Friday, February 20, 2009

Why aren't women sports groups lobbying for a return of softball at the Olympics?
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February 20, 2:33 PM
by Evan Weiner, Business of Sports Examiner
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If the International Olympic Committee decides to bring baseball back to their two-week sports extravaganza in 2016, Dr. Harvey Schiller should get a lot of the credit for pressuring IOC members to reverse their decision to drop the sport once the Olympics flame was extinguished at the closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Games. Dr. Schiller met with the Tokyo, Japan 2016 bid committee this week after lobbying IOC members at the National Basketball Association’s All-Star Game in Phoenix last weekend.

Dr. Schiller has a lengthy resume with both in baseball and the Olympics. He was the Executive Director/Secretary General of the United States Olympic Committee, the President of TBS Sports, the Southeastern Conference Commissioner and the CEO of the YankeeNets group after the New York Yankees, New Jersey Nets and New Jersey Devils joined forces. He is presently the President of the International Baseball Federation. If anyone can persuade the IOC delegates that baseball should be played at the Olympics, it should be Dr. Harvey Schiller.

Baseball and the Olympics are not a good fit because of scheduling conflicts, which is one of the reasons that baseball was dropped after the Beijing Games. The Summer Olympics take place in the summer at the same time Major League Baseball is conducting its championship season. The IOC wants stars in all of its competitions and Major League Baseball will not interrupt its schedule and allow the top stars of the sport to play for national teams. American teams in past Olympics both as a “demonstration” and regular sport featured a lot of college kids and some minor leaguers on their rosters for the most part.

There was one other factor in cutting baseball.

Major League Baseball could not get the Major League Baseball Players Association to agree to the abide by the World Anti-Doping code. The IOC wanted baseball to get in line with their drug policies. It is widely believed because of these two issues, baseball and softball were eliminated from the Olympic roster beginning with the 2012 London Summer Games.

Major League Baseball would like an Olympic comeback in 2016, especially if Chicago lands the event. But there still is the scheduling problem. The National Hockey League has accommodated the Winter Olympics by shutting down the season and letting players compete for their national teams. The NHL wants to grow hockey globally and has used the Olympics as a marketing tool. The National Basketball Association jumped onto the Olympic bandwagon with its Dream Team in the 1992 Barcelona Games and has used the Olympics to grow the game globally.

Major League Baseball has set its sights on growing globally and would like to make inroads in China and on the African continent. Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association decided that an effective way to expand interest in the sport was by holding the World Baseball Classic, which started in 2006. The second World Baseball Classic will take place this spring but there are some problems with the format. The tourney takes place in what normally would be the early days of spring training, which means national teams cannot get top performances out of their pitchers. Additionally, American players didn’t seem all that enthralled with the concept in 2006.

But the real purpose of the World Baseball Classic is to introduce top-flight baseball into either non-baseball playing countries or developing/emerging baseball playing nations.

Dr. Schiller is pitching but the question is simple. Are IOC delegates listening?

Baseball has a big gun lobbying for them in Dr. Schiller but it appears that no one is taking up the case for softball.

The Olympics softball tournament is the pinnacle for women athletes who play the game. There really are no professional softball leagues in the United States or elsewhere that have high visibility or pay well and there is a theory that the IOC delegates for whatever their reasoning ended softball as a competition because the American women were just too good.

Were the American and other softball playing countries women caught in the crossfire between Major League Baseball and the IOC?

That is a good question because on the surface, few sports more deserving of getting a spot in the games than softball.

In 2005, the IOC decided neither baseball nor softball were a good fit for the Summer Olympics beyond 2008. Softball was ditched because as IOC President Jacques Rogge saw it, the sport lacked "universal appeal.” At last look, there 126 national federations that boasted softball teams which is more than baseball, hockey, sailing, rowing, triathlon or modern pentathlon.

In 2005, IOC delegates rated Olympic sports on its history, television ratings, spectator attendance, media interest, anti-doping policies, gender equity and global development. Softball failed to meet the Olympic-worthiness test.

By the 2000 Sydney, Australia Summer Olympics, there was a feeling that the two week, quadrienal event had gone too big. And in 2002, IOC delegates decided to cap Summer Olympics at 28 sports and 10,500 athletes and to conduct a review of the entire Olympic program.

There doesn’t seem to be an active campaign to get softball back into the Olympics picture. There is nothing much from the Women’s Sports Foundation, no major push from Major League Baseball or other softball playing federations.

Dr. Schiller is on a campaign to bring baseball back to the Olympics. There needs to be someone to fill that role for softball. Until that happens, there softball will be a dead Olympics sport.

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