Playing the Field: Softball's Diamond Destinations
3 Sep, 2019By: Michael Popke
In an attempt to beat the heat of south Texas, the United States Fastpitch Association pulled an all-nighter at the Ford Park Entertainment Complex in Beaumont, Texas, in early July. Nationals at Night featured select travel and all-star recreational youth teams, and competition ran from dusk to dawn.
“It was fun, it was different, and we embraced it,” says Claudio Oliveira, General Manager of Ford Park, a complex comprised of 12 championship-caliber youth softball/baseball fields with synthetic turf infields, LED lighting and covered seating. “We had conversations ahead of time with our employees who would be working overnight, and we cooperated with the city to ensure we were adhering to all ordinances and curfews. I’m curious if other facilities do this, as well.”
Nationals at Night, which Oliveira says likely will return to Ford Park in 2020, is a perfect example of how softball facilities are helping promote the game and engage participants and spectators in new and exciting ways.
The facility hosts more than 30 youth tournaments annually, including eight softball events sanctioned by such organizations as USFA and Stars Over Texas, and the fields also serve more than 50 local baseball and softball league teams. Over the summer, officials broke ground on a new concession stand that should be open by January.
“It will allow us to serve participants in a lot more timely and efficient manner, plus give them more options,” Oliveira says.
And when their appetites are satisfied, and the games are over, day or night, all players and fans can stay in any of the 2,700 hotel rooms in and around Beaumont.
What follows are details about seven more softball destinations that should be on event organizers’ lineup cards.
About nine hours northwest of Beaumont is Lubbock, Texas, known as the “Hub City” because it serves as the economic, educational and health-care hub of the state’s South Plains area.
Indeed, Lubbock has become a hub for visiting softball teams as well. The Thomas A. Martin Youth Sports Complex, named in memory of the man who was the biggest proponent of having it built, has the potential to house even the largest tournaments.
“We usually host between five and seven softball tournaments a year, ranging from 50 teams to 200 teams,” says Scott Harrison, Director of Sports for Lubbock Sports.
The 12-field complex has a press box and concession stands, features natural turf on all diamonds, is completely gated and is lighted for night play. Each field also boasts scoreboards and 250 seats shaded from the sun.
Lubbock recently hosted the United States Specialty Sports Association’s Goliath Youth Softball Tournament, which brought in 100 teams per weekend for two weeks.
The area also offers up additional fields at local high schools and colleges, should extra venues be needed. And those, says Harrison, “are some of the best around.”
When all innings have been played, there’s still plenty for teams to enjoy in this West Texas town, according to Kristie Caviness, Lubbock’s Director of Marketing and Communications. “We have several restaurants that accept large groups, as well as a downtown that is expanding with food and entertainment options,” she says.
Lubbock also offers museums and an Adventure Park with ziplining, ropes courses and bumper cars. Grown-ups can explore the area’s wineries and craft brewery scene. The convention and visitor’s bureau offers a wide range of services to event owners and rights holders, including welcome bags, on-site registration support, name badges and pre-registration assistance. There are 61 hotels at various price points, as well.
There’s no shortage of high-profile softball venues in Texas, and some of the newest ones can be found in Portland, located along the Corpus Christi Bay shore.
Both Municipal Park and the Portland Sports Complex opened in October 2017, a little later than expected, thanks to Hurricane Harvey slamming into the Texas coast a month and a half earlier and forcing the reinstallation of lights, fences, scoreboards and more. But the quick recovery by building crews prompted the Synthetic Turf Council to award Hellas Construction its 2018 Project of the Year award for the company’s work on both venues.
The Portland Sports Complex offers four softball fields that also are suitable for baseball and soccer, while Municipal Park (located about a mile away) has five baseball fields that also can host softball and soccer. They all feature synthetic turf, dugouts, lights, covered spectator seating and scoreboards.
“Every year, not only are we increasing the number of tournaments we host, but also the number of operators wanting to come here and bring in tournaments,” says Jonathan Besinaiz, Sports Director for the City of Portland.
The all-turf fields at both facilities have proven to be a boon, especially with softball, a sport in which the conversion from natural to synthetic playing surfaces has not been as quick as in baseball.
“The only thing that prevents teams from playing is a lightning strike,” Besinaiz says. “The drainage is almost instantaneous. Our fields do not flood.”
The park and complex have put Portland on the sports tourism map for softball. “It has gotten to the point where we’re really expanding, and softball is giving baseball a run for its money in terms of field of availability,” Besinaiz says.
Softball is swinging for the fences at the Hoover (Alabama) Met Complex, too.
“It’s an emerging sport for us,” says John Sparks, General Manager of the $85 million multi-purpose indoor/outdoor sports facility in Central Alabama, which is well on its way to becoming a national destination for youth sports and beyond. “Every week, we get questions about our available dates.”
In August 2018, five baseball/softball fields (four lighted synthetic turf and one natural grass), all with 400-foot outfields and the capability to convert to youth-size fields, opened adjacent to The Finley Center, a 150,000-square-foot indoor sports facility. Each field boasts a scoreboard and covered bleachers that hold up to 250 fans, plus 50-foot infield candles and 30-foot outfield candles.
Right now, baseball dominates the fields’ schedules, but Sparks says he would like to bring in some fall softball tournaments and is targeting colleges and universities for early spring training. Among the major softball events the Hoover Met Complex has hosted was a regional USSSA tournament in July with teams from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee.
The Hoover Met Complex also includes Hoover Met Stadium for baseball, outdoor multi-purpose fields and an RV park with 170 parking spaces equipped with water, sewage and power hookups. The Hoover area also boasts more than 5,000 hotel rooms within a 15-minute radius of the complex, and as many as four additional hotels — possibly including one on the complex’s property — could open within a year or so, Sparks says.
Columbia County, Florida
Located in north-central Florida, Columbia County is home to the Southside Recreation Complex in Lake City. Featuring 12 lighted grass softball fields (eight 200-foot fields for youth play and four 300-foot fields with skinned infields for adults), the facility offers covered seating, concessions, air-conditioned restrooms, and moveable mounds and bases. (There also are 13 baseball fields as part of the complex.)
The 146-acre, county-owned facility recently underwent $3 million in renovations, including surface improvements and upgraded drainage and water retention, according to Alden Rosner, Sports Marketing Director for the Columbia County Sports Commission.
“We can schedule softball year-round down here, except for late December and January,” he says, “when we get a little frost on the ground.”
The commission’s efforts are paying off. The Southside Sports Complex was awarded the Small Market Venue of the Year by the Florida Sports Foundation earlier in 2019. Last year, the venue hosted 41 events that attracted over 50,000 visitors to Lake City and Columbia County, generating an estimated economic impact of more than $8 million for the community.
The Southside Recreation Complex attracted its biggest tournament ever in June, when more than 90 teams competed in the 2019 Florida Babe Ruth Softball State Tournament. Rosner hopes Lake City becomes the permanent site for that event, and plans are underway to create an early-season college invitational tournament for NCAA Division II, NAIA and junior college teams.
“We try to be the best hosts we can,” Rosner adds.
Softball is so big in this Southern Arizona city that the sport has earned its own page on the Visit Yuma website.
Yuma is home to an assortment of natural grass venues that can accommodate slow- and fast-pitch events of all sizes, including many senior softball tournaments, at any time of the year. All facilities are centrally located near shopping centers, the Historic Downtown district and dining options.
The crown jewel in the city’s softball offerings is the Pacific Avenue Athletic Complex, which opened in 2017, sits at the edge of the Colorado River and offers six 325-foot lighted fields with raised seating surrounding each field, plus lawn seating at a championship field.
City officials built the facility after supply began to lag behind demand, according to Leslie McClendon, Group Sales Manager for Visit Yuma.
“A lot of the tournaments that are coming in are new to the area, because of this complex,” she says, adding that event planners previously had to scatter teams and games across multiple fields around the city. “The whole goal of the Pacific Avenue Athletic Complex was to be set up for tournament play.”
The spirit of the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics lives on in Columbus, Georgia, where the South Commons Softball Complex hosted the women’s fastpitch softball competition. The United States took gold that year, and the eight-field complex with a 2,500-seat stadium has become known as a “cathedral of softball,” according to Merri Sherman, Executive Director of the Columbus Georgia Sports Council.
“We definitely knew we were on to something when we committed to softball for the Olympics,” she says. “But I’m not sure we actually realized the full impact it would have. That’s really how the idea of sports tourism came about for Columbus.”
The grass-field venue recently underwent almost $5 million in renovations at the stadium and two adjacent fields, with improvements to the other five fields slated to begin this fall.
Events hosted at the complex include the Georgia High School Association State Softball Championships, the National Club Softball World Series and, in July, the USA Softball International Cup — featuring Team USA, as well as teams from Japan, China, Peru and other countries — when “every inch of the facility was packed,” Sherman says. “We’ve always hosted some type of USA Softball event and being involved with that organization and the Olympics played a big role in that happening.”
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
This fall, Oklahoma City hosts final selections for the USA Softball team going to the Olympics. Sue Hollenbeck, Director of Sports Business for Visit OKC, is looking forward to the October event almost as much as the players hoping for a spot on the roster.
“We’ve never hosted final selections before,” she notes. “It’s really fun to be a part of.”
It’s all a part of the continued evolution of softball facilities. As part of a 20-year agreement to host the NCAA Women’s College World Series, the city is making a $27 million investment into the USA Softball Hall of Fame Complex and Stadium. Renovations include the addition of 4,000 permanent seats (bringing the total number of permanent seats to 9,000 and 13,000 for WCWS), as well as upgrades and construction elsewhere.
And for those who want to bring in multi-team tournaments, Oklahoma City has even more ambitious plans.
“Our Oklahoma City Parks and Recreation Department has purchased an eight-field complex a little south of downtown,” says Hollenbeck, “and we’re going to be improving all those fields.” That complex will be completed in late spring of 2020, and will include a championship field, locker rooms, concessions and parking. Oklahoma City has more than 17,500 hotel rooms and more coming on board. Attractions and a vibrant downtown provide plenty to do after the final out. SDM
We’ve Got the Space … You Bring the Game!
With state-of-the-art facilities, great restaurants and a variety of accommodation options, St. Joseph, Missouri is the perfect setting for your next sporting event. Away from the action, you can enjoy the history of our city at one of our 13 unique museums. Add in great shopping, a historic home tour, casino fun and a friendly atmosphere and you have one trip your group is sure to enjoy.
In recent years, St. Joseph has experienced an explosion as a destination for sports events! Recent sporting event successes include the Kansas City Chiefs Summer Training Camp, NCAA Division II Women’s Elite Eight Basketball & Softball tournaments, Missouri State High School State Softball Championships and ASA Youth, Men’s and Women’s State and National Championships, just to mention a few.
Contact Lindsay Bernard at the St. Joseph Visitors Bureau, firstname.lastname@example.org or 800-785-0360, or visit StJoSports.com.
Come to the Southside!
The Southside Sports Complex, located in Lake City, Florida, is North Florida’s premier softball facility. Host to numerous USSSA youth and adult softball tournaments, as well as the Florida Babe Ruth Softball State Championships, the Southside Sports Complex features an eight-field girls’ softball complex with an additional four-field adult complex within walking distance.
All 12 fields are lighted and can accommodate small events or tournaments with more than 100 teams. Each field quad has its own concession stand and restroom area, making for a comfortable spectator experience. Coaches will be thrilled with the onsite batting cages and hitting areas. Tournament directors receive complimentary Wi-Fi and golf carts for their event.
Conveniently located at the intersection of interstates 10 and 75, within three miles of restaurants and lodging, the Southside Sports Complex is ready to make your softball event a success. Contact Alden Rosner at email@example.com for more information.