrelated to softball.

Dafne Bravo, 22, a catcher for the Mexico City team, was working on a Star Wars attraction at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, 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 the league’s tryouts there. After Bravo was recruited, Disneyland granted her two months of unpaid leave to play in Mexico, where she earns approximately $3,000 a month.

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

When León catcher Lolis de la Fuente took the field before the start of the season, she wiped away tears, overcome with emotion as she wore a professional softball uniform in front of her children, ages 3 and 7.

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

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

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

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

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

De la Vega said he hoped the Mexican version would endure, unlike previous professional softball leagues in the United States that failed. He believed that starting small was an advantage. And, he said, most teams are at least breaking even financially, and the league is profitable thanks to the “real appetite” of sponsors and television networks.

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

Mr. de la Vega, who represented Mexico at 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 match in León the stands were filled with men and women of all ages. The team introduced a new lioness mascot and the public address announcer thanked the crowd for coming to support the women on the field.

Montserrat Zúñiga, 36, said she and her daughter Emilia, 5, had been attending León men’s baseball games for two years. But when the softball league started, Zúñiga said her daughter asked to see the women play. For the occasion she bought Emilia a pink Bravas hat.

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

By Sam