Do NIL, NCAA changes mean no new softball stadium for OSU?

Do NIL, NCAA changes mean no new softball stadium for OSU?

Kenny Gajewski needs a new OSU softball stadium. But if someone handed him $20 million he's unsure a stadium would be the wisest investment.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Apr 12, 2024, 6:00am CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Apr 12, 2024, 6:00am CDT

(Berry Tramel produces two newsletters every week. To receive his newsletters, go here.)

STILLWATER — Kenny Gajewski needs a new softball stadium for his OSU Cowgirls.

But if someone handed Gajewski $20 million to jumpstart the stadium project, he doesn’t know if a new ballpark would be a wise use of the money.

That’s how much the NCAA landscape is changing.

Gajewski could take $20 million and buy a whole bunch of great ballplayers, even though he’s already bringing in a bunch of great ballplayers.

Gajewski could take $20 million and invest it for the days to come when college softball will look vastly different.

Gajewski could take $20 million and carve it into a variety of projects, including renovations to the current stadium.

The other day, I asked Kenny G. what he would do with $20 million, and the question stumped him.

“Where do I want to go with this?” Gajewski said after a little laugh and a little silence. “I don’t know that I could give you a real answer right now. Because we need some improvements here.

“Maybe there would be a percentage that went in that bucket here, and a percentage that went into that bucket over there. Maybe that would be smart.”

Then came the telling admission.

“Do I think that spending $50 million on a softball stadium makes sense?” Gajewski said. “I don’t. As bad as I want it, I don’t think it makes sense.

“Not until this thing levels out and restructures, because I think it’s going to restructure.”

College sports are in transition. And I don’t even mean conference realignment, which takes hold this summer with the Big 12, Big Ten and Atlantic Coast Conference all expanding west, the Southeastern Conference adding OU and Texas, and the Pac-12 going out of business.

The NCAA is in flux over name, image and likeness and the potential for a different economic relationship between schools and athletes. Plus, the organizational structure between the NCAA and its members is not automatically set.

No one knows what college sports will look like five years from now. 

“I would like to have some money in the bank, so when it restructures, we’re OK,” Gajewski said. “I’d like to protect my job and my staff and everybody like that … as bad as I know we need the stadium and we need some things, more seating and that kind of stuff, the most important asset that we have here are these kids.”

The Cowgirls win big — four straight trips to the Women’s College World Series, and Gajewski’s 2024 team is 34-6 and ranked third, fourth and fifth nationally in the various polls.

Cowgirl Stadium is 24 years old and doesn’t have near enough capacity to meet the demand, though OSU added right-field bleachers this season and drew a record 1,757 on Saturday against Texas.

A new softball stadium, located on the grounds of baseball’s now-abandoned Allie P. Reynolds Stadium, is part of OSU Athletics Vision Plan, which was announced in February 2023. Fundraising is ongoing for the stadium and a variety of other OSU projects.

“This program is on a very good path, and I think the future girls are deserving of a new stadium,” said Cowgirl pitching star Lexi Kilfoyl. “That’s something that is going to be huge for women’s sports and women’s softball, building those things, because obviously people are going to come and support and watch us play.”

But the building boom of the last 20 years is declining across college athletics. Facilities once were the bait that universities used to lure recruits, since money was not permissible by the rules. 

That has changed. Players can be paid in a variety of ways, and suddenly facilities don’t seem to be that important anymore. As Maryland football coach Mike Locksley famously said last autumn, his players would “get dressed in a trash can for $25,000.”

Gajewski said such thinking is true, in the short term, “but that trash can will start to stink after awhile.”

Gajewski is a jewel, for his honesty and plain-spokenness. He realizes what funds college sports (football) and knows that upheaval doesn’t necessarily mean everything will be fine on the other side.

“I think the football monster over there, we gotta keep it going, otherwise we’re all going to be out of jobs,” Gajewski said. “I’m pretty aware that there’s probably not ever going to be a revenue-generating softball team.”

He referenced OU coach Patty Gasso’s $1.6 million salary.

“As good as OU’s doing, I don’t think they can generate enough revenue to … justify to pay Patty’s salary,” Gajewski said. “Just do the math on the tickets. And I hope the salaries keep going up, selfishly.”

Gajewski meant no shot at Gasso. He includes himself on the list.

“I think everybody’s a little bit overpaid here, coaches included,” he said of OSU.

Gajewski says he’d like to see all athletes receive full scholarships and stipends. Then let the real intent of NIL take over. If someone is marketable, let them market themselves.

“Making all kinds of extra cash if your name makes that?” Gajewski said. “Then go for it. I just don’t see a lot of (Iowa basketball star) Caitlin Clarks.”

Of course, NIL largesse is the result of recruiting, enticing quality players out of high school or out of the transfer portal. That milk was long since spilled.

Despite Gajewski’s openness, he’s also a little naive. He can drift into fantasy land.

He talked about the dangers of NIL. How $25,000 becomes $17,500 quickly when taxes are levied. How a quick $200 for some kind of appearance shouldn’t be worth it to athletes.

“I hope somebody is really educating these athletes on what it really is,” Gajewski said. “When you’re our ages, you’re going to look back and go, ‘I did that for 200 bucks? That was a waste of time. I don’t really have anything to show for that.’

“I just think what you have to show for is memories, and experiences, and friendships. And money doesn’t buy any of that. It doesn’t. All that stuff is earned. All that stuff is part of being in a great institution, and there’s a ton of these institutions, so I think there’s a way to make it all work.”

Gajewski is right. Memories are priceless. Same with experiences and friendships. But those are treasured commodities on the back end. Money rules the front end of most decision-making.

And no matter where NCAA sports go from here, money will motivate athletes. The facility arms race is over. Paying players is the way to win, which means new softball parks will be rare.


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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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