A Spy editorial
PETITION TO USOC
As a professional news organization accredited by the IOC, USOC, ISF and ASA, Spy Softball petitions USOC to consider several issues attendant upon a central question: should ASA continue as the USOC-designated national governing body?
The question is timely.
The nominal leaders of the world of fastpitch softball will soon change, and the global nexus may change within a week.
The September 8 decision by the IOC Executive Board on the program for the 2020 Olympics will have wide-ranging implications at all levels of the sport. The IOC will elect a new president this fall, with a German the likely choice. Presumably, the executive director of ISF, Don Porter, will retire after the IOC Executive Board votes on the program for the 2020 Olympiad, regardless of the outcome. (Wrestling is the odds-on favorite among the nominees; there are no USA officials on the Executive Board and anti-American sentiment among Europeans is ramping up in anticipation of a US-led military strike against Syria.). The executive director of ASA/USA Softball, Ron Radigonda, retires in October, and his successor Craig Cress has been chosen. Not least, on September 7, the Executive Board will select a host city for 2020. The candidates are Madrid,Tokyo and Istanbul. Sports requiring a new stadium could have cost consequences for the host city.
The portent of these changes for fastpitch softball can only be speculated. But, surely, the relevant authorities have made contingency plans on how they envision going forward.
Thus, it is an opportune time for USOC to revisit the decades-old decision to name ASA the governing body of softball. Fastpitch softball in particular is a very different sport today than it was when USOC decided to award such sweeping authority to what was then and still remains an organization whose deepest roots are in men and women’s slow pitch softball.
Certainly, the IOC vote will have major implications for ISF and ASA/USA Softball – whatever the outcome – on both the scope of their international programs and the funding to support them.
It is not too soon to inquire about what contingency plans have been made. The USOC has a vested interest in knowing the plans of these organizations post the IOC decision on 2020 venues – not just funding but structuring the forward program.
Moreover, parallel to this inquiry about the future, USOC, as the controlling body, should examine ASA’s discharge of its obligations as the USOC-designated national governing body of softball. USOC should consult a diverse array of organizations, not just ASA.
USOC should convene a hearing in which representatives of the major organizations in girls and women’s fastpitch can not only provide their recommended guidance for the future of the sport but provide an answer to the penultimate question: should ASA continue as the national governing body of softball. At minimum, USOC should hear presentations by ISF, ASA, NFCA, Premier Girls Fastpitch, USSSA.and NPF.
Should the Executive Board approve the joint baseball/softball bid, baseball people should be heard from, and answer questions such as the role of Major League Baseball, the construct of a single facility to house both sports, and how many teams would be qualified and how they would be chosen. The combined baseball/softball consortium has had many months to prepare answers to these and other critical questions. The answers should not be deferred to the Congress that the combined organization anticipates in 2014.
A parallel question for USOC: should the domestic and international governing body authority be vested in two separate organizations. And, should the governing authority for softball be divided into adult and youth entities.
Examine ASA’s conjoined mission statements which are appended to every press release:
The Amateur Softball Association, founded in 1933, is the National Governing Body of softball in the United States and a member of the United States Olympic Committee. The ASA has become one of the nation’s largest sports organizations and now sanctions competition in every state through a network of 76 local associations. The ASA has grown from a few hundred teams in the early days to over 200,000 teams today, representing a membership of more than three million
About USA Softball
USA Softball is the brand created, operated and owned by the ASA that links the USA Men’s, Women’s, Junior Boys’ and Junior Girls’ National Team programs together. USA Softball is responsible for training, equipping and promoting these four National Teams to compete in international and domestic competitions. The USA Softball Women’s National Team is one of only two women’s sports involved in the Olympic movement to capture three consecutive gold medals at the Olympic Games since 1996. The U.S. women have also won nine World Championship titles as well as claimed six World Cup of Softball titles.
Mission statements notwithstanding, ASA is not the monolithic organization it once was, certainly not with respect to girls/women’s fastpitch softball – at the domestic or international level. Granted, ASA manages a wide variety of softball programs, fastpitch and slow pitch, and awards more than a dozen national championships. The focus in this editorial is on girls/women’s fastpitch.
Domestic Fastpitch Softball
The public image of softball is a girl in pigtails playing fastpitch.
While ASA is the rulemaking body, and sponsors more than two dozen tournaments for men, women and youth, at its core, ASA is organizationally focused on slow pitch softball, which is the primary focus of its 90+ commissioners, the majority of whom in the past have been umpires, given those posts for life; there should be term limits. To the extent that ASA focuses on fastpitch, that supervision is only indirectly provided by its Junior Olympic commissioners and its Executive Council. Instead, it is vested in ASA headquarters staff, none of whom have any background in fastpitch, and the Women’s National Team Selection Committee, whose independence has long been forfeited to ASA staff.
The coaches/managers and players in youth fastpitch have little influence over ASA decisions.
Moreover, virtually all funding of youth fastpitch is underwritten by parents or travel ball organizations, with no real dollar input by ASA.
Over time, this ruling-from-above has resulted in an erosion of ASA influence over girls fastpitch, and most certainly over management of the sport, and particularly not at what is called the Gold or premium and senior levels.
Today, at least two other organizations also have national championships, and, sponsor competition at the 12-14-16-18 age levels. Indeed this past month the top youth teams in the country competed in the tournaments of Premier Girls Fastpitch, A number of these teams also competed in the multi-tiered competition sponsored by USSSA Pride. A few teams competed at both Premier and ASA. The divining mark is quality of competition. Perhaps ten of the 64 teams who competed ASA Gold would have been successful at Premier.
Other factors notwithstanding, the attraction PGF and Pride offer is the quality of the competition.
Another factor particularly with respect to PGF is that the organization is owned and controlled by travel ball coaches. USSSA is believed to involve more fastpitch players than ASA; its Pride team just won the NPF national championship.
While travel ball per se is not within the USOC purview, USOC must be sensitive to the fact that travel ball is the wellspring for all USA national teams. A case can be made that ASA stands in violation of the Olympic ideal of inclusion by its decision to limit participation in USA national teams to players who participate in ASA tournaments. At both the junior and senior levels, this decision has precluded many of the nation’s top players from trying out for USA teams. Moreover, players on NPF teams are considered by ASA to be ineligible for national teams, although the teams they meet in international competition include professional players.
Therefore, the USOC review should also embrace USA team selection procedures.
USOC should also evaluate the rule-making authority of ASA, which is vested in the Council. Although umpires have a defined organizational emphasis, no comparable grouping exists for travel ball. For several years, responsibility within ASA for travel ball has been vested in a junior ASA staffer, often with decisions made which do not reflect input from the travel ball community. When the Council votes each year on changes in code and playing rules, no travel ball people are on the floor, and few if any travel ball people see the proposed changes in advance. A few ASA Commissioners will share some information beforehand, but there is no systemic effort to consult with or listen to the people who play the game.
Given the diversity of travel ball and highschool organizations, it is difficult to project a single organization to manage code and playing rules. NFCA has more than 800 travel ball members, but pays them little heed. If ASA continues to have domestic softball jurisdiction, it should be vested with the clear understanding that ASA will create a stand-alone travel ball unit to oversee changes in code and playing rules, answerable to the ASA Director.
In keeping with Olympic ideals, ASA should be expressly forbidden to link ASA participation to national team selection procedures.
The Canadian Open Fastpitch organization tells Spy that more than 100,000 people attended its recent week-long event. Granted, this total includes many levels of play: international, women’s elite, and various junior levels. Still, the video images from the multi-team international division showed a full stadium. The empty seats at USA’s recent four-team World Cup were embarrassing. Similarly, the Canadian Open featured just six teams including a one-off team of USA college players.
Both events were hailed by ISF as demonstrations that softball is an international sport worthy of being included in the Olympics. ASA stripped its Hall of Fame Stadium of the bleachers, which were filled to capacity for the recent College World Series. Even the regular seats down the left and right field foul lines were mostly empty at the World Cup. By contrast, an estimated 1300 people filled the Manning Stadium at Bill Barber Park for the PGF Premiere-level championship. An estimated 1300 people attended the NPF championship, which was televised. An estimated 1300 people bought seats for the recent National Pro Fastpitch tournament.
There is support for fastpitch softball across the breadth of the United States. ASA doesn’t seem to know how to maximize it. Rather than stare at empty World Cup seats, ASA should have required each of its 90+ commissioners to attend, and filled the wings with young travel ball teams, even without paid admission. Empty seats would not impress the IOC.
True, baseball has drawn substantial audiences, but Spy doubts that even Lincoln could save this union between baseball and softball.
ISF should be asked what plans it has made for choosing a successor to Porter, as well as the program it proposes in lieu of an Olympic platform.
QUESTIONS USOC SHOULD ASK ALL RESPONDENTS
If softball is truly an internationally-supported sport, why were only four teams in the World Cup? To what extent were team finances a limiting factor in team participation at the World Cup or Canadian Open?
In previous years, the USA national team played exhibitions at numerous locations around the USA to build up support – which might result in larger audience attendance at major events..
At one time, the USA national team played teams from National Pro Fastpitch. Was ASA embarrassed by losses? ASA’s director of national teams reportedly made a virtually unanimous decision that players under contract to NPF could not play on the USA national team – which became a collage of college players competing against professionals from other countries.
Will the new ASA leadership continue his policies?
If finances were a limiting factor, how does the new ASA leadership propose to raise enough money for a full-fledged international program like those in the past? ASA commissioners have pointedly rejected calls to share their funds from registration, tournaments etc. Yet, a number of those commissioners have attended the Olympics and other events at ASA expense,
European club teams just concluded a well-attended championship. Why don’t more of those countries have national teams which play in the World Cup? A few, like Great Britain and Italy have played in previous Canada Cups.
Given that Europe has 53 members of the IOC, the USA has three (the USOC president is about to become the fourth), knowledgable observers have long promoted sending a US team to play selected European club teams to build ties and expand the sport. USOC should ask what plans, if any, the participants have for forging stronger links with Europe. What plans do you (all) have for generating more participation by European teams in international competition?
What promotional plans do you (all) have to increase the number of teams in the World Cup? The Canadian open? The ISF International Championship in 2012 featured 16 teams from five ISF regions; why aren’t more of these teams competing in the World Cup and Canadian Open?
What promotional plans do you (all) have to increase attendance at the World Cup? The ISF International Championship? The Canadian Open?
Are there plans to revive the ASA Women’s Majors? The ISF University games?
What steps would you recommend for inter-connecting NPF and USA Softball (or its successor)? Would you abolish the current USA Softball prohibition against NPF players being chosen for USA national teams? Would you consider a schedule for USA teams to compete against NPF teams?
What format should be used to select players for US national teams? How would you restructure the Women’s National Team Selection Committee? (In recent years, the WNTSC has become the handmaiden of the ASA director of national teams)
Should the USA team conduct a domestic tour to broaden support, playing college and NPF?
What plans do you have for generating funding? For youth softball? For national teams?
How do you account for the fact that the WCWS fills the ASA Hall of Fame stadium, even when Oklahoma is not playing, but the World Cup played to virtually an empty stadium except when Team USA played.?
USSSA has the resources to manage the international program, if split off from USA Softball. They should be asked about player selection, training, tours, competition events to enter, etc.
Finally, the rumor is that one of the three cities bidding for the 2020 Olympics would consider having a stand-alone softball and baseball tournament, parallel to the Olympics. Of the three, only Tokyo has the experience and infrastructure. Would USOC contribute funds to enter a USA team in such a tournament? Would ISF contribute? There is a precedent; China hosted a separate wushu tournament at the time of the Beijing Olympics.
USOC should designate a national governing body for international competition, and a separate governing body for domestic softball. By default, ASA is best positioned to continue governance of men and women’s slow pitch softball, but a new entity should be created for international competition. Spy believes the US international program would benefit greatly by having Arizona coach Mike Candrea being named commissioner for international competition. USA Softball could be restructured, but there are other organizations like USSSA which are structurally and financially capable of managing the USA international effort.
If it is to retain authority over domestic fastpitch, ASA governance should be restructured so that all the organizations have a voice in decisions, not just the Council or ASA Executive Board. If this does not occur, organizations like USSSA, Premier, Triple Crown will continue their stand-alone programs, without deference to ASA. Frankly, they no longer need ASA.
There should be agreement among the affected organizations on a uniform bat standard.
Spy believes that the governing authority for international softball should be taken away from USA Softball, regardless of the outcome of the IOC vote. SPY also believes that USA national teams should be permitted to scrimmage against college and professional teams. Spy also believes that umpires accredited by ASA should be allowed to serve games sponsored by other organizations.
In a few well-chosen words, where are we going?
Rayburn F Hesse