Baseball and softball join hands


Bob Fromer

The merger between the International Softball Federation (ISF) and the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) is just about a fait accompli.

At a Special Congress in Houston on 30 October, ISF member countries voted by 71%-26% to approve the creation of the International Confederation of Softball and Baseball (ICSB), a new International Federation for both sports where governance and revenue will be shared on a 50:50 basis.

Ratification by members of IBAF will come via a postal ballot to be held in November 2012 – but because the idea for the merger came from IBAF in the first place, and in particular from IBAF President Riccardo Fraccari, the outcome of the IBAF vote is in little doubt.

Below the ICSB, however, the ISF and IBAF will continue to function as the “operating entities” for their respective sports and receive fees from member federations; there will be no requirement for national federations to do anything other than carry on as normal.  In countries where baseball and softball federations are separate, as in the UK, there will be no pressure for them to combine.

So what is the ICSB all about?

The answer, as some of you will know, is that the ICSB represents a last and somewhat desperate attempt to get baseball and softball back in the Olympics – in 2020 at the earliest or possibly later on.  The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had agreed earlier this year to accept a joint bid from baseball and softball as male and female versions of the same sport, but there were apparently two conditions attached.  One was that the sports needed to merge at the International Federation level into a single governing body.  Because the IOC said “Jump”, the ISF and IBAF jumped and so the ICSB is about to come into being.

We'll get to the second condition supposedly required by the IOC a little later on.

For the ISF, of course, their endorsement of the ICSB and the principle of a joint Olympic bid represents what in British politics would be regarded as a gigantic U-turn.

After softball and baseball were thrown out of the Olympics at the IOC Congress in Singapore in 2005, the ISF's perception – probably accurate – was that baseball was the real target and softball got dumped because of the belief on the part of many IOC members that it was the female version of baseball.

Baseball had real problems that led to its Olympic dismissal.  Three of the main ones were that the top stars from Major League Baseball did not take part in the Olympics, drug issues in baseball at the time meant that the sport was not complying with the WADA Code and two expensive stadiums needed to be built to run an Olympic baseball tournament (at least in countries where baseball was not a major sport).

Softball had none of these problems: the best softball players in the world competed at the Olympics, softball has never had a positive test for a performance-enhancing drug in international competition and an Olympic softball tournament could, if necessary, be played in one stadium.

Nevertheless, out went both sports – baseball by a margin of four votes and softball on a tied vote when 50% + 1 was required to retain Olympic status.

In the years following 2005, the ISF's campaigns to get softball reinstated were based on putting as much clear blue water between softball and baseball as possible and demonstrating to the IOC that softball was a completely separate and global sport in its own right.  However, baseball and softball federations are combined in many countries, and this led the ISF, at one point, to threaten the softball element of combined federations with dire punishments if they failed to separate from their baseball counterparts.  Since this would have been financial suicide for many combined federations, the ISF's bluff was called and nothing happened.

The ISF's expensive “Back Softball” campaign for Olympic reinstatement in 2016, that ran from 2006 into 2009, was based on the idea of softball as a stand-alone sport, even though the IBAF had already started to make overtures about co-operation.  But when both sports' campaigns failed to make any impact on the IOC, with golf and rugby 7's chosen in 2009 to fill the two available Olympic places in 2016, it was obviously time to go back to the drawing board.

And the straw that broke the camel's back of ISF resistance came in 2011 when softball was threatened with being dropped from the multi-sport Asian Games and was only saved by an intervention from baseball, who successfully suggested to the Asian Games Committee that the two sports be treated as one.

After that, the ISF and IBAF decided to hold “talks” and the path to the altar began to emerge from the mist.

But there was still the second demand that the IOC was supposed to have made before baseball and softball could be considered for reinstatement (dealings with the IOC, and especially IOC President Jacques Rogge, often generate as much rumour as information).  This was that the best professional players had to take part in an Olympic baseball competition – which meant not only the top players from professional leagues in Japan, Korea and elsewhere, but the top players from Major League Baseball in the United States.

This had always been regarded as impossible because of the clash between the Olympics and the Major League season.  An Olympic baseball tournament takes 7-10 days to play (not to mention team preparation beforehand), and no MLB team is going to let its top players walk away for up to two weeks in the middle of the season to compete for Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Japan, Canada or even the USA.  There is just too much money at stake.

That was then and this is now, but is anything going to change?  MLB owners are meeting on 15 November to see if there is any compromise solution that will allow MLB players to take part in some fashion in future Olympic games – and also to talk about how much financial support they might be willing to provide to the ICSB.

Whatever support is forthcoming – and some money has already been pledged to the ICSB by three or four Asian baseball leagues – the ICSB Charter says that its resources have to be used equally for softball and baseball, and MLB has never been very keen on giving softball more than an occasional helping hand.

But the real conundrum around the ICSB is this.  If Major League Baseball can't figure out a way that MLB stars can play a meaningful role in the Olympics, then baseball and softball probably have no chance of being reinstated to the Olympic programme.  If this is the case, then why would MLB (and the Asian leagues) want to provide financial sport for the ICSB?  And what would be the reason for the ICSB to exist?

For better or worse, softball's Olympic ambitions are now entirely dependent on the decisions that will soon be made by Major League Baseball.  It may well be that softball never had any hope of Olympic reinstatement on its own, at least not until Jacques Rogge, who has worked hard behind the scenes against our sports, steps down as IOC President.  That will happen next year, but not until after the venue and sports for 2020 have been decided.

But are softball's chances any better because of this shotgun wedding between the ISF and IBAF?  While that remains to be seen, it's hard to foresee a happy-ever-after ending.

tagged under: olympics, international

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Trevor Greenaway-Clissold 21:02

The NHL has a two week break every four years to allow their top stars to compete at the Winter Olympics and it’s done wonders for ice hockey’s international profile. The NBA’s international appeal also rose significantly with the admittance of their top players and the ‘Dream Team’ in the summer games.

If MLB are serious about extending their international market then a two week break every four years is a small price to pay.


Matt 02:37

Given MLB financial interest in the WBC being successful, its scheduling convenience, and it’s current international popularity, I can’t see MLB being keen on the Olympics. Much like soccer, cricket, rugby, football, and basketball, it is a sport best left to professionals.


Matt Crawshaw 00:39

Whilst not the same comparison, professional Football (Soccer) players are released for occasional mid-week international fixtures for their National teams.

The Olympics today is very different to 1996. Gold medallists aren’t just domestic household names these days, they are treated like international celebrities.

We have seen the more higher profile Tennis players, Basketball players etc. becoming more commonplace at the Olympics and whilst the MLB have a different type of scheduling issue, the lure of Gold Medal superstar-dome will now be difficult to resist.

Personally I don’t think Softball or Baseball needs the Olympics, there are plenty of international sports out there that survive decently enough outside the five-rings and other sports on the inside cope no better.

Be careful for what you wish for!

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About Bob Fromer

Bob Fromer

Bob was the founding CEO of BSUK and now works for the agency as a Communications Consultant. In a volunteer capacity, he was General Manager of the GB Fastpitch National Teams programme for many years, a former Team Manager for the GB Women and GB Under-19 Women and still serves on the GB Softball Management Committee. Bob has been involved with slowpitch and fastpitch softball in Britain since the sport’s earliest days, and travels abroad with many GB Softball Teams to report on their achievements for the BSF website.

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