Softball popularity continues to grow
Popularity and exposure may aid in Olympics addition
As the International Softball Federation works towards reinstatement of softball to the Olympic Programme, ASA/USA Softball continues its work to build the game both within the United States and abroad.
As the World Cup of Softball VI is currently being played at the Amateur Softball Association (ASA) complex in Oklahoma City (July 21-25), ESPN’s involvement with the event is helping ASA/USA Softball to capitalize on the popularity of the sport domestically and increase exposure worldwide.
“This is the sixth year that we’ll be running the World Cup of Softball in Oklahoma City,” said Ron Radigonda, the Executive Director of the Amateur Softball Association/USA Softball. “It’s an international event. This year we have six teams: Australia, Japan, Canada, the United States and then we’ve invited two European teams, the Czech Republic and Great Britain.”
ASA/USA Softball has no official role in the reinstatement of the sport to the Olympic Programme, as the National Operating Committees and International Federations are the only conduits to the IOC. While ASA/USA Softball will certainly support the International Softball Federation (ISF) and USOC’s efforts on behalf of softball, the current focus is on continued growth of the game worldwide.
The inclusion of the two European teams in the current World Cup of Softball was intentional. The majority of IOC voters are European-based, and ESPN’s network of partners around the world means that the event will be broadcast in 147 countries worldwide.
“It’s been a very fortunate thing for us to be able to partner up with ESPN in regards to [the World Cup of Softball],” said Radigonda. “That was one of the things that we envisioned. The first year that we did it, it was a real risk on our part to try to put together an event like this and put it on television. Since the results we got out of year one, it has grown on its own to a point where we have actually had games that have been viewed in a million households in the United States in past years, specifically USA vs. Japan, who is the biggest rival we have.”
The exclusion of softball from the Olympic Programme, a shocking decision that came after an unscheduled and secret vote of the International Olympic Committee just months after the 2004 Athens Games, has been felt by ASA/USA Softball most directly from a budgetary standpoint.
“Our national team program is no longer funded to the level it once was,” said Radigonda. “At one time, we were one of the premier sports to be funded because of the potential for gold medals at the Olympics and now we don’t have that. That’s going to hurt us. That means that all the expense of running the program falls back on ASA/USA Softball. It’s really very expensive because it’s not just the women’s national team. It’s the junior women’s national team which will be competing in South Africa this year which is a pretty expensive place to get to and we also have the junior men’s and the men’s team part of our programs.”
Meanwhile, the state of the sport within the United States is strong. There are over 14,000 high schools that field softball teams in the U.S. The strength of the American collegiate game has never been higher with more games being nationally televised each year.
“There is a lot of strength in what the NCAA is doing right now with respect to the game,” said Radigonda. “They have certainly pushed it to another level and television has been a big part of that with so many of the regional and super regional games that have been televised now and the exposure that the sport is getting.”
Radigonda hopes to use the strength of the U.S. collegiate game in international softball’s favor. Following the 2004 Olympics, ASA/USA Softball sent University of Arizona (and then-U.S. Women’s National Team) head coach Mike Candrea and starting outfielder Jessica Mendoza to Italy to conduct coaches’ clinics. The effort was successful, but confining the clinics to classrooms certainly had some limitations.
Education of countries with growing softball cultures is critical. ASA/USA Softball is currently working to facilitate a program that will allow national team programs from countries around the world to come to the United States and shadow the coaching staff of some of the NCAA’s top programs. This in-depth experience will help teach the visitors about strength and conditioning programs, practice management and game management skills.
“[This kind of in-depth experience] will help them become better coaches when they get home,” said Radigonda, “and hopefully that will help build better competitive balance across the world. I think that’s one of the really key elements that we need to do. The NCAA and their coaches can be a big part of that initiative.”
These efforts to build the game in Europe and worldwide are designed to bolster the efforts of the ISF when it is time to present softball’s case to the IOC in 2013.
“We’re waiting to see the criteria basis that the IOC will put together with their Programme Commission,” said Radigonda. “They will set up the criteria for how they are going to evaluate the sports that they’ll be considering. It’s really critical right now for us to have a good understanding of what criteria they’ll be looking for and then developing a campaign around that working with the IF and our NOC to do that.”
Softball will not be part of the Olympic Programme for the 2012 London Games next summer, and will also be excluded from the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. Both the site of the 2020 Games and the fate of softball for that Olympiad will be determined in 2013, part of the IOC’s traditional seven-year cycle.