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Let's play ball, but not right away.

The University of Montana is making plans to add softball as its ninth Division I women's sports program, Grizzly athletic director Jim O'Day said Tuesday.

The university made no formal announcement of the addition, and actually said it has no funding for the new sport as of yet, but did acknowledge the move is inevitable.

"It's still really tentative, but more than likely we will be offering softball," O'Day said. "First we have to put a plan in place and determine our funding sources. But when, and if, it happens it will be great for UM."

Montana has expressed interest in adding softball in the past, but the topic wasn't formalized until recently when it was brought up at a meeting between athletic department officials and members of the university's student council.

O'Day could not say with certainty when the softball team would be ready for competition, only that funding - estimated at $500,000 per year - was his top priority.

"It takes time," O'Day said. "We'll have to do it in stages. First is how to fund it. Then it's when to hire a coach, recruit players and make a schedule. After that, it's probably another year (before the) start of competition.

"We're at least three years away. That's my best educated guess."

Most collegiate softball programs have already started their seasons, so depending on how quickly Montana accomplishes its tasks, a Grizzly softball team won't take the field - that's another thing to decide - until the spring of 2014 at the earliest, and realistically 2014-15 would be its inaugural season.

"We wanted to announce this when all the pieces were in place," said Jean Gee, UM's associate athletic director. "We don't have the funding pieces in place yet, so that's why it's not official. The time-line is very tentative. What is not tentative is what sport it is. We've known that."

Gee, who specializes in compliance issues, said data collected, including a yearly survey of UM's freshmen females, painted a clear picture that softball was the most desirable women's sport not currently offered by UM.

The school, which most recently talked about adding softball while conducting a study to consider jumping to the WAC, also wanted to make sure it was doing a better job at complying with Title IX.

O'Day said the Obama administration re-issued an interpretation of a section of Title IX, which protects gender equality when it comes to federally-funded education programs. At the heart of the new interpretation was the third prong of the compliance test, which says institutions need to fully accommodate the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex (females in this case).

In the past, one of Gee's surveys would have counted as showing interest in upholding Title IX.

"Basically, we can't just survey people and call it good anymore," said Gee, "we had to act."

"I don't think we were close to being out of compliance," Gee added, "but that's what prompted the harder look at it."

Also, the school was told during its latest round of NCAA certification that adding another female sport would be "the right thing to do," said O'Day.

The eventual addition of softball comes at a difficult time for UM's athletic department, which - like so many colleges across the country - struggles to continue funding its wide array of programs.

The Grizzlies were not under any instruction to add softball by the Big Sky Conference, which already planned on adding the sport to its schedule starting with the 2012-2013 season, said the league's assistant commissioner Jon Kasper.

There are currently five schools in the Big Sky that play Division I softball - Idaho State, Northern Colorado, Portland State, Sacramento State and Weber State - and the league needed just one more school to satisfy its requirement to hold a championship tournament.

With the planned addition of North Dakota and Southern Utah to an expanded Big Sky in 2012 - Cal Poly and UC Davis are football-only additions - the league will push its number of softball programs to seven. Montana would make eight when it comes on board.

"We knew eventually we'd get there," said Kasper. "It's exciting now that we know it's coming ... and we're also excited that some of the other schools that don't currently have (softball) are going to sponsor the sport."

Weber State was the latest Big Sky school to add softball. The Wildcats are in their second full season of competition, though Tuesday's home opener was canceled because of snow. Idaho State joined the fray in 2006, while some of the others have been competing for several years now.

Portland State won the Pacific Coast Softball League and went to the NCAA tournament in 2009. The Vikings had the best record in their division last spring, but lost to Saint Mary's in the PCSL title series and missed the NCAAs.

The Big Sky will hold a conference championship in 2013, but won't receive an automatic qualifier until after a two-year probationary period. That's something the current schools, like a Portland State, may find upsetting.

Of course, PSU's tradition also gives it an advantage over a fledgling program like UM's.

"Personally, I think there's some good softball being played up in Montana at the high school level," Kasper said. "They'll have no problem recruiting players and starting a good program."

"We have a talented pool of girls to choose from at the high school level across the state," O'Day said. "Having the only D-I program in the state would be met very well, I'm sure, by students who would love that opportunity to compete at the highest level."

For years, high school coaches have been talking about the importance of more in-state opportunities for players at the next level.

"It would be a huge deal," said Kevin Callaghan, head coach at Missoula Hellgate. "You have kids all over this state who want to be a Lady Griz. Just look at the following in basketball. It would be a marvelous thing to have young girls watch fastpitch played on that level and a hometown team to root for. ... The more exposure the girls have for that (softball) the better we all are."

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