ESF and CEB formalise move to WBSC Europe

Mon 4 Feb 2019

The European Softball Federation (ESF) and the Confederation of European Baseball (CEB) held their annual conferences in parallel in Athens, Greece on 1-2 February, then came together to formalise a decision to become a single organisation: WBSC Europe.

The move to combine the two Continental Federations, which was approved in principle at their Congresses a year ago, is part of the worldwide drive to combine the two sports on every level, led by the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) in the interests of greater efficiency and in the belief that the two sports can be stronger together both globally and locally.

Although WBSC Europe will not come fully into operation until 2021, the joint meeting unanimously approved statutes that will govern its operation, and approved the appointment of an Interim Board, with five representatives each from the ESF and CEB.  At the present time, the WBSC Europe Board will have Co-Presidents in ESF President Gabriel Waage from the Czech Republic and CEB President Didier Seminet from France.

Until 2021, ESF and CEB will remain in existence, with separate finances and separate annual Congress meetings on the same weekend at the same location.  It remains to be seen how things will work after that, when everything at an administrative level is combined.

The joint meeting and vote on the WBSC Europe statutes came at the end of separate ESF and CEB Congresses, and a number of things happened at the ESF Congress that will directly affect softball – or at least national teams – in the UK, including draws to place teams in pools for European Championship competitions this summer.  Details are below.

British Softball Federation President Jenny Fromer and GB Management Committee member Bob Fromer attended the Congress on behalf of the BSF, and BSF General Officer Mike Jennings was there in his role as ESF Technical Director.


HIGHLIGHTS FOR GB

Key points from the ESF Congress with relevance to Great Britain are as follows:

Under-18 Women’s Qualifiers

This age group has shifted from Under-19 to Under-18 to correspond to WBSC age groups, and the ESF was planning to hold a European Qualifying Tournament for the WBSC Under-18 World Cup that will be held in 2020.  But no one bid to host the tournament, and the ESF has cancelled it.  As a result, the three teams to go to the Under-18 World Cup next year will be the Netherlands, Italy and the Czech Republic, based on current European rankings (GB is ranked fourth).  And there will be no European competition for this age group until 2021.
 

Motions to the Congress

The BSF had submitted two motions to the ESF Technical Commission.  One called for results from the previous competition to be used in assigning teams to pools for a European Championship, rather than assigning teams to tiers and then drawing names out of hats to determine pool assignments, on the grounds that doing this can distort the seedings and create unfair advantages or diadvantages.  The second motion called for the Page Playoff system to be retained at the end of all ESF competitions.  The Technical Commission recommended that both motions be rejected, and both were.  The ESF likes to draw names out of hats because a lot of other sports do it, and it is following the WBSC in getting rid of Page Playoffs.
 

Development help

Jenny and Bob Fromer met with WBSC Development Commission Chair Angelo Vicini to talk about how fastpitch can be developed more quickly in the UK, and it’s possible, though not guaranteed, that the WBSC will make grant money available to bring in expert coaches for residency periods in the UK.
 

Draw for the European Co-ed Slowpitch Championship

Eleven teams – a new record – remain committed to play in the European Co-ed Slowpitch Championship this year, scheduled for 15-20 July in Budapest, Hungary, and the deadline for withdrawal without penalty has passed.  Italy and the Netherlands are playing in this competition for the first time.  The tournament will start with round-robin groups of five or six teams, and the draw produced the following pools:

Pool A
Great Britain
Czech Republic
Netherlands
Hungary
Serbia
Austria

Pool B
Germany
Ireland
Belgium
Italy
Bulgaria
 

Draw for the European Women’s Championship

Twenty-three teams have entered this competition, which remains (for now) an open tournament.  It will be played from 30 June-6 July in and around Ostrava in the Czech Republic, and the top six teams will progress to the Europe/Africa Olympic Qualifier to be played from 23-28 July in the Netherlands.  The GB Women came into the draw seeded third.  The tournament will start with four round-robin groups of five or six teams, and the draw produced the following pools:

Pool A
Czech Republic
Sweden
France
Belgium
Slovakia
Lithuania

Pool B
Italy
Spain
Austria
Ukraine
Israel
Turkey

Pool C
Netherlands
Russia
Poland
Ireland
Denmark
Hungary

Pool D
Great Britain
Greece
Germany
Croatia
Switzerland
 

Draw for the European Under-16 Women’s Championship

Fifteen teams will play in this tournament, scheduled for 29 July-3 August in Zagreb, Croatia.  GB came into the draw seeded fifth.  The tournament will start with four round-robin groups of three or four teams, and the draw produced the following pools:

Pool A
Czech Republic
Great Britain
Croatia
Israel

Pool B
Germany
Russia
Belgium
Hungary

Pool C
Italy
France
Slovakia
Turkey

Pool D
Netherlands
Ukraine
Poland


ESF COMMISSIONS

The first day at ESF Congresses is taken up by Commission meetings for Finance, Development, Competitions and Media & Marketing.  Here are some of the highlights:
 

Finance Commission

Like the BSF in recent years, the ESF has considerable reserves and it generally plans to overspend its income – and then often fails to do so.  So in 2018, the ESF budgeted for a 30,000 euro loss and only managed a deficit of 18,000 euros. 

Income was higher than expected due to more teams entering European competitions, more merchandise sold and more fines collected.  Most spending was in line with budget projections, except for webstreaming from tournaments, where 5,000 more euros were spent than had been budgeted, allowing more games from more tournaments to be broadcast. 

There will be no increases in tournament entry fees in 2019, and the ESF will again spend around 15,000 euros on development.


Development Commission

Angelo Vicini from the WBSC Development Commission addressed the meeting and said that out of 51 development projects supported by the WBSC around the world in 2018, 23 were in Europe, accounting for 67% of the money spent.  The WBSC is also making a $50,000 donation to Europe to spend on development projects as it sees fit, with the money to be split evenly between softball and baseball.

Development success stories in 2018 included high-level coaching clinics run in Germany, Italy and Great Britain (BSUK’s Coach Summit), an increase in regional fastpitch leagues in Europe that cross national borders, more equipment brought in to poorer European countries at little or no cost, clinics run at ESF Championship and Cup competitions, multi-country clinics supported by the EU’s Erasmus Fund, and another residential clinic for more than 70 young players run by the European Softball Coaches Association (ESCA).

Progress was also noted in slowpitch development, with the first-ever European Men’s Slowpitch Championship, a record number of teams at the European Slowpitch Super Cup and a slowpitch player clinic run in Denmark by GB coaches.

Some kind of European Coaching Certification Programme is in the works, and through a deal reached with the National Fastpitch Coaches Association in the United States, European coaches who become members of ESCA can also gain reduced-price membership to the NFCA.  This will give European coaches access to a world of coaching resources, including podcasts, webinars, publications, newsletters and a database of over 200 drills.

Finally, the WBSC is pushing for the inclusion of wheelchair softball and blind baseball in the Paralympic Games and is keen to hear from countries that would be interested in developing those formats.


Competitions Commission

A key discussion at the Competitions Commission was around the fact that the ESF is introducing more competitions and more teams are entering them, but the number of umpires is falling.  More than 40% of the umpires working at ESF competitions come from just three Federations, and there are 12 countries that send teams to European tournaments but have no ESF-certified umpires.  Any countries that want to organise regional or national clinics for umpires can probably get ESF support!  The WBSC will also do its bit by eliminating fees for umpires attempting to gain WBSC qualification.

Although the BSF’s two motions about competitions were turned down (see above), there was some discussion on a question raised by Ireland about the cost of transportation for tournament organisers.  The requirement for organisers to arrange and pay to transport all teams from accommodation to fields during a tournament and to provide transport from airports to hotels, can be a big logistical and financial burden and may be keeping more countries from hosting ESF competitions.  The Competitions Commission will consider this question further – but of course the cost has to be met by someone, and if it isn’t the organisers it will be the competing teams.

The ESF currently has minimum ages (with exceptions allowed) for participants in European Championships, and a question was raised about a minimum age for European Cups.  This will be governed by the same regulation as for Senior Championships, as all European Cups are currently adult tournaments.

After the draws were made for this year’s European Championships (see above), the Commission closed with a request from GB and Denmark that the ESF do something to fill what will be a three-year gap between European Championships for Junior Men’s and Women’s National Teams because of the change from Under-19 to Under-18 and the shift in WBSC World Cup dates.


Media and Marketing Commission

The ESF, together with CEB, started an OTT Media Platform in 2018, and the result was webstreaming from every European Championship in both sports, with more than 200 games broadcast to more than 400,000 unique users. 

Federations are invited to set up their own channel on this platform in 2019, and the ESF has published a tutorial for low-cost one-camera webstreaming where a more sophisticated set-up would be too costly. 

ESF Communications Director Helena Novotna noted that there had been a large increase in articles on the ESF website in 2018, with more external press releases and social media activity.  The ESF had also carried out extensive branding activity using the “Softball Europe” logo rather than that of the ESF.  “We want the sport to be visible, not the organisation,” Helena said.

CONGRESS PLENARY SESSION

On Saturday morning 2 February, the full ESF Congress convened and listened to presentations from WBSC President Riccardo Fraccari, WBSC Softball Division Chair Tommy Velazquez and ESF President Gabriel Waage.

Riccardo Fraccari emphasised that to become a truly global sport with the best chance of staying on the Olympic programme, growth was needed in particular parts of the world, including Africa, Oceania and Eastern Europe.  The WBSC is likely to propose a two-year European investment plan in the near future.

Tommy Velazquez talked about the need to increase visibility by getting more high-quality competitions broadcast, even if this means restricting tournaments to top teams.

Then Gabriel Waage set out all the good things that had happened in European softball in 2018, including:

  • A tour of several European countries in April by the USSSA Pride Women’s Pro League team.
     
  • Europe hosting the Intercontinental Men’s Fastpitch Cup – and then Team Europe (including GB Men’s Team players) beating the World Champion New Zealand Black Sox by 6-5.
     
  • More teams than ever in ESF competitions.
     
  • More regional leagues than ever before.
     
  • Slovakia hosting an ESF tournament for the first time – the Women’s Under-22 Championship – and then coping successfully with 17 teams, double the number expected.
     
  • A successful Umpire Convention and ESCA Camp.
     
  • More visibility through much more webstreaming.
     
  • Moves towards WBSC Europe.

Following these opening speeches, the Little League European Country of the Year Award went to the Czech Republic and the PONY League Country of the Year Award went to the Netherlands.

This was followed by a presentation on the 2019 WBSC Men’s World Championship, to be hosted by the Czech Republic this summer in Prague and Havlickuv Brod, marking the first time this event has been held in Europe.  Tickets are now on sale.  Sadly, the GB Men’s Team will not be taking part, as they finished fourth at the European Men’s Championship last summer, just missing out on a World Championship place.

Various smaller items were considered during the Congress session, and the draws were made for European Championships, as set out above.

But the centerpiece of the meeting was a “President’s Panel” consisting of Riccardo Fraccari, Tommy Velazquez, Gabriel Waage and CEB President Didier Seminet, held to discuss the future of the sports within a WBSC Europe framework.

The general theme, as expected, was around sharing ideas, experiences and resources.  Riccardo Fraccari said: “We can only go forward together if we understand each other’s problems.”

But the Presidents also didn’t pull any punches.  Didier Seminet noted that between them, the two sports suffered a substantial decline in members last year in Europe.  Riccardo Fraccari said, “Baseball and softball in Europe today is not a saleable product [for broadcasters].  It’s not in the continent’s DNA.”

And softball in particular lags behind: Fraccari pointed out that television offered $18 million to broadcast the baseball Premier Cup and $10,000 to broadcast the Softball World Championship.

He also spoke about the need to be realistic regarding baseball/softball’s chances of being on the programme for the 2024 Olympics in Paris.  The WBSC has made an offer to the organisers to create the necessary facilities and to hold down numbers by having only four participating countries for each sport, but even that may not be enough.

“There will be damage to the sports if we are not in Paris,” Fraccari said.  “Our goal has to be to remain permanently on the programme.”

“We need to accelerate Europe’s potential,” Gabriel Waage concluded, “but that will depend on what we can achieve locally.”
 

WBSC EUROPE MEETING

The final event of the weekend for most of those attending either the ESF or CEB conference was a joint meeting under the banner of WBSC Europe.

“I am choked with emotion to be in front of all of you,” Didier Seminet told the gathering.  “This is a good, huge, big step for Europe.”

“I am glad that this meeting is taking place in Athens,” Gabriel Waage said.  “It’s symbolic for the era that is starting here.”

Riccardo Fraccari added: “This is a historical moment for Europe, but it’s a first step, not a last step.  We have to share a common goal and work together with baseball and softball throughout the world.”

The meeting then ratified the statutes which will govern WBSC Europe when it becomes fully operational, and welcomed the appointment of a 10-member Interim Board with Gabriel Waage and Didier Seminet as Co-Presidents.

Other members of the Interim Board are Secretary-General Krunoslav Karin, Treasurer Eddy van Straelen and Vice-Presidents Mette Nissen-Jakobsen, Youri Alkalay, Kristian Pälviä, Petr Ditrich, Roderick Balk and Marco Mannucci.

Finally, it was announced that next year’s ESF and CEB Congresses, along with joint WBSC Europe sessions, will be held on 6-8 February 2020 in Vilnius, Lithuania.

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