Softball: 15 years after the Millennium

Tue 13 Oct 2015

BSUK Communications Consultant Bob Fromer, one of the founders of the organisation, and someone who has been involved with softball in the UK since the 1970s, offers his perspective on the advances made in British softball over the past 15 years and argues that the game is in a better position now than ever before.

Relatively speaking, the British Softball Federation goes back a long way.  It had a first incarnation in the 1970s and a separate one in the late 1980s, and from there it gradually morphed into the governing body we have today as softball spread around the country.

BaseballSoftballUK, by contrast, began its formal existence on 1 January 2000, and the agency is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year.  But BSUK’s 15th anniversary has provided an opportunity to take stock of what has happened in British softball over that period.  And when you think about it, the past 15 years (give or take a couple) have seen some astonishing changes and additions to what may have seemed like a fairly settled sport when BSUK employees first took to their desks.

Of course, because BSUK is a joint venture set up by the British Baseball and Softball Federations, and works closely with both national governing bodies, it’s sometimes hard to separate BSUK’s achievements from those of the Federations, or the softball community as a whole.

But that doesn’t really matter, because, to quote a phrase, over the past 15 years, “softball has been the winner”.

More people

So what has changed in softball over the past 15 years?

The biggest change, though it may not be very visible in the mainstream playing community and has only begun to be measured over the past six years, is to do with the number of people playing the sport.

In 2009, there were around 10,000 people playing softball and baseball in the UK.  As we near the end of 2015, that number has more than doubled, now standing at almost 21,500.  That’s across both sports and all three formats -- but the bulk of the increase has been in softball, and the majority of that has been in slowpitch.

“So where,” you might ask, “are all the new BSF leagues and teams?”  Well, there have been some new leagues that now affiliate to the BSF, and many BSF leagues have increased their team numbers over the past few years, but that’s not where most of the growth has been.  What’s happened instead is a very large rise in the number of adults and young people coming into the sport for the first time, through new corporate teams and leagues, university and college teams, School Games competitions, leisure centre activity – and some very large leagues in London that don’t yet affiliate to the BSF.

What this means is a significant increase in the number of people playing and enjoying softball in a variety of settings and circumstances, even if they’re not yet ready to make the commitment to regular league and tournament play within the BSF structure.  Over time, many of them will – but even if they don’t, they will be people who know and love the sport, helping to raise its profile and presence in the UK.

Domestic competition

Within the established BSF playing community, perhaps the biggest change over the past 15 years has been an explosion in the number of weekend tournaments and competitions.

This year, over a 26-week period from the end of March to the first weekend in October, there were at least 40 domestic slowpitch tournaments (mostly co-ed and a few single-sex), plus seven fastpitch competition days. That’s more than double the number of tournaments available 15 years ago.

If you cheat just a little bit and go back to 1998 or so, the period since then has seen the MLB and BSUK Tournaments, Triple Crown, Grandslam and Diamonds, the establishment of the Softball World Series, and new tournaments in (among others) Wales, Scotland, Manchester, Leeds, Sefton, Solent, Windsor, Kent, Swindon, Chichester, Stroud and London.  The BSF’s League All-Star Tournament came and went, the Let the Girls Play Tournament is still going strong, there’s now a Hit and Run Development Tournament, the GB Slowpitch Open raises money for the National Slowpitch Team, there is a tournament twice a season in the Cotswolds, the Pioneers Tournament will hopefully come back – and that’s all before you get to the established league tournaments.

And it’s also not to mention the creation of the National Softball League (NSL) in 2009 to provide a basis for A-grade play and encourage more teams to aspire to A-grade status and competition.

International competition

This growth in domestic competition opportunities has been mirrored in the growth of international competitions, either run in the UK or abroad.

Again, it’s necessary to cheat a little bit on the 15-year motif and go back to 1998 as a starting point.  If we do that, here’s what has happened between then and now in terms of competitions that never existed before:

  • European Co-ed Slowpitch Championships.  After considerable pressure from the BSF over a period of several years, the European Softball Federation agreed to add a European Co-ed Slowpitch Championship to its roster of competitions.  The first tournament was held in 1998 and hosted by the BSF at Brunel University in Uxbridge.  Four countries attended, and GB won – just – over the Czech Republic.  Since then, nine more European Slowpitch Championships have been held, the latest in 2015, and the GB Slowpitch Team has won every one of them.  Generally, between six and 10 countries now take part.
  • European Slowpitch Cup.  In 2007, the ESF added a European Slowpitch Cup designed for club teams, and a few years later, it became the European Slowpitch Super Cup, with more than one team from each country able to enter.  In 2014, 12 teams took part.
  • European Men’s Slowpitch Championship.  In 2016, the ESF is adding yet another slowpitch competition – a European Men’s Championship.  Will Great Britain be able to dominate in this format as it has done in co-ed slowpitch?
  • ISF Slowpitch World Cup.  Thanks again to pressure from the British Softball Federation, Softball Ireland and BSUK, the International Softball Federation held its first Co-ed Slowpitch World Cup in Plant City, Florida in 2002.  The GB Slowpitch Team programme sent two teams, and one of them won the competition.  But GB finished second (to a Scotland-based team!) when the ISF ran the tournament again in 2005 and second to an American team when the ISF revived the concept in 2014.  The Slowpitch World Cup is now planned as an annual event, with a GB Slowpitch squad heading to Florida in November this year.
  • The Softball World Series.  This is a domestic tournament that began in 1999 and has run ever since.  But the World Series (the clue is in the name) has always been designed for “national teams” – whether from overseas or ex-pat teams based in the UK – and more and more teams from overseas now come to the UK each September to play in it.  In 2015, an overseas-based team, the UCE Travellers from Germany, won the tournament for the first time.
  • The London Cup.  Once a serious GB Women’s Fastpitch Team programme was started in Britain, it became helpful to host the occasional international tournament here, to save our players from having to travel overseas to get competition experience.  The answer was a tournament called the London Cup, generally for both Women’s and Under-19 Teams, and it has been held several times over the past 15 years – in 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2011, 2012 and most recently in 2015.  Over the years, teams have come from all over Europe and from the USA to play in it.

National teams

There were some GB National Softball Teams before 2000.  But over the past 15 years, GB Softball has expanded, our programmes have become more focused and we have achieved far more international success.  In fact, as a relatively small country in softball terms, we punch way above our weight on the international stage.

  • GB Slowpitch.  Following our initial European Slowpitch Championship win in 1998, we have won all nine European Championships played since then -- but there were times in the 2000s when we won by the skin of our teeth.  More recently, we have completely dominated the opposition, and at the 2015 European Championships, the GB Slowpitch Team went undefeated and won every game by mercy rule.
  • GB Women.  The first GB Women’s Team playing in European Championship competition goes all the way back to 1979.  But the programme first began to professionalise in 1999, in an attempt to qualify for the Sydney Olympics, and once the team won promotion to the European A Pool in 2001, it has never looked back.  Since then, the GB Women’s Team has finished as high as second and third in Europe and taken part in four World Championships, with a highest finish of 10th.
  • GB Men.  The Great Britain Men’s Fastpitch Team played in its first European Championship in 1999, finishing dead last.  But since then, the team has finished third five times and fourth twice and as one of the established top teams in Europe, has played in four World Championships, finishing as high as eighth.
  • GB Under-19 Women.  The first time a GB Junior (Under-19) Team entered European Championships was in 2000, and we finished last in our first attempt.  Since then, our path has mostly been upward, culminating in a highest-ever fourth place finish in 2014, including a dramatic come-from-behind extra-inning walk-off win against the defending champion Netherlands.  The GB Under-19 Women have also played in the last two Junior Women’s World Championships, mostly recently in 2015, where the team did not give up more than four runs in any seven-inning game, a feat matched only by the eventual champions USA.
  • GB Under-19 Men.  Great Britain has also been competing in the European Junior Men’s Championships since 2000, though there was a four year hiatus during which the programme died away before being revived by Stan Doney in 2011.  This past summer, the GB Junior Men hit and fielded extremely well, but could only finish fifth due to a lack of pitching depth.  The programme is already producing potential players for the GB Men’s Team.
  • GB Cadette (Under-16) Girls.  The GB Cadette Girls first entered European Championships in 2002, but the fledgling programme had had a baptism of fire the year before, in 2001, entering an ISF Under-16 World Cup in Florida against some of the top teams in the world.  The GB Cadettes went back to this tournament in 2005.  In European Championships, placings have been improving, culminating in a best-ever fourth place finish in 2015.
  • GB Minime (Under-13) Girls.  British Under-13 Teams played in four European Championships from 2004 through 2010, and had two third-place finishes.  Since 2012, this competition has changed from a European Championship to an annual Cup tournament, the Massimo Romeo Youth Trophy, based permanently in Collecchio, Italy, with national and club teams allowed to enter.  The GB Under-13 programme has sent either one or two teams each year, and this year’s team, travelling as the London Cubs, won our first two games since the competition began, showing that our programme is once again on the up.

Academy Softball

Supporting the success of GB Softball National Teams has been the Softball Academy, which began around 15 years ago, initially as part of the Grassroots Fastpitch programme run by Tanya Price which brought so many young girls into the sport. 

For many years, the Academy for both softball and baseball was based at Upper Heyford, where we had the advantage of being the sole users of the site, until its physical deterioration forced a move away.  Meanwhile, The Academy had become a BSUK programme and it has been strengthened and professionalised over the past few years.

In 2014, a High Performance Academy structure was added, supported by funding secured from Sport England, where the best female fastpitch players aged 14-19 are able to get the best coaching available in this country to prepare them for international competition.

Other milestones

Here are a few more highlights – and lowlights – from the past 15 years:

Facilities.  There are many milestones that stand out over the past 15 years, but one of the most important is also quite recent: the opening of the Farnham Park Baseball and Softball Centre in 2013.  Built with money secured by BSUK from Sport England and the Baseball Tomorrow Fund, Farnham Park is home to the best (and only) fully purpose-built softball diamonds in the UK, and the ground now plays host to softball development programmes, slowpitch and fastpitch league play, BSF National Championships, National University Championships and international tournaments such as the London Cup.

Meanwhile, other quality softball facilities have been developed, such as the fully-fenced show pitch at Parrs Wood School in Manchester, the main diamond at Richings Park Softball Club, diamonds at Finsbury Park and elsewhere.

Olympics.  The past 15 years have seen softball become established as an Olympic sport, then removed from the Olympics (sadly, for London 2012) and now likely to be reinstated for the Tokyo Games in 2020.

Funding.  Over the past 15 years – and this one is very much the work of BSUK – an unprecedented amount of funding has been secured for British softball and baseball.  Starting in 2005, and thanks to the development work and governance that BSUK had established over its first five years, softball and baseball became part of Sport England’s Whole Sport Plan system, where a selected number of sports receive funding over four-year cycles to grow and develop.

We are currently nearing the end of the third Whole Sport Plan cycle, and over those 12 years, more than £7 million will have come into the sports from this source.

In addition, between 2001 and 2007, around £700,000 worth of funding was secured by BSUK from UK Sport for the GB Women’s Fastpitch and GB Baseball Senior National Teams.  Although this funding was cut off when softball was dropped from the Olympic programme and the GB Women failed to qualify for Beijing, the foundations that were built in the programme during the funded years led directly to the successes achieved on the field from 2009 through the present.

Governance and administration.  Softball players with long memories will remember that BSF National Championships used to be fairly chaotic affairs until the BSF engaged Liz Graham and Lesley Morisetti as Tournaments Officers.  Since then, although they may lack the amenities of some other tournaments, BSF National Championships are well-structured and well-run, bringing meaning to the trophies conferred. 

The BSF itself, over the past few years, is learning more towards skills-based appointments to the Executive Board.

BASU has grown and developed into a highly professional organisation and thanks to BASU training, the standard of umpiring has risen significantly.  But relations between players and umpires in a small community still remain friendly.

One of the most impressive aspects of British softball, however – and not just during the past 15 years – has always been the outstanding work of League Committees.  Almost all BSF leagues have always been well run, and while not without suffering the occasional controversy, have managed to organise and deliver the week-by-week league softball that still makes up the majority of play in the UK.  Long may this continue!

Looking ahead

So if the past 15 years have been a kind of golden age for British softball, what are the next 15 years likely to bring?  A wish list might include the following:

  • The continued growth of the sport, so that we become more and more a part of British sporting life – or, as the BSUK mission statement has it, “Played in Every Park”.
  • The construction of more dedicated facilities around the country (plans are already in the works for Manchester as well as an expansion at Farnham Park).  “If you build it, they will come!”
  • GB Softball National Teams winning European Championships, challenging for World Championships and qualifying for Olympic Games.
  • Official European tournaments hosted in the UK.
  • More coach training and more and better coaches in every league and club, so that players at every level can have the means to improve their game.
  • A rationalisation of the system for grading league and tournament teams, so that BSF National Championships pit like against like within appropriate levels and include the best league and tournament teams from around the country.
  • Particular growth in the number of players – especially young players – playing fastpitch, so that this format can achieve the critical mass necessary for stability and progress.
  • A rationalisation of the ever-growing tournament calendar, so that tournaments offering different levels of play are spread across the summer, with room left for fastpitch competition to grow.
  • The achievement of significant sponsorship for British softball (and baseball), so that the sport begins to lessen its dependence on government funding.
  • And finally, the emergence of a team that can win the Premier National Championship from the Chromies!

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