While the funding isn't yet in place for the new program — an estimated $500,000 a year — the University tentatively plans to suit its first team in the spring of 2014, said Jean Gee, Montana's associate athletics director.
The addition comes as part of the athletic department's gender equality plan in keeping with Title IX of the Education Amendments. By offering softball, Montana would continue to qualify as Title IX compliant.
To receive federal funding, a school must comply with one of the three prongs of Title IX, said Lucy France, director of equal opportunity at the University. By adding a women's sport in high demand, Montana will continue to meet the terms of the third prong and receive funds.
The third prong requires that the institution fully accommodates the interests of the underrepresented sex. As more men currently participate in Montana athletics — roughly a 3:2 ratio — the third prong refers to females.
Montana fails to meet the first two prongs. The school's athletic opportunities for women aren't proportionate to its female enrollment — 40 percent involved in sports to 52 percent of UM's total population. Montana also fails Title IX's second prong by not continually expanding athletic teams for the underrepresented gender. The last women's sports addition was soccer in 1994.
Judging the interests of the school's female population hasn't been difficult, Gee said. Over the last year, the University surveyed incoming freshmen and current students on the topic, asking which women's sport was missing from Montana athletics. The answers came back overwhelmingly in favor of softball.
Gee credited high school softball in Montana for that support.
"When you look at the [state] high school participation rates of women's sports, [The University of Montana] has all the one's down the list until you hit softball," she said.
"I don't think we'll have any problem recruiting either," Gee said. "They don't have a single Division-I level school to go to in this state."
That's a fact not lost on Rachel White, a UM freshman who played softball in Missoula at Big Sky High School. White played softball all through her childhood, but because she wanted to stay close to home for college, she was forced to give up the game.
The only opportunities to play in Montana are at lower-level schools like Montana State University-Billings, which competes a step lower at Division-II. The move wasn't worth it, White remembered thinking.
If there were a NCAA sanctioned Montana Grizzlies softball team, she "guaranteed" she'd try out.
"The only reason I'm not playing softball right now is because the University didn't offer it," White said. "I miss it a ton. You can grow up playing softball your entire life in Montana, but unless you're willing to leave, you're out of luck."
The biggest obstacle facing a new softball program is financing the expansion, Gee said. Estimated budget figures indicate that staff salaries, travel expenses and scholarships account for more than half a million dollars each year. These estimates are based on operating costs for similar programs, Gee said, and do not include facilities.
A long-term goal for the program is to have its own stadium, but that's likely a long way down the road Gee said. Preliminary talks with the Missoula County Public Schools involve the use of fields at the Fort Missoula Softball Complex near Big Sky High School for Grizzly softball events.
Student fees could be used to collect some of the necessary funding, said Gee, but the athletics department is still working on a budget with campus administration.
With softball programs at the University of North Dakota and Southern Utah University joining the Big Sky Conference in 2012, plus Montana's planned addition two years later, the conference will have eight participating schools. At seven sponsoring schools, a conference receives an automatic qualifier to the NCAA Women's Softball Championship tournament.
Though UM officials said last fall that adding another women's sport was a requirement for Montana to change conferences, Gee stressed that the new sport is unrelated to that exploration. Montana declared its allegiance to the Big Sky, turning down a possible invite to the Western Athletic Conference last year and nothing has changed since.
"No, our position on that has not changed," Gee said. "This is strictly a Title IX issue, not a conference issue."