When you’re a sports destination, one of the greatest votes of confidence comes when an event owner signs a contract to bring an event to your community for multiple years. Thanks to a 20-year contract extension signed by the NCAA, Oklahoma City retains America’s ultimate softball championship—the Women’s College World Series—and the subject of every young softball player’s dreams. It’s a chance for softball to grow and flourish in a permanent home and an opportunity for Oklahoma City, a city that has already been wowing the sports world with its commitment and event expertise, to show how a united community effort can help a long-term event truly soar.
The new center of softball
As the final event in the NCAA Division I softball championship, the Women’s College World Series represents the ultimate dream for thousands of young softball players across America. Though many of softball’s athletes may not remember a time when the Women’s College World Series wasn’t in Oklahoma City, the event actually started in Omaha, which has a contract to host the College World Series for baseball until 2033. In 1998 and 1999, the event had a brief stint in Sunnyvale, California, before moving to Oklahoma City. The ultimate college softball championship event has remained in Oklahoma City since, except for a 1996 appearance in Columbus, Georgia, when Atlanta hosted the Olympics.
The event’s future in Oklahoma City had a fleeting moment of uncertainty in 2014, as the NCAA considered other potential options, but Oklahoma City had no intentions of letting the event go quietly. In characteristic OKC style, the city, its sports and tourism organizations and its citizens united to create an irresistible offer.
Spotlight on softball
Oklahoma City hosts the Women’s College World Series through a partnership with the NCAA, the city, and the OKC All Sports Association, one of America’s oldest sports commissions, with the support of the OKC Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau. The ASA Hall of Fame Stadium is the home of the event, and the venue has grown along with the popularity and success of the Women’s College World Series.
More than 25 years ago, when the Women’s College World Series first came to Oklahoma City, the ASA Hall of Fame Stadium had no locker rooms for teams and seated 2,000 people. Consistently sold-out games revealed the need to increase seating capacity, and Oklahoma City’s voters rose to the occasion and demonstrated their love for the event. Since 2000, Oklahoma City voters have voted two separate times to support bond issues that funded stadium renovations, the first taking grandstand capacity from 2,000 to 5,000, adding a field house and two practice fields, and putting up temporary outfield bleachers to increase seating to 8,000.
More renovations are underway, part of a $15 million project that is being funded partly through the second bond issue and potentially a third, as well as through private fundraising. Designs have already been completed, and the renovation will include team rooms behind the dugouts, construction of a second deck that will increase seating capacity to 12,000, and an expanded press box and media facilities.
Learning from the example of Omaha, which secured its 25-year contract with the NCAA to host the baseball College World Series after committing to build a $128 million facility for the event, Oklahoma City’s leaders knew that a coordinated effort and a big commitment would be required if they city wanted to keep the Women’s College World Series. And as always, OKC came through.
“When we first began working with the NCAA to bring this championship to OKC, the All Sports Association felt strongly that the one thing we could count on was that our community and state would value the event if we could secure it,” says Tim Brassfield, executive director, Oklahoma City All Sports Association. “That has happened at all levels, from the governors, mayors, city managers and the OKC Chamber offices out to all of the softball organizations and beyond. Our citizens understand the importance of a partnership with an organization like the NCAA.”
A Championship Experience
With ESPN televising every game in the Women’s College World Series, this championship event gives softball’s best players the exposure that they deserve, and the renovations to the ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, which will take place over the next 12 months, will ensure that the athletes’ experience is just as exceptional. Add to that the contributions of the city as a whole, and you’ve got the championship formula that the NCAA was seeking.
“We consider a number of factors when deciding on a championship host city, taking into account the overall student-athlete experience, membership resources, travel and logistics, the fan experience and other criteria,” said Sharon Cessna, NCAA director of championships and alliances. “When we looked at the enthusiasm, desire, operational commitment and the ability of Oklahoma City officials to host the NCAA Women’s College World Series, we decided that this was a good long-term partnership. The University of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma City All Sports Association and the Amateur Softball Association have done a great job hosting our softball championship.”
The country’s best softball coaches agree. At a news conference prior to the 2015 Women’s College World Series, Florida coach Tim Walton, whose team won the 2014 series and would go on to win 2015 as well, commented on the growth and success of the Women’s College World Series and Oklahoma City as softball’s championship destination.
“My first trip here was in 2008 and to see this much exposure, this much coverage, the expansion of the facility and ESPN’s coverage and all they do for our sport, I just really thank you,” said Coach Walton. “It’s a great opportunity. [Oklahoma City] is a great place to be, a great place to end your season, win or lose.”
Success is a team sport
Much like the ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, Oklahoma City itself has transformed in the last few decades, a makeover brought about through the cooperation, commitment and shared inspiration of everyone in the city.
In 1993, OKC voters approved a one cent sales tax increase that would fund several Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS). MAPS put into action a visionary plan for the city and raised the capital to put that vision into action. Over the next two decades, OKC upgraded sports, recreation, entertainment, cultural and convention facilities all across the city.
In 66 months, the city collected more than $309 million, which accrued an additional $54 million in interest to add to the MAPS projects’ funding. Projects included the revival of the downtown Bricktown district with the construction of a San Antonio Riverwalk-inspired canal throughout the neighborhood, as well as the 12,000-seat AT&T Bricktown Ballpark. The Civic Center Music Hall received a complete renovation through MAPS, and the Cox Convention Center got a 100,000 square-foot addition. The MAPS project funded construction of the 20,000-seat Chesapeake Energy Arena, home of the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the soon-to-open whitewater rafting center, RIVERSPORT Rapids.
“Every event that OKC hosts is the compilation of many people’s work. When given the awesome responsibility to host such a great NCAA Women’s College World Series year after year, the partners come to rely on each other and when they do that, it results in excellence,” says Sue Hollenbeck, director of sports business development. “We don’t ever want to take our relationships with the NCAA (or other entities) or our relationships with each other for granted. Working together will always achieve more than working alone.”
The moral of the OKC story is this: whatever is required to achieve phenomenal success, Oklahoma City will make it happen. That’s a bottom line that sports event owners value and count on, and it’s the secret that makes this heartland city a sports destination champion. Find out more about what OKC can bring to your next sports event at www.visitokc.com.