8-26-10 Epiphany or Epitaph

EPIPHANY OR EPITAPH

Epiphany: a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.

 

The National Pro Fastpitch championship this coming weekend marks the end of the 2009-2010 season for fastpitch softball.  Pundits are already questioning what the future holds – at both the national and international levels.

Many influential observers of our sport reject the notion that the IOC vote in Berlin was the epitaph for international competition in women’s fastpitch softball.

There is no denying the failure to include softball as an Olympic venue for 2016, while reaffirming its exclusion for the London Olympiad in 2012, terminated the Olympic ambitions of American girls before their eighth birthday.

The need is to expand the sport and, frankly, an eight-team Olympic venue was not sufficient to stimulate growth in needed areas like Europe, Oceana, Africa or even South America where the 2016 Olympiad will be held.

An operative question is whether the current and planned schedule of events under the ISF umbrella is sufficient to grow softball so that it is seen as a major sport worldwide.  Doubtful.

CARACAS AND BEYOND

Caracas did not provide the panoply of answers or advancement needed.

The tournament, especially between the foul lines, was a success.

USA Coach Jay Miller, who led the USA team to the Gold medal, said afterwards to SPY: “The fields were not the best-limited use of water made the mound

like a sand/dust pit. The stadiums are wonderful. They were close enough that it

was not a problem. Great organization by the local committee. It really was a

great tournament.”

USA player Alissa Haber, who led all hitters in the 16 team tournament, called the XII World Championship, the fulfillment of a lifetime dream.

Naturally, ISD president Don Porter, whose decision to pull the games out of Oklahoma City scrambled the KFC World Cup and temporarily suspended the Canada Cup, quite expectedly said, “The International Softball Federation’s XII Women’s World Championship wrapped up last Friday (July 2) in Caracas, Venezuela, and was a big success.”  The tournament began ten days earlier and 16 countries competed during the ISF’s celebration of the 45-year anniversary of the first-ever softball world championship (five women’s national teams competed in Melbourne, Australia, in February 1965).

The XII World Championship was not the terminus of the ISF calendar.  By the time this year is over, ISF said in July, fifteen different world or regional tournaments will have either taken place or be in progress. The following countries will be the host sites for those events: Austria, Czech Republic (two), Indonesia, Japan, Puerto Rico, Turkey, and USA; also Korea, Palau, Colombia and Guatemala.  

Mosreover, ISF has a 2011 world-wide and regional program:

 
07-05-2011
14-05-2011
11th Arafura Games (Women’s Softball) Darwin Australia
25-06-2011
04-07-2011
Special Olympics World Summer Games Athens Greece
13-10-2011
30-10-2011
XVI Pan American Games (Women’s Softball, 10/17-10/23) Guadalajara Mexico
06-12-2011
17-12-2011
ISF IX Jr. Women’s World Championship (19-and-under) Cape Town South Africa

Regional

Dates Activity/Event City Country
2011
11-07-2011
16-07-2011
VII European Championship Jr. Boys Kostelec Nad Orlici Czech Republic
18-07-2011
23-07-2011
8th European Coed Slowpitch Championship Dupnitsa Bulgaria
25-07-2011
30-07-2011
XVI European Championship Women “A” Friuli Region Italy
25-07-2011
30-07-2011
XVI European Championship Women “B” Friuli Region Italy

 

Unfortunately, the University Games which had been scheduled for Italy this summer have been cancelled, Porter said, for lack of participation.

Is that cancellation a harbinger?  Consider that several countries had difficulty raising the funds to compete in Caracas, eg, Great Britain and Australia come immediately to mind.

Are all of these far-flung sites competition ready?  If not, will they be up to the standard which we should expect of international events, especially under ISF sanction?  A Porter aide, standing with Radigonda on KFC  Sunday, assured SPY the facilities already exist.

That was not the case in Caracas.  When the tournament began, stadiums were not completed, but, the playing field, dugouts, one dressing room on each side, ISF office, all staff working rooms, press room, VIP area behind home plate were all completed. The main stadium was not used until Day Four. Still, even critics of the preparations said the local host did an outstanding job, some said the best of all the ISF World Championships.

ASA Executive Director Ron Radigonda said, “My observation was that the Venezuelan people that were assigned to work the event did a solid job. The hotel and meals were adequate — not as good as some World Championships but better than others. The security and transportation were first rate as the hotel had ample security and the motorcades to and from the hotel to the games averted the traffic problems that are indicative to Caracas.”  Still, readers wrote that the security was so tight, with teams confined to hotels, that they felt like they were under house arrest.  These girls are professionals; they would compete in a cornfield if that was all available.  The XII Championship deserved a more hospitable environment.  Fortunately, Whitehorse in the Yukon, site of the 2012 championships, meets that test (in an isolated environment).

But, did Caracas achieve Porter’s goal of broadening international support for softball?  Not if media coverage is one of the standards.  Knowledgable observers said coverage was poor as far as major media (newspapers, radio, TV) are concerned.  Most of the media present were from Venezuela or came with the national teams.  A check through Google disclosed far fewer articles than one would expect from an international championship.

AS SPY wrote at the time, “Had the event been held in OKC we would have had better media coverage which is highly important to softball and their reinstatement to the Summer Games.”

The numerous questions which abound about the future of softball were addressed to Radigonda in his office at the start of the KFC World Cup on July 23.  SPY has not published the interview until now, waiting for other events to unfold.

Future of the National Team

USA Softball projects it will field a 2011 national team which will play in the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, in October 2011 to qualify for the XIII World Championship which will be held in Whitehorse, the Yukon.  The notional 2011 schedule includes: a renewed Canada Cup; the Japan Cup, and a hopefully enlarged KFC World Cup.  Also on tap: the 2011 Junior Women’s International Championship in Capetown in December (the USA qualified in August at the Pan American tournament in Bogota).

In addition, Radigonda said he would like to send a national team to compete in a yet-to-be sanctioned or organized European tournament – part of a larger goal to motivate Europe to be more proactive in international softball.  Radigonda skipped ASA Gold Nationals to attend the European Cup, and meet with European officials about future engagements.  No word yet, although Porter put out a press release, citing his meetings, but staking no claims.

Softball needs a larger platform with major events every year, sanctioned by ISF.  In addition to ISF world championships, the KFC, Canada and Japan Cup, and Pan Am games.   Softball needs to be seen as a major sport – not just by the IOC but also by the national and international media.

Europe is a key to that larger perspective, Radigonda said, hopefully fielding teams from France, Germany, Spain, Italy and other countries, in addition to Great Britain.  Greater participation is also needed from China, Chinese Taipei, New Zealand and other Asian countries, he added.

There is also need for improved coordination, so as to avoid the problems in 2010 when ISF moved the XII World Championship from Oklahoma City to Caracas, disrupting the KFC and Canada Cup tournaments.  Radigonda noted that the USA is already in discussions with Canada Cup on dates which allow international teams to transit from one tournament to the other in an encapsulated time frame.  Parallel decisions by Porter resulted in many of the top 18U USA players competing in Bogota (successfully) while their travel ball teams were playing Gold, or more prominently, the ESPN Rise Premier tournament the following week, in August.

Not the least of the considerations in this forecasting the possible is the reality that the USA has just three votes on the International Olympic Committee – a third vote in the athlete category was added after the Vancouver games – but contributes 60% of the hard revenues.  Europe holds 53 of the 115 IOC seats. 

Funding Issues

The key to an expanded international program is resources – money.  Radigonda does not now have the resources needed to support US participation in such an enlarged program; indeed, the funding for the basic 2011 events – KFC Cup, Pan Am Games, Japan Cup, and Canada Cup – has not yet been acquired.  Moreover, ASA expects minimal funding in 2011 for the Pan Am games from USOC, which itself has funding problems.

Radigonda talks wistfully about how soccer is funded; a dollar from every player at every age goes into the national fund.  In softball, those funds are substantially retained at the local level.  In fact, the ASA Council does not appropriate funds for the national program.

By contrast, sports in most other developed countries are funded by national sports ministries, using government funds.  An open question is how much ministries in countries which have been Olympic competitors in softball will allocate – now that softball has been dropped from the Olympic program for 2012 and 2016.  USOC relies on corporate sponsors plus its myriad fund-raising programs. The French, uniquely, have a separate national lottery to support their sports teams.

Barring unlikely government funding and unexpected largesse from USOC (ISF receives about $8 million annually from IOC but does not fund national teams), how does ASA raise the funds needed for 2011?  Radigonda noted that USOC will provide funding for the USA national team which competes in the 2011 Pan Am games.  He hopes the bulk of funds can be raised from corporate sponsors like KFC.  We both recalled the halcyon days when Coca Cola and IGA provided substantial corporate funds, but, as Radigonda noted, so-called national teams for many years were actually independents like Raybestos Brakettes who won national tournaments and competed internationally under the US flag, often at their own expense. 

ASA President Dooley told SPY in a separate conversation ASA will consider legislation which would apportion some part of fees paid locally to the national program, which is de rigeur in many sports.  This year, the ASA Board made additional funds available.  Persuading those ASA Commissioners to part with lucre, much of it generated by slow pitch leagues, is figuratively like wrestling with grizzlies.

Remembering the Raybestos involvement, SPY suggested some of these resource problems could be addressed using the Japanese model.  In games at HofF when Japan is playing, the athletes’ bios on the big screen identify the companies who employ these players – Toyota, Mitsubishi, Hitachi, Sony et al.  The players are actual employees of these companies – and more than a dozen American players who have gone to Japan follow this procedure – becoming employees of the companies.  While individual players like Finch, Osterman and Watley, and before them Lisa Fernandez, Michele Smith and others, were paid for endorsements of products, for personal appearances, not every player has such contracts, and the costs of national teams are borne by USOC, USA Softball etc.  The only money some players earn is from NPF, clinics, etc., hardly a living wage for those who have finished college.

Unfortunately, the influx of USOC funds after softball was elected an Olympic sport well before Atlanta was sufficient, and there seemed to be minimized interest in big dollar sponsors.  Now, ASA needs them.

Corporate sponsors have to be developed, and Radigond says ASA is always looking for such opportunities, but an actual plan with immediate targets apparently does not exist.  USOC has just added BMW as a major sponsor, but the implications for softball, if any, are not yet known.

One key to fund raising, Radigonda said, is heightened public awareness, especially through the media – which has reduced softball coverage in many key markets, both as an effect of the economic downturn and the closing of many newspapers.  While ESPN is a vital cog in any expansion or awareness-raising campaign, Radigonda said ASA has to make greater use of all electronic media.  He noted that ASA has 26,000 “friends” on its Facebook;.  “We have to reach the non-softball fan on ESPN and other media and make them fans of softball,” Radigonda said.

We need more stars with public appeal like Jennie Finch, whom Radigonda called a “rock star” – “a superb athlete, beautiful woman, a mother, a role model on and off the field.” He noted that the Jennie Finch retirement story published by the Associated Press was picked up by 600 AP members.  He called Finch a “gold medal winner in softball and in life, a player who respects the game.” (SPY has had nearly 30,000 hits in 20 countries during the month).  Finch became the public face of softball, Radigonda said, just as Lisa Fernandez and Dot Richardson were in their day, and no other national player has quite that same level of appeal – yet.  He said Jessica Mendoza is building a national reputation on and off the field, and is an articulate spokeswoman for softball and sports.

Bottom line: ASA knows what is needed – a better business plan with corporate sponsorship, more playing opportunities on the world stage especially in Europe, heightened public awareness and support in the USA through more intense focus on and support by the media.

Radigonda acknowledges these goals won’t be reached overnight, but there are balls in play.  Eg, he and ASA president Andy Dooley travelled to Amsterdam in August for the European club championship.  National teams and club teams from about 20 countries compete in alternate years.  Radigonda hopes to enlist European sports authorities in holding an international championship.

A Model for Softball?

SPY is intrigued by the steps being taken by the US Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) – as reported recently by the Wall Street Journal — and suggests ASA closely monitor their success.  The key decision was to hire a veteran marketing executive, Andrew Judelson from the NHL, as chief revenue officer.

Like softball, USSA found its funding a three-part package – sponsors for individual stars like Lindsey Vonn, Bode Miller, Shaun White, Julie Mancuso et al; and, funds from USOC linked to the four-year Olympic cycle; and corporate sponsors.  But, USOC funding is tenuous, despite the addition of BMW as a major sponsor, and, corporate sponsorship has declined in eight years from $13.3 million for the 2002 Games to $7.3 million. Sponsorships accounted for 56% of USSA revenue in 2002, and is down to 28%, despite the great success of USA athletes at the Vancouver games.  The downside of relying on the Olympics to attract sponsors, Judelson said, is that it comes only once every four years.

More, sponsorship investments take years to pay off; “stars like the Millers and Vonns were identified as 12-year olds.” Current USSA sponsors include Sprint Nextel, Visa, Volkswagen, Charles Schwab, Anheuser-Busch Imbev, and Delta.  But, as Judelson noted, USSA lacks sponsors in key categories enjoyed by other sports – fast-food restaurants, carbonated soft drinks, express delivery services, and an energy drink (although Red Bull sponsors Vonn).

One of Judelson’s NHL innovations was to sell hockey’s all-star game.

He is convinced that stars like Vonn, White, and other stars can be perennial celebrities, rather than quadrennial stars.  He is bringing more attention to this winter’s World Cup and World Championship events; a World Championship will be held in the USA this year for the first time since 2003. (ISF took the softball world championship away from the US in 2010.)   In the age of the Internet, Judelson told the Wall Street Journal, there is no reason that American skiing and snowboarding fans shouldn’t know about and follow World Cup events in Europe, where most of the competition occurs.  Social-media sites should be used to promote these events.  (ASA has many friends on its Facebook but its usage as a marketing tool is not known to SPY.)

Sports marketer John Ivey says USSA should increase its visibility to the 16 million Americans who participate in skiing and snowboarding – and reach out to the vast audience of TV viewers and Internet users who do not regularly follow those sports.

There are many sports marketing experts in the United States.  ASA and NPF should reach out to such people.  As Will Rogers once said, “If the only voice you hear is your own, you ain’t learning nothing.”

The Changing Scene

We both lamented the virtual passing of 23U – which ASA never supported financially – and the decline in support of women’s majors, which is a mere shadow of its once-large profile – paralleled by the diminishing ranks of NPF teams.  Many current players have told SPY they would play pro ball, if there were enough teams and they got a decent compensation. 

There are eight cities which once had NPF teams, but no more.  Down to four teams, NPF has long been in need of a credible business plan.  This year NPF teams are playing outside their home cities, which should enlist more support if the media coverage is there – which it wasn’t for the former Washington Pride.  If Jennie Finch does retire completely from professional softball, and the indication is that the NPF Championship this coming weekend in Sulphur, LA, will be her final star turn as a professional, attendance in the NPF could dwindle further. Does NPF leadership have the financial acumen to create and sustain an expansion plan?  Their track record is not encouraging.

Moreover, there is obvious competition for players – and playing time – between national teams and NPF.  “There’s too much activity being crammed into a narrow window – the summer – travel ball, NPF, national teams.” While Radigonda obviously believes players should accord the highest priority to playing on national teams – and many players tell SPY they regard playing for their country a special privilege – there is also the need for players to earn a living – while they are in college on scholarships and post college.  They can’t play pro ball while still in college, but amateur teams have to be able to absorb costs.  Pro teams of course must offer a competitive compensation – which national teams this year could not.

Provenance only goes so far, and isn’t cashable at the Safeway.

Travel Ball

ASA has enjoyed a virtual monopoly on travel ball administrative decisions – despite making little or no monetary investment.  ASA is and always has been dominated by commissioners whose antecedents are in adult slow pitch, but they adopted the codes and playing rules which governed travel ball, and they organized and controlled the national championships for girls just as they have always done for adult softball.

Just as ASA/USA is confronted by financial and jurisdictional problems with regard to its national program, ASA is being challenged successfully in travel ball.  The political relationships surrounding travel ball have soured, much like the fraying cord linking ASA to ISF. Many of the best former Gold teams chose this year not to play ASA but to compete in ESPN Rise Premier.  It is not at all certain that all of those teams will return to ASA – indeed, whether winning an ASA sanctioned tournament has the same cachet it held in the past.

A number of large independent tournaments are being assembled which offer a high level of competition and satisfaction of success while maximizing exposure to college coaches.

Doubtless many in ASA would find the prospect appalling, but a case can be made that girls fastpitch softball may soon be festooned with multiple championships, not unlike the BCS and Associated Press championships in football.  An underlying question is whether ASA is ready to make the changes which are needed to accommodate an enlarged playing field.

 There is an ancient saying mene, mene tekel upharsin, the Biblical handwriting on the wall.  The ASA Council meeting this winter will tell the softball world which direction ASA is heading.

Pitching

Highschools will begin pitching at 43 feet this fall, and SPY has spoken to several officials urging them to seize the opportunity to improve pitching for 12-14 year old players – not just to resolve the problem of illegal pitches but to correct what many college coaches consider urgent parallel problems – over-pitching and poor mechanics.

SPY urged ASA to reinstate the national clinics which were once held at Hall of Fame – for players and coaches – with instructors drawn from the ranks of the better coaches at all level – national teams, college, highschools and travel ball.  Radigonda likes to describe the softball world as circular – beginning with ASA at the youngest level, through highschool, college, pro teams and back to ASA through national teams.  More, he recognizes a need for closer collaboration among ASA, the HS Federation and NCAA.  He agrees with most critics that the problem with illegal pitches is not the rule but the lack of consistent enforcement.

But, whereas SPY urges a program targeting players and coaches, Radigonda believes the changes needed will be effected through umpires, and he spoke highly of ASA training programs for umpires.  Radigonda reasons that, if a pitcher is called enough times by umpires, she will change her style.  SPY countered that years of umpire training have yet to generate consistent rule enforcement.

Radigonda does not disagree totally on the need for improved programs for youth but as far as national programs like those of yore, the question is resources.  The former ASA program collapsed in the end because the top coaches stopped participating and ASA staff could not carry the program.  In its place, SPY argued, are literally hundreds of so-called clinics –as witness the humongous list just published in NFCA’a newspaper.  SPY believes and Radigonda agreed that the quality of instructionin these clinics varies widely, and the financial burden falls on the parent.  Moreover, several such are designed just for making money.  At the same time, many of these programs add to the amount of time young players are pitching, hitting and fielding, in addition to their travel ball and highschool commitments – without appreciable benefit from the so-called training.

SPY continues to believe a national training program is needed.  (One drawback: some of our top pitchers have radically different styles; players need to be guided in the development of a style suited to their talents.)

Conceivably, SPY said such a program could be residential and be staged at the Olympic training center in Chula Vista. However, while Radigonda concurred that CV would be ideal for such a program, he observed there was already intense competition for the CV facilities.  While softball paid for its fields, there are limits on use of the residences at CV which are at full capacity every day, servicing all Olympic sports – and Radigonda worries that, with out the Olympic primatur, the USA Softball Program is not in as strong a bargaining position.  Ideally, more residences could be built, which took the dialogue straight back to the resource problem.  He said ASA/USA has to budget $500 per person, or $36,000 for 50 athletes and support staff.

On that note, Radigonda said ASA had hoped to sponsor a pitching camp this year but didn’t have the resources.  ASA staff are not the answer he said; they are already running 30 events a year.

Certainly, the interest is there on the part of prospective pitchers.  Jennie Finch’s camps draw upwards of 300 players.  Some one needs to take this ball and run with it!

Other Issues

Radigonda observed that club sports in general are on the decline, in part in his opinion because of declining media coverage.  Sponsors will pull away; if there is no advertising there is no revenue, and no reporting.  More, many news outlets have gone out of business, and too many sports markets have just one newspaper and one TV station.

On another topic, SPY commented on the financial problems of football players who, despite huge salaries, are often bankrupt a year of two after retiring.  Joe Gibbs came back to conduct a financial counseling session for the Redskins.  The NFL says 87% of pro players have financial problems, and 70 percent are bankrupt after two years.  One problem, Radigonda says, is the huge amounts of up-front money demanded by agents, which leads to excessive spending by young athletes who have never had much money.

Asked about the recent announcement by an NCAA legislative committee to ban early verbals, Radigonda thinks there is too much emphasis on recruiting players at ever younger ages – but, like many other sports managers, he predicts new legislation will be as difficult to enforce as current rules. 

On a parallel issue, Radigonda says there is too much pressure to win at all costs, which he says contributes along with packed, year-round schedules to athlete burnout.  He would like to see more emphasis in clinics at all levels on skill development, then on learning how to win.  In particular, he cited the problem in softball of girls as young as 8 playing up; there should be a return to structured rising through the playing levels.  (Ed note: an umpire at KFC told of a call from parent wanting to place a daughter, age 8, on a premier team; the daughter allegedly can throw 60 mph.)

Conclusion: Learning to live without the Olympics

As said up above, Radigonda knows what is needed – a broader international program, increased funding at local, national and international levels, increased European national and international participation, enhanced media focus locally, nationally and abroad, expanded and improved training, etc.  ASA does not have a detailed blueprint for achieving all of these goals, but it is taking several small steps like the trip to Amsterdam.

Radigonda is making do with the tools at hand.  But, all of his known solutions are ASA-rooted decisions – just as all of Porter’s thinking is through an ISF prism.  Are they the best people to lead softball through a hoped-for expansion phase?  Despite enlisting more than 15 nations to host ISF events, SPY said after Berlin that Porter should resign; he’s done many good things, but it’s time to pass the mantle. Porter’s scheduling of key events in Caracas and Bogota, where teams were confined to their hotels, not only denied a cultural experience for players, but diminished media coverage.  Porter is not only a risk taker, but he missed opportunities to grow the sport in the public eye. SPY regrets the poor communication between ISF and ASA.  New leadership at ISF could repair the damage. 

SPY also regrets the conflict between many long-time Gold coaches and ASA; more openness on both sides might have made solved the problems short of the Premier.  I do think Radigonda is the right person for ASA; younger and more personable than Porter, Radigonda knows what needs to be done, not just stronger links to IOC, ISF, NCAA, NHSF, and NPF, but a more forceful confrontation with ASA’s commissioners; the game has passed by many of them.  Radigonda’s strength is sports management.  The question is whether he can mount a successful financial management program – and the thinking here is that he and ASA need professional help in that regard.  So does NPF.

SPY thinks softball needs people thinking outside those boxes – people of influence and means who are not necessarily softball lifers, but advocates for youth sports.

Bobby Kennedy was fond of paraphrasing G.B. Shaw: “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

rfh

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