Inside Events: USA Softball
8 Mar, 2017By: Mary Helen Sprecher
An Interview with John Miller, Director of Membership Services
USA Softball, formerly the Amateur Softball Association (ASA)/USA Softball, is the national governing body for softball in this country. It is a volunteer driven, not-for-profit organization based in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. After being founded in 1933, it has evolved into the strongest softball organization in the country. USA Softball’s mission includes regulating competition to insure fairness and equal opportunity to the millions of player who annually play the sport. The organization sanctions competition in every state through a network of 70 local associations. USA Softball has grown from a few hundred teams in the early days to over 160,000 teams today, representing a membership of more than four million.
As the NGB for the sport, USA Softball takes great pride in being the leader in the industry to protect the integrity of the sport. Each year, USA Softball's Equipment Testing and Certification Committee examines the current rules and specifications governing various items of equipment.
Sports Destination Management: Softball is obviously a popular sport in the country. From your website, we see USA Softball registers over 160,000 softball teams comprising over 2.4 million players and annually registers over 80,000 youth girls' fast pitch softball teams comprising over 1.2 million girls. Does this number fluctuate annually, or has it been fairly steady?
John Miller: The state of softball continues to be strong both at the national and international level. With the added exposure of softball returning to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, the future is bright for our sport and USA Softball will continue to provide opportunities for people to be involved in our great game at all levels.
SDM: Is there one age level where there seems to be the most growth?
Miller: Over the years, we have seen an increase in youth participation, with more and more athletes participating at the collegiate level as there are opportunities to continue to play with the possibility of a college scholarship. Softball is a fun and competitive sport at all levels, so adults tend to stay in the game well after their collegiate or youth careers are over.
SDM: Conversely, is there an area where you’d like to see growth?
Miller: From the athletes who play the game, the coaches who devote their time into educating their teams, and the umpires who officiate and continue their training to be the best they can be, we aspire to grow and continue the work of growing those numbers across the board. As the National Governing Body of Softball in the United States, USA Softball will continue to provide opportunities for people of all ages and all levels to be involved in the game we love. Whether as a coach, umpire, player or fan, we’ve made it a mission to bring softball to the forefront of people’s minds.
SDM: Does USA Softball have any initiatives to grow participation?
Miller: USA Softball will continue to build upon our sport by working with different groups here in the United States and globally. Our network of 70 local associations across the U.S. also continue to be the driving force behind our membership as they promote and grow the game at the grassroots level. We’re also entering into our second year of our PLAY BALL partnership with Major League Baseball and USA Baseball. This is initiative encourages widespread participation in all forms of softball and baseball activities among all age groups, especially the youth level. One particular aspect of this partnership is our role in helping the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, which provides opportunities to young men and women to receive free, year-round baseball and softball instruction, as well as other educational services through MLB Youth Academies.
SDM: Softball and baseball will be back in the Olympics this year. Do you see that as a way to raise awareness and grow participation in the sport?
Miller: Softball has always had steady participation numbers, but now with the Olympic Games platform available, more people want to be involved with the game. We’ve always had a great following, but when you’re able to put a sport back on such a large platform, it provides additional exposure and opportunities for athletes, coaches and umpires to get involved in the game.
SDM: Softball has been in the Olympics before, so you have had the experience of seeing the effect of its inclusion. Do you think having softball as an Olympic sport is beneficial at any one specific age group (such as in youth play, because kids are more inspired by a national team)?
Miller: We’ve been fortunate to have great role models on our national team who continue to inspire and foster the passion of the game for softball athletes across the globe. With the added exposure of the Olympic Games, and the platform that it provides to our sport, our national team athletes can now have even more opportunities to foster the love of the game to the next generation of players.
SDM: Do you think more colleges will be inspired to field teams, or to offer athletic scholarships in softball as a result of the Olympics?
Miller: At USA Softball, our focus and goal is to continue to provide as many opportunities for athletes to play the game through our grassroots programs across the United States. Whether an athlete is playing to have fun or has aspirations for a collegiate scholarship, we will continue to provide quality grassroots programs and promote the sport to continue maximum participation and performance.
SDM: USA Softball sanctions over 100 national tournaments per year. Are those tournaments organized at the national, regional or local level?
Miller: USA Softball holds over 100 National Championships a year in all divisions of play, while our network of 70 Local Associations also provide thousands of year-round tournaments and league play. Whether you’re age 8, or age 80, USA Softball caters to all ages, male or female, recreationally or competitively.
SDM: For tournaments at the national level, what is USA Softball looking for when it comes to deciding upon locations for these events? For example, sometimes organizations are seeking a combination of facilities (they need a certain number and quality of facilities with a specific amount of spectator space), hotel space, airport access, etc.
Miller; Each year at our Annual Meeting, USA Softball Council Members from across the U.S. vote on code/rule changes and award cities with National Championships, which are highly coveted annual events. There are a number of factors that go into the awarding of a city, from playing facilities, number of fields and the support at the Local Association level from the community or CVB are just a few. One thing we encourage to all cities who wish to bid on a National Championship is for them to form a relationship with their respective local association. Our partnerships really begin at the local level.
SDM: What is the economic impact of a national tournament on the local economy of a hosting community?
Miller: Each summer, hundreds of teams all over the country culminate their season at a USA Softball National Championship. While economic impact can vary, our “Big Seven” Junior Olympic (JO) National Championships (10U, 12U, 14U, 16U, 18U, 16 GOLD and 18 GOLD) are the pinnacle of youth Championship Play and are highly coveted events. A National Championship that brings around 80 teams from out of town equates to about 5,000 visitors to a city. Once you figure in hotel rooms, shopping, dining and entertainment away from the field, the economic impact can bring in upwards of $3 million.
SDM: The ACE Coach Certification Program is obviously a success. How many coaches have gone through the program to date?
Miller: Annually, we have just under 30,000 coaches who participate in our ACE (Aspire, Challenge, Encourage) Coach Education Program.
SDM: When was the ACE program established?
Miller: The program originally began in 1982 as the VIP Coaches Education Program with an annual total of about 10,000 coaches. The program later renamed to the ACE (Achieve, Certify, Educate) Coaching Certification program, and became available online for coaches to take the course and test on any computer with internet access. In 2016, we changed it back to an educational program to allow for more flexible education and training materials and instructions, so it is now referred to as the ACE (Aspire, Challenge, Encourage) Coach Education Program.
SDM: What made USA Softball decide to establish the program? As the National Governing Body of Softball in the United States, it is USA Softball’s responsibility to ensure that coaches achieve a certain level of understanding of what their duties are as coach of a youth softball team. The ACE Coach Education Program is just one of the ways that USA Softball continues to promote and further the game of softball while making the experience better for coaches, players and parents by training and equipping coaches with the skills and information they will need to handle any situation in coaching. Whether you are beginning your career as a coach, are a parent volunteer or an experienced coach, this program is designed for all levels.
SDM: Another excellent program is the Umpire in Chief – how long has USA Softball been offering this?
Miller: A Umpire-in-Chief (UIC) is not really a program; it’s a position within a Local Association. The UIC on a local basis began at the founding of ASA, now USA Softball, starting in 1934. The umpire program was not that well organized on a Regional or National level until 1977 when the Regional UIC program was started. Until then they mostly stayed with their Local Associations, not within their respective Regions. Once the Regional UIC staff came into play, it became more organized and more nationally-based. This was a result of the UIC Clinic that started in 1973. It stared as Local Association UICs only, moved to UICs and Staff, and now today anyone is welcome to the UIC Clinic that wants to learn and become a teacher in our organization.
SDM: What was its incentive to start the program?
The incentive was for multiple reasons. At the time it was determined that we could grow umpire membership if we made the umpire program to more of a national program than just a local program. It was also to expand the program nationally, which would lead to a training program that was more consistent around the country. It led to the formal training and start of National Umpire Schools, National Camps and the expanded UIC Clinic. It started the organizing of the Local UICs and the region to work better together and not just have training on a national basis, but also on a regional basis.
SDM: Have you seen other organizations offer similar programs? It sounds like an excellent idea.
Miller: We do not see similar programs with other organizations when it comes to training, however, other organizations do have the UIC positions as part of their organization. As the National Governing Body, USA Softball is proud to provide the best available umpire training in any sports organization today.
SDM: USA Softball conducts background checks – obviously a beneficial program. When did it start offering that program?
Miller: The integrity of the game for our athletes, coaches, fans and umpires has always been a priority of USA Softball. We started implementing our background check policy in 2008, and have continued to be a leader in our background check policies.
SDM: USA Softball works with Special Olympics by having volunteer umpires and by donating score books. How long has that partnership been in effect?
Miller: We have a fantastic and long-standing relationship with Special Olympics, especially on the invitational tournament level. This relationship started in 2006 with a National Invitational Tournament in Ames, Iowa. The Special Olympics asked that all the umpires be registered as USA Softball umpires and they picked the umpires for that event from that list. Approximately four years ago, it became a little more formal with USA Softball providing a list of umpires for the National Invitational Tournaments. Our umpires that participate in these events come away with a very rewarding experience and always want to go back and umpire again. We’ve donated books to the Special Olympics program for many years, and the USA Softball Special Programs Committee annually conducts fundraisers and other events to help support this relationship.