League Heads Forum hopes for a 2021 season

Mon 15 Feb 2021

The annual BSF League Heads Forum was held as a remote meeting on Saturday 13 February 2021, and was well-attended, with 17 representatives from 14 different leagues present along with eight members from the BSF Executive and four BSUK staff members.

Key topics covered included the BSF’s current financial situation and team affiliation fees for 2021, a major upgrade planned at Farnham Park, issues around the purchase of Personal Accident and Injury Insurance for the upcoming season, coach and umpire training opportunities in a time of pandemic, BaseballSoftballUK’s new Development Charter, a new BSF website about to come online and safeguarding issues.

However, the topic that underlay most of the meeting was the hope that there could be some kind of softball season in 2021.

In a time where everyone is having to resort to videoconference technology to meet, this was the first large meeting of its kind that the BSF has run, and it went very smoothly, a good portent for the 2021 BSF AGM, which will also be held as a remote meeting on Saturday 27 February.


Change at the top

BSF President Jenny Fromer, who chaired the meeting, opened by reminding those in attendance that she will be stepping down from her role after four years in office following the AGM.

But she was able to announce that the sole candidate who will be up for election as President at the AGM – Ieuan Gale – has spent the last several months preparing for the role by attending BSF and GB Management Committee meetings and talking individually with members of the BSF Executive and BSUK about their roles and responsibilities so he can hit the ground running.


BSF finances

Jenny then ran through the BSF’s current financial situation for the benefit of the league representatives.

As there was no playing season last year, and as the BSF’s financial year runs from 1 October through 30 September, the BSF had no membership income in the financial year 2019-20, but a large number of non-discretionary spending commitments to meet, including carrying the cost of Civil Liability and Personal Accident and Injury insurance purchased on behalf of members.  Some discretionary expenditures were also made, such as reimbursing some of the money lost by national teams that had tours cancelled when the first lockdown began.

The net result over the course of 2020 was that BSF reserves were reduced from around £55,000, which easily meets governance requirements, to around £13,000, which puts the BSF in a precarious position. 

Fortunately, with help from BaseballSoftballUK, the BSF applied for and received a £20,000 emergency grant from Sport England, and so entered 2020-21 with about £30,000 in hand.  But another season with no membership income will clearly pose a major challenge.

During 2020, the BSF had signalled that it would need to increase fees in 2021 – assuming there was a season – to begin rebuilding reserves.  But the Executive, aware that many people have suffered financially from the pandemic, has decided that this is not the time for a fee increase.  So if there is anything resembling a full season in 2021, team affiliation fees will remain the same as in 2019.

However, Jenny told the meeting that even if the 2021 season happens, the BSF expects membership to be down as people struggle to get their lives back to normal.  This was confirmed by some of the League Heads on the call, many of whom said that surveys had already suggested a percentage of their teams would struggle for players this year and some teams may not return at all. 

As a result, the BSF will reduce its discretionary spending this year by as much as possible but could still be facing a deficit that will take reserves down further, even if a season is played.  While another Sport England grant might be possible this year depending on the Covid situation, it certainly can’t be guaranteed.


Expectations for 2021

This led naturally to a discussion of what expectations might be for a softball season in 2021.

BaseballSoftballUK CEO John Boyd told the meeting that BSUK is acting as the interface with the government on Return to Play for both softball and baseball, with Head of Commercial Joelle Watkins taking the lead.

Joelle told the meeting that there are no dates yet for the resumption of community sport, though more information might be available after Boris Johnson sets out the government’s road map out of lockdown on 22 February, five days before the BSF AGM. 

“Meanwhile,” Joelle said,” we are trying to find out what Return to Play might look like.”  Will it be six people able to get together, or 30, or unlimited numbers?  The word is that the government wants to open up community sport as soon as possible for the sake of physical health and mental wellbeing, and may well move quickly to unrestricted numbers provided all relevant Covid protocols are observed.

“Our sport is considered a low-contact, low-risk sport in England,” Joelle said, “and the risk of transmission through sports equipment is now seen as very low.  But when we returned to play last summer, a lot of people didn’t want to take the risk, and there will be risk-averse people this year too.”

Joelle’s advice for League Heads was to:

  • Remind themselves of the information and protocols on BSUK’s Return to Play Hub
     
  • Nominate a League Covid-19 Officer and provide contact details to BSUK (teams should do this too).
     
  • Make players in their league aware of Covid protocols and codes of conduct.

A question from Jon Reynolds from the Milton Keynes Softball League was about the chances that tournament events, particularly large events such as the Diamond Series, could be held.

“We’re preparing for this,” John Boyd said, “because we think we will get some tournament play this year.  We will try to respond quickly to any government announcements.”

Mark Norman from the Oxford Softball League spoke for many at the meeting when he thanked BSUK for all its efforts last year and this year on Return to Play.


Developments at Farnham Park

On behalf of BSUK, Joelle Watkins announced some major plans to upgrade facilities at Farnham Park:

  1. There are plans to lay a sophisticated form of artificial turf over both the softball and baseball diamonds on Field 1, the field adjacent to the Home Plate clubhouse, provided that resources can be found for the work to begin this year.  The advantages will be a better and more predictable playing surface, fewer maintenance requirements and the possibility of year-round play.  The long-term benefit will be considerable, but Field 1 may become unavailable for part of the coming season if and when work begins.
     
  2. In part because BSUK recognises that an artificial turf field cannot be used as the main field in hosting international tournaments, there are plans to compensate by building a fifth dedicated softball diamond with dugouts, backstop, partial foul line fencing and a skinned infield (but no outfield fence) on site.  The hope is that this new diamond can also be completed this year, but that will depend on funding.
     
  3. The Local Authority (South Bucks District Council) is planning to upgrade some of the grass fields at Farnham Park over the next two years and is working with BSUK to ensure that as many pitches as possible will be available during the summer.  At the moment, it looks like six grass fields – those circled on the diagram below – will be available this summer, including those adjacent to the Phoenix clubhouse, so nine or ten pitches will be available in total.  In the long term, the project means that grass fields at Farnham Park will have improved playing surfaces, but there could be restrictions on the total number of pitches available in both 2021 and 2022.

Matt Tebb from the Solent Softball League asked if there were also plans to upgrade the toilets and changing rooms in the Phoenix clubhouse.

Joelle replied that BSUK has asked the Council to upgrade them – or to let BSUK take them over so they can upgrade them.  There is unlikely to be any improvement this year, she said, but hopefully there will be in future.


Personal Accident and Injury Insurance

BSF General Officer Mike Jennings told the Forum that early last year, before the pandemic took hold, the BSF had purchased Personal Accident and Injury Insurance cover based on the number of leagues and teams – around 200 in total -- that opted for this insurance in 2019, only to be left to foot the bill when the insurers refused to provide anything but a tiny refund.

That insurance ran out in December 2020 and the BSF has not yet renewed it.  The plan is to purchase insurance that will start on 1 April, but this will have to be based on the number of leagues and teams willing to commit to it.

Meanwhile, the BSF has been exploring the marketplace.  The previous suppliers are proposing a small increase in premiums, and if the same number of leagues and teams agree to purchase the insurance as in 2019, the cost will remain in the vicinity of £20 per team.  Attempts to get quotes from other providers were unsuccessful: they declined to bid because the numbers involved are too small.

However, if the number of leagues and teams committing to purchase the insurance this year falls substantially because of uncertainties around the pandemic, then the cost per team could go up sharply, perhaps to levels that teams will be unwilling to pay.  Only about 20-30 teams have committed so far, Mike said; everyone else is understandably still waiting.  But the BSF can’t afford to purchase the insurance on a speculative basis.

Mike had suggested that perhaps leagues could come to the AGM on 27 February with some idea about their willingness to commit to this insurance, but Neil Wardrope from the Edinburgh Softball League suggested that not enough will be known by then to enable leagues to make a decision.

So the BSF may have to set a later deadline for leagues and teams to commit and wait to purchase the insurance – and in the meantime no one will be covered.

Mike Jennings also made two other points:

  • If an individual team tries to purchase Personal Accident and Injury Insurance for its players, the cost is likely to be more like £30 per player than £20 per team.
     
  • None of this affects Civil and Public Liability Insurance for teams and players, which is already in place for 2021.


Slowpitch coach training in 2021

BSF Coaching Officer Mike Lott told the meeting that he wants to get more slowpitch players involved in training to be coaches and coach educators, and in 2021 hopes to set up a register of:

  • Qualified slowpitch coaches.
  • Slowpitch coach trainers.
  • People interested in coaching courses and qualifications.

He also plans to talk to BSUK about whether a different course structure might be possible to make it less onerous to qualify as a Level 2 coach and whether funding for coach education might be available from new sources.

“What is stopping people taking up courses?” Mike asked.  “Is it money, the time commitment, the course structure?”

He also plans to talk to League Heads about the possibility of running player clinics in league settings.

Finally, Mike would like to make more resources available in the form of drills, videos and printed materials that team captains who may not be qualified coaches can access to improve the quality of team practice sessions.

BaseballSoftballUK National Development Manager Chris Rawlings told the meeting that BSUK already had a lot of resources along these lines and suggested a meeting with Mike Lott to explore this further.


BASU umpire training in 2021

BSF Technical Officer and BASU Training Officer Pete Saunders told the Forum that BASU had been working hard over the winter to create a series of video modules covering aspects of the two-day BASU course.  The plan for this spring is to use these modules in running remote BASU courses in place of the usual regional courses, to be followed when possible by hands-on practical sessions and assessments. 

A major contribution to the video modules has been made by BASU umpire Chris Lunn, who had provided animation and graphics.

Although only some of the planned modules have been finished so far, these can be viewed by contacting BASUSec@gmail.com.


BSUK Development Charter

Chris Rawlings reminded the meeting that BaseballSoftballUK had launched its new Development Charter for leagues, clubs and teams in August 2020 (see: https://www.baseballsoftballuk.com/news/view/bsuk-announces-development-charter) and some teams and leagues have already registered.  Through the Charter, help can be provided with:

  • League management
  • Player recruitment
  • Coach education
  • Facilities development

Any League Head who wants more information should contact Chris on: chris.rawlings@bsuk.com.


New BSF website

BSF Administrator Bob Fromer told the meeting that work to substantially upgrade the BSF website has been carried out over the past few months by BaseballSoftballUK Head of Operations Tim Stride.

The plan is for the new site to go live during the week before the BSF AGM on 27 February, though this may mean the website being unavailable for one or two days that week while the changeover is made.

In contrast with the existing website, the new site will be compatible with a wide range of mobile devices.

While a good deal of information has already been transferred from the old to the new website in anticipation of launch, a full transfer of information will take place gradually over the next few months.


Safeguarding

Both John Boyd and Jenny Fromer talked about the need to maintain vigilance and close any gaps in safeguarding systems throughout the softball community in light of the recent criminal conviction of a former member of the community, albeit for offenses that did not involve softball.

“Safeguarding is a vital area of BSUK’s work,” John Boyd said, “and we carry the responsibility in this area for both sports.  It has taken us a while to get systems set up and Safeguarding Officers in place and trained, but we are ready and available to provide support if anything happens, with support in turn from the NSPCC’s Child Protection in Sport Unit (CPSU), who run regular checks on us.

“We often feel that we are a small community where we all know each other,” John added, “so anything that happens is a shock.  But we need to understand when discipline might flip over into a safeguarding issue.”

Jenny Fromer said, “The situation that occurred recently makes you notice the gaps in our systems.  We are largely an adult sport with regard to slowpitch, and under recent legislation, unless people are working with children, we don’t have the right to check their suitability to do so: that’s regarded as an invasion of privacy.  So a weakness in our sport is the lack of checks on volunteers.

“We think our community is safe,” Jenny added, “and it may well be – but even as an adult sport we have lots of children around, so due diligence always needs to be done and parents need to be cautious.  And we all have a responsibility to know where to take concerns, so even adult leagues need to be sure they have trained Safeguarding Officers in place.”

John Boyd noted that BSUK’s Development Charter has a safeguarding component.  He urged leagues to:

  • Sign up to the Charter.
     
  • Make sure there is a Safeguarding Officer in place and that they have relevant training.
     
  • Make sure the League’s Safeguarding Officer is connected with Mark Caress, who leads on safeguarding at BSUK.

DBS checks are free for volunteers, John reminded the meeting, and BSUK can help with the process.  In fact, he added, BSUK needs to keep up the number of checks it does in order for the service to remain free of cost to community volunteers.


League situations

With regard to the possibility of a playing season in 2021 and what it might look like, a number of League Heads spoke about their own situations.

Neil Butterfield from the Bristol Softball Association told the meeting that if Bristol can’t run its planned tournaments this year, it would face a loss of between £5,000 and £6,000.  “We can cope with that this year,” Neil said, “but next year would be the issue.”

Neil Wardrope from the Edinburgh Softball League said that a survey carried out by the league suggested that about 30% of players were unsure about returning to play.

For Colin Russell from the Publishers Softball League in London, the figure was even higher: he thought 50% of teams might struggle for players.

Other League Heads said they would wait to survey their players until more information was available from the government.

Alan MacFarlane from the London Advertising Softball League said he was optimistic about a season, but felt it would be compacted, would probably involve fewer teams, and wouldn’t start before June.  In the advertising sector in London, more people working from home and unwilling to use public transport to get to Regents Park would have an impact.

John Boyd wondered whether these issues would be echoed in other corporate leagues, and suggested a conversation about whether BSUK might be able to offer people in these leagues alternative opportunities to play.

“It’s pretty clear that numbers will be lighter this season,” Jenny Fromer said, “and to help us get through this, communication will need to be strong – from the BSF and BSUK to leagues, and from leagues back to the BSF and BSUK.”


Attendance

The 2021 remote League Heads Forum was attended by:

LEAGUE REPRESENTATIVES
Neil Butterfield (Bristol)
David McCarthy (Cardiff)
Neil Wardrope (Edinburgh)
David Morris (Great Britain Fastpitch League)
Daniel Simpson (Leeds)
Mike Connolly (Liverpool)
Alan MacFarlane (London Advertising Softball League)
Donna Gregory and Stephen Lord (London Softball League)
Paul Fagan (Manchester)
Leah Holmes and Jon Reynolds (Milton Keynes)
Mark Norman (Oxford)
Colin Russell (Publishers Softball League)
Matt Tebb (Solent)
Neena Patel and Paul Vernon (Windsor & Maidenhead)

BSF EXECUTIVE
Jenny Fromer
Ieuan Gale
Liz Graham
Mike Jennings
Mike Lott
Lesley Morisetti
Pete Saunders
Bob Fromer

BASEBALLSOFTBALLIUK
John Boyd
Chris Rawlings
Joelle Watkins
Alyson Spinas-Valainis

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