USA Softball faces precarious future
OKLAHOMA CITY -- With the world championships approaching, Jay Miller gathered his U.S. national softball team for two days of practice and then headed off to another continent to play.
Gone are the days of a long national tour to prepare for the competition. With the sport being dropped from the Olympics for at least the rest of the decade, there's a new, sobering reality for USA Softball.
Losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in support from the U.S. Olympic Committee means a limited travel schedule, less time to practice and no stipends that would allow players to give up everyday jobs.
"The biggest thing it hits is funding for the players," said Miller, in his second year as the U.S. head coach. "In the past, our Olympic years especially, kids could make a pretty good living playing for the national team, where now they can't."
The Americans arrived in Oklahoma City this week for the fifth annual World Cup of Softball and the first since the IOC finalized its decision to keep softball off the program for the 2016 Olympics. It also won't be played in London in 2012.
Only three countries will be represented at this year's World Cup, the fewest yet, as other nations wouldn't pay for their teams to make the trip.
Instead of the tournament being played as a warm-up for the world championships -- now the sport's premier event -- the World Cup is taking place three weeks afterward. A major tournament in Canada was also canceled, although the U.S. went ahead with a four-game exhibition series against the Canadians.
Ron Radigonda, the executive director of the Amateur Softball Association that runs USA Softball, said he's already trying to coordinate next year's schedule for the Canada Cup and World Cup so teams from other continents can play both tournaments during a single trip to North America. For 2012, he hopes the World Cup and Canada Cup can be played just before the world championships in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.
Those kind of decisions are more critical now that money is tight.
The softball team used to receive big payouts from the USOC each year, in part because it was a regular favorite to win gold.
"We're at zero," Radigonda said. "We basically were not granted any funding from the USOC, so we went to zero. In non-Olympic years, we were at mid-six figures and in Olympic years we were much greater than that."
As a result, Radigonda said the plan now is for the U.S. team to condense its activities into a span of about two months each summer, between June and early August. In 2008, the team went on a 42-city tour starting in February and players were essentially wrapped up in team activities through the Olympics in August.
There's no way the association can afford to pay players for that long now.
"It's sad but it's true," two-time Olympian Natasha Watley said. "These women on this team, we have lives, we have to make a living. We have to pay rent and eat, and so I think that's a big part of it.
"The money isn't there and it's not as easy to stick around with it not being an Olympic sport," she said.
Radigonda said he has also started talking to other countries about the possibility of creating a world softball tour, which he believes may be marketable to sponsors seeking exposure in other countries and potentially attractive to television.
The bottom line, though, is that the sport is most viable on an international level if it is part of the Olympics.
"You can't underscore enough how important that Olympic platform is because people understand that," Radigonda said. "The softball fans, they'll find us. I don't care if we're playing at 2 in the morning, they're going to figure out where we're at and they'll watch the game.
"What you need to have, though, is that Olympic program. It brings it just to the next level," he said.
At this point, there's no telling when -- or even if -- the sport will get back in. It was initially added in 1996, and the U.S. won the first three gold medals before losing to Japan in the 2008 gold-medal game.
The next possibility would be in 2020, the first Olympics that would be organized after the end of current IOC president Jacques Rogge's term runs out in 2013.
"I don't think that there's any way we're going to get back in until the IOC and international leadership changes, but that's going to change eventually," Miller said. "When we get a new IOC president who might be more favorable to softball, I think we have an opportunity then."
In the meantime, softball players are left to decide whether softball is a sacrifice they can make. Some are able to make a living playing in professional leagues in the U.S., including the four-team National Pro Fastpitch and the touring Pro Fastpitch X-treme, and in Japan. That's not the case with Team USA.
"It's not about the money," said Megan Langenfeld, who won the NCAA title with UCLA last month. "Being a female athlete, that's part of it. You could almost go across every sport. The women don't get paid as much as men do. So, it's definitely about the sport and your love for the game.
"You can't play this sport without having a love for it," she said.
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press
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