The BSF held its annual League Heads Forum as a remote meeting on the evening of Thursday 16 February with 18 people present, including representatives from 11 leagues plus six members of the BSF Executive and two representatives from BaseballSoftballUK.
A wide range of topics was covered during the two-hour meeting, which included sections on safeguarding issues and development matters led by BSUK.
The meeting began with information and reminders about BSF playing rules, and their enforcement in 2023.
Regulations for under-18 players. BSF Administrator Bob Fromer told the meeting that regulations for under-18 players playing in adult softball competition – and now in youth softball competition as well – have been tightened following rules passed at the recent WBSC Europe Congress.
The equipment requirements for under-18 players playing either fastpitch or slowpitch, and in youth or adult competition, are now as follows:
- Players under the age of 18 shall wear a helmet which includes a faceguard when batting and baserunning in slowpitch as well as in fastpitch softball. Also, in accordance with WBSC rules, all players under 18 who are coaching, umpiring or acting as batboys or batgirls shall wear a helmet with a faceguard when on the field.
- Players under the age of 18 shall wear a gum shield if playing in any position in the infield in either fastpitch or slowpitch.
- Players under the age of 18 must wear a catcher's mask or faceguard if playing at the positions of pitcher, catcher, first base or third base in both slowpitch and fastpitch softball.
The above equipment requirements can only be waived on the basis of an express written request from a player’s parent or guardian which includes a reason why the waiver has been requested.
A full version of the revised requirements for Under-18 players will be posted in the Documents section on the BSF website by the end of February.
Enforcement of rules on drink, drugs, smoking and vaping. BSF Technical Officer Pete Saunders told the meeting that there will be more rigorous enforcement by BASU this season of the BSF and WBSC rules that forbid drinking and smoking (including vaping) in dugouts and the use of recreational drugs. Umpires will issue a warning, followed by an ejection, for non-compliance, and umpires will be able to remove a player from a game if they consider the player to be a danger to themselves or others because of alcohol or drug consumption.
The hope is that these rules will also be enforced at league level.
Jewellery. Pete also reminded the League Heads about the current rule on jewellery, which can be worn during play but must be removed if an umpire deems that it will be a distraction to other players or that it might cause injury.
BSF General Officer Mike Jennings told the meeting that both the BSF and BSUK are trying, post-Covid, to establish baseline data for the number of people playing softball in the UK, both in affiliated leagues and independent teams and in other situations – numbers against which future growth can be measured.
While BSUK has some ability to capture this information beyond the leagues and teams affiliated to the Federation, the BSF wants to make sure that it has full information on its own player numbers, including at least rough estimates with regard to ethnic diversity, disability and gender identification --and it is asking League Heads for help.
Mike will shortly send a few key questions on these areas to League Heads and ask them, on the basis of their local knowledge, for approximate numbers. London Softball League Development Officer Whitney Hollis will help Mike tailor these questions so they are compliant with privacy and GDPR regulations.
BSF Affiliation Fees in 2023
Bob Fromer told the meeting that the spike in inflation over the past year has led the BSF, reluctantly, to propose raising affiliation fees in 2023 by approximately 5% across all membership categories.
Inflation is currently still above 10% and was as high as 14% during the past few months, and this is having an effect on costs and charges that the BSF has to pay.
The proposed fees for 2023, set out in the BSF AGM Pack, will be debated and voted on at the AGM on 25 February.
League support for hosting the 2026 European Co-ed Slowpitch Championship
At the recent WBSC Europe Congress, held in Belgrade, Serbia from 9-11 February, the BSF made a successful bid to host the 2026 European Co-ed Slowpitch Championship, a tournament that should also be a Qualifier for a WBSC Co-ed Slowpitch World Cup to be held in 2027.
A rival bid from Ireland to host the tournament was withdrawn before a vote.
The BSF is keen to host European competitions, and especially slowpitch competitions, at Farnham Park, the biggest and best slowpitch facility in Europe -- but as always, the barrier is finding the money required to do so in a situation where little or no help can be expected from national or local government.
There is also increasing pressure on Great Britain and other countries to host European tournaments because both Italy and the Netherlands, the richest softball federations in Europe, are withdrawing from hosting European softball and baseball competitions.
With more than three years to go until the 2026 European Co-ed Slowpitch Championship, the BSF will be setting money aside each year to go towards hosting costs and will be exploring potential sponsorship and donations. But there may also be a request to slowpitch leagues to contribute to hosting costs, and the BSF will shortly circulate a plan setting out how the costs might be met.
League issues and concerns
The next section of the meeting focused on issues faced by individual leagues.
Whitney Hollis from the London Softball League said that team numbers were healthy, but the biggest struggle was finding fields where teams could play. A related issue was that rates for field hire were reaching ridiculous levels, with less interest by parks and councils in supporting softball play. The league is currently asking for help to identify new spaces in the London area that teams can use as a home ground and where games can be played.
Bristol Softball Association Chair Neil Butterfield said that the league had still not quite recovered to pre-Covid levels, perhaps because some players had discovered a personal life during Covid! The league was grateful to BSUK for helping to train coaches but there was always a need for more courses and more people involved in running and coaching the sport.
Alan MacFarlane from the London Advertising Softball League said that numbers might be back up to 45 or 50 teams this year, though still down from pre-Covid levels of around 60 teams. The league’s main concern was over the allocation of pitches among the various leagues – including the Ad League -- that play in Regent's Park.
Lawrence Peirson from the City Bankers League in London said that the league, which had 28 teams before the pandemic, was struggling to put a six-team league together for the 2023 season. The main reason for the decline was the practice, maintained after the pandemic, of working from home, which makes it increasingly difficult to get players to turn out for games.
Leah Holmes, who was wearing two hats at the meeting as a representative of the Milton Keynes Softball League as well as being BSUK’s Deputy Head of Development, said that BSUK was convening a meeting on 1 March of teams and leagues that use Regents Park, which could also be a networking opportunity for London leagues.
BSF Athletes Commission
Bob Fromer told the meeting that the BSF plans to form an Athletes Commission this year consisting of representatives from slowpitch, women's fastpitch and men’s fastpitch, with one member of the Athletes Commission becoming an Athlete Representative on the BSF Executive Board.
The idea is to ensure that the Executive has a more direct link to the opinions and feelings of the people playing the sport.
More details on how the Athletes Commission will be formed will be published shortly.
Slowpitch Development Plan
BaseballSoftballUK is currently in the process of creating a Slowpitch Development Plan covering the period 2023-25. A draft version of the Plan was recently circulated to the BSF Executive and then to League Heads.
John Boyd made the following points in introducing and providing a background to the Plan:
- BSUK has set a four-year rolling strategy, a bible for how we secure partnership from key stakeholders like UK Sport, Sport England, Major League Baseball, the Mayor of London’s Office, BUCS, the Youth Sport Trust, Sports Aid and many others. Our Strategy sets out the headline objectives for how we see baseball/softball moving forward.
- But BSUK knows that this document loses touch with the experience of those actually playing, so the Development Plans for baseball, fastpitch and slowpitch are the space for each discipline to set their own vision, goals, actions and responsibilities. BSUK is keen that these are not seen as their Plans; they want the Slowpitch Plan to be owned and bought into by slowpitch leagues and teams.
- There will be elements that BSUK can lead on in the Plan, or even fund through partnership or directly through their own resource. But there will be other elements that will set a direction for the community itself.
- BSUK is just one part of a complex sport, organised at different levels, with varying responsibilities. "We are not the national governing body," John said. "We do not run leagues. We are not responsible for GB Slowpitch, BASU or even the BUCS slowpitch championships. So that’s where this Slowpitch Development Plan comes in."
Leah Holmes told the meeting that BSUK had created a sketch of a Plan to start a conversation with League Heads, the BSF and the slowpitch community, since “it’s easier to start talking about something with a few thoughts in front of us”.
"We are mindful," Leah said, "that within initial feedback there appears to be two distinct perspectives on slowpitch: one from the grassroots of the game, including the slowpitch leagues, and the other from the perspective of the national team set-up and the top end of slowpitch, keen to connect to Europe and the rest of the world and keen to elevate the top levels of play. For this League Heads Forum, the focus is on the grassroots side of the sport and this is where we feel the Plan needs most work.
"We think it’s important to focus on the top level of the draft," Leah added -- "on its vision and strategic aims. A clear vision is needed to give a purpose to our goal-setting and is essential to create a defined development path."
Leah asked: "Does the Vision statement within the draft capture your hopes for slowpitch? Does it fit with your own league’s aims? Is it something your league would want to be a part of? Are the Strategic Aims in the draft the right ones for 2023-25? What other aims should be considered?"
Leah then asked the League Heads to do three things:
- Write and send your own vision statement for slowpitch (or comment on the statement in the current draft Plan).
- Write and send us your own strategic aims and/or objectives (or share which of the aims and objectives in the current drafted Plan would be your priority).
- Consider if you or someone you know might want to get involved in a working group to build the Plan out further.
BSUK plans to form two working groups: one for grassroots leagues, with anyone from the leagues who might want to get involved, and one for GB and elite slowpitch.
One item on the Agenda at the request of some League Heads was clashes that had occurred on the Softball Calendar in 2022 – and were projected to occur in 2023 – between major regional slowpitch tournaments and weekends where play in the Great Britain Fastpitch League (GBFL) takes place.
The GBFL pulls some players away from these slowpitch tournaments, which threatens participation by some teams. And this can create a financial issue for leagues that rely on their tournaments to generate vital revenue.
BSF President Ieuan Gale pointed out, however, that with an increasingly crowded Calendar, and with more slowpitch tournaments being added every year, some clashes were going to be inevitable if the GBFL was going to be able to provide enough playing dates for its member teams and to spread those dates throughout the season.
There is no easy answer to the problem, but one suggestion was that if any such clashes did occur – and most GBFL dates do not clash with major slowpitch events – the clashes should be rotated so that if a particular slowpitch tournament suffered in one year, a different tournament would have the clash the next year.
Help needed for the BSF
Bob Fromer told the League Heads that the BSF Executive was being stretched increasingly thin, with President Ieuan Gale stepping down after the AGM with no one running to replace him, Mike Jennings stepping away from the Executive after decades of service and current vacancies for a National Teams Officer and a Marketing and Communications Officer.
Without reinforcements, it is going to be increasingly difficult for the BSF to carry out its various functions on behalf of leagues, teams and national teams.
Suggestions from the meeting including looking at restructuring the BSF’s responsibilities, asking BSUK for more help, setting up succession plans for members of the Executive and working more closely with the BBF in the context of creating the kinds of baseball/softball clubs that are the bedrock of the sports in many European countries.
Making the jump from a league or team to a BSF Executive role can be daunting, but Lesley Morisetti pointed out that joining the Executive initially as a General Officer without specific responsibilities was a good way to learn the ropes while moving towards an area of expertise or interest.
The suggestion was also made that League Heads meetings should occur more often – perhaps quarterly instead of annually – and that the League Heads could thereby function as a kind of working group to support the BSF.
Implications of the Whyte Review for softball
The recent Whyte Review into the abuse of female athletes in British Gymnastics has created an imperative for other sports to ensure that they have processes in place to prevent this kind of culture arising in their sport.
The organisation Women in Sport has said, “Whilst the focus of the Whyte Review is on gymnastics … the appalling instances of abuse and the deep-rooted cultural issues the Review has exposed are emblematic of a wider issue across many sports.”
While this issue most often arises at the elite end of sport, it can quickly filter down to the grassroots.
John Boyd told the meeting, “Safeguarding has never been more important, and this applies to all leagues and teams – especially those with under-18 players and vulnerable adults. There needs to be a seamless system that delivers safe and culturally positive sport, and we need to achieve this even though the model in slowpitch softball is based on devolved leagues. These obligations can’t be avoided and everyone needs to take responsibility.”
As part of the effort to achieve an effective safeguarding system, coach education and qualification in softball will be tightened and aligned to national standards. But there will need to be an examination of how leadership works in slowpitch softball, whether through captaincy, coaching or team management, so that coordinated structures and governance throughout the sport can be ensured.
Although significant government obligations will be placed on softball, there is potential help available – not just through BSUK, but from the 43 Active Partnerships for sport across the UK.
Pete Saunders reported on several items that arose at the recent BASU AGM:
Concussion protocols. There are a small number of head injuries each year in softball which may result in concussion, and the BSF needs to develop concussion protocols and find a way to implement them across tournaments and, if possible, in league play.
Head injuries require assessment to determine whether the player is able to continue playing, and this may mean that tournament organisers, including the BSF and BSUK as well as leagues and others, will need to ensure that First Aiders hired for their tournaments are competent to make such assessments, and possibly certified as such by the BSF or BSUK.
It might be possible to also do this for league play where all teams play at a central venue, but it would be virtually impossible in leagues with multiple venues – unless the BSF mandated, for example, that all teams are required to have one or two qualified First Aiders, with the BSF or BSUK putting on or sponsoring courses to enable this to happen.
At its next meeting in March, the BSF Executive will consider how to proceed with this.
Umpire mentoring. Pete Saunders also told the meeting that BASU now has enough umpires to introduce a mentoring system for new umpires at tournaments.
Umpire courses. Eight leagues are currently running the online BASU umpire qualification course, with around 10-12 people taking part per league.
One question raised was whether BASU could bring back shorter courses aimed at league umpires, many of whom are not interested in taking the full qualification course. Pete told the meeting that BASU was considering adapting the first two of four blocks that make up the online course to create a league umpire course but was struggling to find the time to do this. BASU does hope, however, to run a refresher course for experienced umpires this year.
Solent Softball League Chair Matt Tebb said that his league was using the BASU online course for its league umpires, but lowering the bar with regard to passing the course and then using mentors to help new umpires find their feet.
BASU fees. Finally, Pete reminded the meeting that, as announced and publicised last year, umpire fees will be going up by £2 per game in 2023.
BSUK development offers
The last session at the League Heads Forum was run by Leah Holmes on behalf of BSUK and focused on three current development initiatives:
Facilities Fund. BSUK gives out annual grants to help baseball and softball leagues or teams enhance their playing facilities through creating new permanent structures such as backstops or dugouts. Because these grants come from BSUK funds and not from Sport England, they can be awarded in Scotland and Wales as well as in England. Applications can be made between October and February.
Although building permanent structures on diamonds is less relevant to slowpitch than to fastpitch or baseball, there were discussions with slowpitch leagues and clubs about potential applications for the first time last year.
Further information on BSUK’s Facilities Fund can be found here -- https://www.baseballsoftballuk.com/facilities-fund – and anyone who would like a discussion about how their league or clubs within their league could utilise the Fund should contact Leah Holmes.
League Heads Network. Following an initial meeting last year, an informal discussion channel was created by BSUK on Slack for BSF League Heads and development leads. This is a platform for interaction between leagues to share experiences and ideas.
The site features a variety of topic channels and leagues used it to ask questions over the course of last season. Periodically, Leah adds some questions/talking points relating to areas BSUK is working on.
Leah said, “I’d encourage anyone joining to have a look around, introduce yourself and then use the platform in whatever capacity works for you!”
Health Check Pilot. Since Christmas, BSUK Relationship Managers have been working with a small number of clubs and leagues across the country to pilot a new ‘Health Check’ tool. The aim is to get a better understanding of what clubs and leagues need and how BSUK can potentially support them to ensure the sport continue to develop.
The Health Check takes the form of a developmental meeting with a BSUK Relationship Manager, to be followed up with a written summary and support plan that can be provided to those taking part. The Health Check has been undertaken so far with three softball leagues and two clubs, and has been extremely helpful for BSUK (and hopefully for both parties!).
There is an opportunity for other leagues, clubs or team to take part, and anyone who would like to learn more about this should contact Leah Holmes.