New leaders elected at WBSC Congress

Fri 20 Oct 2017

The World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) held its biennial Congress from 12-14 October in Gabarone, Botswana.  New Executives were elected for the WBSC Baseball and Softball Divisions, and a new set of Statutes for the organisation was adopted.

British representatives at the Congress were British Softball Federation President Jenny Fromer and General Officer Mike Jennings, and BSUK CEO John Boyd, representing the British Baseball Federation.

Riccardo Fraccari, who is both the President of the WBSC and now the newly-elected Chair of the Baseball Division, ended the meeting by promising that the WBSC will now "outline our strategic plan covering the next four years, laying out the important roadwork needed to build a billion-strong baseball/softball community and secure a long-term place on the Olympic Programme."

Below you can find:

  • A list of those elected to the Baseball and Softball Division Executives.
     
  • Some brief notes on the new Statutes, which have been designed to bring the two sports even closer together.
     
  • A response from Europe in the aftermath of the Congress.
     
  • A report and observations from John Boyd on his experience of the Congress as a representative of the BBF.
     
  • Finally, a blog piece by Jenny Fromer on her experience at a first-time attender at the Congress on behalf of the BSF.
     

Taken together, all of this will constitute quite a long read.  But what happened in Botswana is going to affect softball and baseball in Britain, eventually if not immediately, and so the direction of travel may be of interest to those who participate in our sports.


Elections

New Executives for both the WBSC Baseball and WBSC Softball Divisions were elected at the WBSC Congress.

Italy's Riccardo Fraccari, who is already the President of the WBSC, ran unopposed to win the seat as Chair of the WBSC Baseball Division after Statutes allowing him to hold both positions were passed, while Puerto Rico's Tommy Velazquez was elected as the new Chair of the WBSC Softball Division.

"We have a very clear goal: Paris 2024," Tommy Velazquez told the delegates after the results were announced. 

The elected Executives -- after a long and arcane voting procure (see Jenny Fromer’s blog below) -- were as follows:
 

WBSC Baseball Division:
Chair:  Riccardo Fraccari
Treasurer:  Angelo Vicini (San Marino)
1st Vice Chair:  Tom Peng (Taiwan)
2nd Vice Chair:  Paul Seiler (United States)
Member at-Large:  Ms Hiroko Yamada (Japan)
Member at-Large:  Luis Melero (Spain)
Member at-Large:  Benicio Robinson (Panama)
Vice Chair - Africa:  Saber Jlajla (Tunisia)
Vice Chair - Americas:  Tito Pereyra (Dominican Republic)
Vice Chair - Asia:  Xu Chen (China)
Vice Chair - Europe:  Didier Seminet (France)
Vice Chair - Oceania:  Laurent Cassier (France)
 

WBSC Softball Division:
Chair:  Tommy Velazquez
Treasurer:  Javier Anaya (Colombia)
1st Vice Chair:  Ms Beng Choo Low (Malaysia)
2nd Vice Chair:  Craig Cress (United States)
Member at-Large:  Ms Maria Soto (Venezuela)
Member at-Large:  Ms Taeko Utsugi (Japan)
Member at-Large:  Tirelo Mukokomani (Botswana)
Vice Chair - Africa:  Mashilo Matsetela (South Africa)
Vice Chair - Asia:  Hiromi Tokuda (Japan)
Vice Chair - Europe:  Gabriel Waage (Czech Republic)
Vice Chair - Oceania:  Rex Capil (New Zealand)
 

Cuba's Antonio Castro was also confirmed as WBSC Global Ambassador and will hold a seat on the WBSC Executive Board.

The elections represented a substantial victory for Riccardo Fraccari in his bid to secure influence over both baseball and softball, with his favoured candidates winning in almost every case in both Divisions.  Although Europe has more member federations than any other Regional Confederation, European candidates were kept entirely off the Softball Division Executive except for the position of Vice Chair for Europe, which is, as tradition dictates, filled by European Softball Federation President Gabriel Waage.


The Statutes

The journey to formally merge baseball and softball started with the first WBSC Congress in Tunisia in 2014, and this Congress has been the next step on that pathway.

Delegates were told that the International Olympic Committee had expressed concern that the steps taken to date to create the WBSC as an umbrella body hadn’t gone far enough to demonstrate that the sports had formally come together, and that merging them through the new Statutes would be seen as a positive step by the IOC.

There was in fact a sentiment from many in both baseball and softball that this merger was a fait accompli and that everyone now needed to get on board with the principle.  Europe’s reaction to the outcomes at the Congress has been swift (see below).

As Jenny Fromer notes in her blog, the European Softball Federation leadership brought a substantial number of amendments to the proposed Statutes to the Congress, mainly designed to avert a complete centralisation of power in the hands of the WBSC President and Executive.  Many of these amendments were in fact accepted, and will help around the margins, but the main centralising thrust of the new Statutes, designed to ensure a kind of “ever closer union” for the two sports, was not affected in any substantial way.


European reaction

On Thursday 19 October, a letter went out to European baseball, softball and baseball/softball federations over the signatures of European Softball Federation (ESF) President Gabriel Waage from the Czech Republic and Confederation of European Baseball (CEB) President Didier Seminet from France.

The letter pointed out that Europe had been successful with something like 80% of the amendments it had posed to the Statutes in Botswana.  But it also acknowledged and regretted that a lack of coordination among European delegations with regard to elections had led to the situation where almost all European candidates to the Division Executives had been defeated.

This has led Waage and Seminet to the conclusion that if you can’t beat them, you have to join them.

“We believe that this [WBSC] Congress has shown our limits,” their letter states, “and that it is now time, more than ever, to speed up the process of merging CEB and ESF which the new Boards elected in February 2017 have started to work on.

“As most of you know,” the letter continues, “WBSC has completed its transformation into one federation with the vote of the new Constitution during the Congress in Botswana.  All continents are taking steps toward the merger of their baseball and softball federations and Europe has to be proactive in this process instead of [just] enduring it to show WBSC that we are walking in their footsteps but most of all acting … for the betterment of European baseball and softball.”

This intention will be actioned quickly, with a joint CEB and ESF Commission, which has already met twice in this year, set to meet again on 2 December in Paris with the mission of proposing the birth of WBSC Europe, with CEB and ESF becoming respectively the Baseball and Softball Divisions of this new structure.  This will be formalised in February 2018 during the CEB-ESF Congress in Val d’Europe, France.

The letter points out that both CEB and ESF have Boards that were elected earlier this year and that they will complete their terms, staying in office until 2021.

“May this Congress in Botswana be the starting point of further cooperation between all our National Federations,” the letter concludes, “and the strengthening of European baseball and softball both at home but also on the international stage.”


John Boyd Report:
What form will unity take?

John Boyd, BaseballSoftballUK’s CEO, attended the WBSC Congress as the delegate for the BBF.  For the past 15 years, BSUK has been supporting the Federations with their international responsibilities, providing continuity between the various administrations at Congresses and helping to navigate the complexities and politics that exist while also building and maintaining international relationships.  This year, John was asked by the BBF to be their sole representative after a last-minute work commitment prevented BBF President Gerry Perez from attending the Congress.  Here is John’s report:

Following a strategy meeting with Gerry, I was empowered to carry the BBF’s position into the Congress on the Statute changes and election of officers.  Part of our planning session highlighted the need to secure as many European places on the Baseball and Softball Division Executives as possible.

The BBF’s desire was also to ensure that the marriage with softball at an international level was equitable and fair for softball.  The risk was always that softball might lose its independence and financial autonomy.

What transpired was, as Jenny Fromer outlines in her blog below, a merging of two organisations, but with some continued control and autonomy being maintained within each Division.  Theoretically, this has provided a structure that can navigate complex issues of identity and control over the sports’ individual destinies, while responding positively to the International Olympic Committee’s desire to have a single International Federation for baseball/softball.

But structural composition is only as good as the behaviours and culture within the organisation.  What was of concern to me going into the Congress was that there were more deeply-rooted issues in play, particularly around how some in baseball view softball.  These preconceived notions have been expressed far too often to me by very senior baseball staff and officials.  So what is to yet be determined is whether the marriage between the two sports has been built with a willingness to grow together.

My observation from a Congress littered with digs and outright criticisms of softball was that the start to this new-found ‘unity’ has not been a good one.  The concept of ‘unity’ was being bandied about as something that should be protected despite any concerns softball might have about being made to adopt baseball’s political culture and outlook.  Unity, to me, means standing together in genuine partnership and collaboration.

Perhaps the political stakes were too great for this Congress to adopt such an outlook, and I wonder if the things might have been different had the Congress being convened solely to approve the new Statutes, rather than also facing the pressures of electing new Divisional Executives.

Having said that, the future presented by a single World Baseball Softball Confederation is on the whole a very positive one.  A single brand for the sports of “baseball/softball” – a (mostly) single administration presenting modern and appealing sports to the outside world and, in particular, to the IOC – should be very good for the sports’ attempt to secure a long-term place in the Olympics.

The WBSC has come a long way under the direction of President Riccardo Fraccari and the current leadership.  Its turnover has skyrocketed with a very savvy move to align its properties with the leading countries in the Far East.  Strong links have been built with many of the North American baseball/softball organisations.  The organisation’s staff has grown and has become more and more effective at providing support and programmes.  The WBSC is responding effectively and quickly to everyone’s desire to see the sports grow across the globe.  There are new funding streams available to countries seeking to develop, a tangible result from profits raised through the organisation’s new World Cups and made available to national and continental Federations.  These are all facets of a maturing organisation and credit must be given to those who have made this happen.

Anyone who has been asked the question ‘is baseball/softball an Olympic sport?’ knows the power of being included in the Olympic Games.  What will come if permanent re-inclusion in the Olympic programme can be achieved is a fair share of some of the profits of the Games via the International Federation.  This step, currently set for 2032 should we be able to maintain three consecutive appearances via the ‘guest sports’ programme, would again open up the proceeds from the Olympics that baseball and softball once enjoyed.

It is clear that baseball’s international profile and softball’s credibility as a highly competitive and almost entirely amateur women’s sport offer a great deal to the world sporting stage when presented side-by-side.  Beyond structure, what matters now is how each side responds to the challenges of being part of the same family.  If this unity on a world level comes at the price of regression for international women’s softball, then this may not be an entirely good thing -- for either sport.


Jenny Fromer Blog:
Notes from Botswana

I have recently returned from the second World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) Congress in Botswana.  In going, I was conscious that accommodation aside, this trip was paid for by the BSF’s membership, and so I was keen that I could demonstrate the value of my attendance on my return.

The reality is, however, that the opportunity for this is limited, and perhaps the greatest value comes from having established a presence at the Congress that can be built on in future.  For those of us with limited history with the WBSC, and therefore no real networks, it is mostly about setting that process in motion.  There were few opportunities for input or debate in the formal Congress, and while I suspect that some of that debate takes place in the bar and in other informal settings, most of my conversations on first meeting people were anodyne.

That said, I used the time to introduce myself to anyone and everyone that I could, to do a lot of listening, and to ask a lot of questions, so as to try and get a sense of the territory.  It is an overused phrase, but I learned some things.  Interestingly, most of what I learned probably served to better illuminate the dynamics of what has recently been going on here at home.  I'll come back to this later.
 

Commissions

The Congress took up basically three days, although travel stretched this to five.  Day One on the softball side included a number of Commission meetings.  These are essentially working groups that happen simultaneously and that anyone can drop in on to be part of discussions on competitions, rules, umpiring, membership, legislative issues etc.

There was not a lot of clarity beforehand on what would be covered, and frustratingly, the Commissions kicked off from 8.00 am, so most of us arrived after the bulk of them had already happened.  In retrospect, it would have been better to go a day early in order to attend more of these meetings, as they were the only occasions when there was actual discussion. 

Fortunately, Mike Jennings, who also represented the BSF, had better understood this, and so was present for the whole of that day.  But Mike was integral to the sessions on umpiring and rules, which meant he couldn't commission-hop as I might have done.  I therefore made a bee-line from the airport to the Competitions Commission (Part II), which was informal enough that they took the time to bring me up to speed on the morning's discussions.

The main focus was the planned launch of an Under-16 Girls’ World Championship, possibly for 2018 but more likely 2020, as well as consideration of a set format for all future World Championships -- something we very much have an interest in.

Days Two and Three were the Congress proper, and meetings were rotated between softball-only, baseball-only and the full Congress, which meant that there was literally no time to escape the hotel compound.  I appreciate that this was never meant to be a jolly, but aside from seeing a few wandering monkeys and peacocks in 90-degree heat, I don't really feel able to say I've been to Botswana.

Going into the Congress, there was a lot of focus, particularly from Europe, on the new Statutes and Division Codes that were to be voted on.

European Softball Federation President Gabriel Waage and General Secretary Ami Baran had done extensive work preparing for this and had provided those of us from Europe with clear notes on their areas of concern.  To unpack this a little, the prevailing concern going in was that the full merger of baseball and softball enabled by the new Statutes marked the subjugation of softball to baseball and the wresting of control from member Confederations to the central authority of the WBSC.


Statutes and elections

There was a meeting of European Softball delegates at the end of Day One that was attended by Ron Finlay (WBSC legal person) to talk specifically about which of the amendments to the Statutes put forward by Europe would be accepted.  I took copious notes at this meeting, which I won't regurgitate here, but the general message was that while the WBSC leadership was willing to accept a good number of Europe’s amendments, some of the more telling clauses, such as the ability for one person to hold a Federation or Confederation leadership role and the WBSC leadership role at the same time, remained intact.

When the meeting concluded both 'sides' stated that this had been a productive and meaningful engagement, and there was a feeling that something constructive had been achieved.  This carried into Day Two, the Softball Congress, when an outstanding issue, the requirement that Congress attendees must come from Federation Boards, was loosened to allow other representatives to represent.

That sense of productivity was killed stone dead for those that lived through the Softball Division elections.  The elections kicked off just after 4.00 pm, and with the meeting due to close at 6.00 pm, some of us thought we were in for an early finish. 

We couldn't have been more wrong.

With multiple candidates for every position, it became clear that the archaic WBSC voting procedure meant that we went through a protracted process where all 88 countries present went up one by one to collect ballots, stand in a voting booth and place ballots in a box multiple times (around eight) in order to arrive at a majority vote for each position.  The end result did not reflect the front-runners at the start, and ultimately removed the European candidate, Ami Baran.  The entire process took close to four hours, with less than effective sentries posted at the doors, and frequent reminders from the stage that it was illegal to leave.  By the end of the meeting every last courtesy mint and bottle of water had been consumed by the desperate crowd.  It was a largely depressing afternoon and a clear signal that Europe was being schooled in the new realities of the WBSC.

Earlier in the day, the Joint Congress had opened with a unanimous vote to approve the new Statutes, followed by a speech by WBSC President Riccardo Fraccari, who stated that the marriage of baseball and softball set in motion with the formation of the WBSC was now fully consummated -- an uncomfortable analogy for many of us.

The final day of the Congress was really a series of presentations.

We saw the new WBSC app (not yet available); a quick iTunes search brought up an existing WBSC app for locating the nearest strip club.

We were introduced to a new street game called Baseball 5, played with only a ball and lauded as a great development tool.  The delegate from Argentina beat me out in asking why it is called 'Baseball' 5 when it's being marketed as a development game for both sports.

We saw pages of metrics on the WBSC's social media presence.

I have to admit to bailing in the final brand presentation wherein we were told of the virtues of BMW's branding and asked what type of car our own Federation might be.  I am not being flippant, but this is the stuff that fleshes out a Congress.


Lessons

So, back to what I learned.

There is an uneasy relationship between softball and baseball.  Some Federations had representatives from each who literally did not speak to each other, despite being forced to sit side-by-side for hours in a UN-style arrangement.  There were a number of baseball people who spoke openly about wanting the women's format of the sport to be women's baseball rather than softball.  There is a clear lobby from certain countries for men's fastpitch to be given a higher profile.

There is no induction for anyone new to all of this.  As I said before, I was lucky that both Mike Jennings and John Boyd from BSUK were at the same event, or I would have had little idea what was going on, and many fewer introductions.

But it was the discussions around the Statutes that I was referring to when I talked about shedding light on domestic dynamics.  As a long-time proponent of a merged softball and baseball organisation here in the UK, I recognised the fears this raises and I heard the echo of some of the common language that was used in references to what the IOC requires (substitute Sport England) and the calls for unity and economies of scale.

For me, the lesson is that it's not the minutiae of the Statutes that are critical, but the intention behind them.  If the ‘marriage' that lives in the WBSC ultimately proves to be damaging to softball this is not because particular words are or are not included in the newly-approved Constitution, or that we are now described as one sport -- baseball/softball – but whether there is a will to do damage.

And in terms of softball alone, I recognised the battle for scarce resources that exists between women's fastpitch, men's fastpitch and slowpitch -- not that slowpitch got much of a mention in Botswana except for both the Maltese and German Federation representatives saying that it has proved to be ideal for growing participation.

More than anything, I think my short time in Africa has ensured that I understand how to be better prepared next time, whether at a European or World level, and will have a clearer sense of what can and cannot actually be accomplished. 

It also means that next time I will be able to skip past the introductions and talk to people more effectively.

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