How University Baseball Has Grown


John Boyd

BaseballSoftballUK’s Head of Development and Joint CEO, John Boyd, started his career in the sports as the first national coordinator for university baseball in 1997.  In this blog, he looks back at 20 years of development in universities since his time on the British Baseball Federation Board.

On a cold and overcast day on a remote grass field cut into the woods in Egham, my team at Royal Holloway College, University of London, took on a mixed team of the Windsor Bears and Bracknell Blazers.  The year was 1998.  We played on a football field, using the touchlines and penalty box lines as foul lines.  We didn’t have a backstop, or a mound.  But that didn’t stop us.  We were students, aware that we were doing something alien and new – playing university baseball.

In my time, I organised a couple of national university tournaments.  I remember playing at one hosted in Southampton and one in Oxford.  The standard of play was poor.  We had four to six teams playing at the time – most notably from Southampton, Oxford Brookes, Oxford University, the University of East Anglia and, since my time there, also from Royal Holloway.  I remember being left to our own devices and having a number of supportive conversations with other students who had started to form university teams.  The only answer we had to finding financial support was from our Student Unions.
Many of the challenges I faced are still those many keen university team captains continue to face today. However, there are a few key differences today that are making it easier and contributing to a boom in university baseball and softball. 

Roll forward to today.  The Oxford Kings we know today emerged from one of the Oxford university teams.  The Southampton Mustangs, formed by a former Windsor Bear, Sam Hariry, has become one of the strongest National League clubs in the UK and gone on to represent the country in European club championships.  The University of East Anglia team is still going.  Royal Holloway has since folded.  But today, there is, for the first time, a vibrant and healthy university baseball set-up.  There are 17 universities playing.  Each October and March, they compete in National University Baseball Championships, hosted at the best facility in the country – Farnham Park – and there is strong and active leadership from the community of students.

So I thought I’d take some time to looking at the reasons for this.  Like much about development, there isn’t one single factor that makes all this possible, but a combination of different things coming together at the same time.

  1. Really good people.  At the heart of the growth in university baseball has been the coming together of a number of key people who have formed university teams and, together, created a community of people moving in the same direction.  Luke Stott from Loughborough, along with Nathan Flynn and David Hurley, to mention just a few, have provided consistent and strong leadership, an abundance of ideas and, importantly, been strong advocates for the importance of university baseball (and softball). BSUK has been highly supportive of these volunteers’ efforts.
  2. Development Support from BSUK.  Throughout this time, BSUK staff have provided proactive personal support and guidance in forming universities to those in need of a help.  We’ve created a starter pack of equipment, built in support through a university strand of Hit the Pitch and run and subsidised the National Championships.  BSUK staff helped secure funding for Swansea University, in partnership with British University and Colleges Sport (BUCS) and Sport Wales.  BSUK is working with eight further university baseball clubs in the process of being formed (see list below).  We have set up a University Baseball Officer programme (also one for softball) that provides direct resource and training to volunteers within universities who are running the sport.  We have run annual conferences for university baseball and softball.  Each of these activities has made it a little easier for volunteers within a wider mutually-supportive community.
  3. Academy Graduates.  There has been a steady flow of Academy members going off to university.  BSUK has proactively identified and supported many of those young athletes to form new university teams, helping with the steps necessary to gain Athletic or Student Union accreditation, as well as with the recruitment of players and with funds and equipment.  Many of these people have sought additional support from others who have recently set up their own teams.
  4. The National University Baseball Championships.  It has been important for teams to know that they’ll have at least two opportunities to play in a national tournament each year at Farnham Park.  While many universities have arranged games of their own, the two annual National University Baseball Championships have been the foundation of university competition, played on the country’s best facilities.  We’ve often seen new universities, who have come along for their first games, go on to be motivated to get better, on and off the field.  Not every university team plays in every event, but the opportunity is there and the competition has been increasingly played to a higher standard.  In Spring 2016, entries peaked at nine.
  5. History.  The fact that baseball has been organised in universities for over two decades helps build a sense of history, achievement and credibility.  Unions are a bit more aware and more willing to support new clubs forming because of the structure around them.  That was key to my role 20 years ago and was continued by John Irving and Shannon Henry’s work with the British Universities Baseball Association in the mid-2000s.  It’s also been a key part of the work of BaseballSoftballUK ever since.  It’s from that platform that the British Universities Baseball League has been formed this year, which is being administered through BSUK’s Hit the Pitch programme and website.

University baseball has come on a long way since my days at Royal Holloway.  I like to think that my experience was part of a chain of events that has led to the set-up today, and that I’ve been able to use it to better inform the support that BSUK has given.  The additional resource, the facilities, the organisation and the events that BSUK has been able to provide have all added to the experience and made it more enjoyable and rewarding for those dedicated young people organising and playing in universities.

The same can be said of university softball.  And what’s even more exciting is that university baseball and softball are snowballing.  We all look forward to an even brighter future for university baseball and softball, maybe one day under the auspices of BUCS.

Established University baseball teams

1. Loughborough University (Thunder)
2. University of East Anglia (Blue Sox)
3. Coventry University (Red Arrows)
4. Imperial College London (Falcons)
5. University College London (Capitals)
6. University of Sheffield (Hornets)
7. University of Southampton (Mustangs)
8. University of Nottingham (Thieves)
9. Leeds Beckett University (Carnegie)
10. University of Leeds (Gryphons)
11. University of Edinburgh (Dragons)
12. Swansea University (Seagulls)
13. University of Durham (Bishops)
14. University of Cambridge
15. University of Hull (Scorpions)
16. Loughborough University (Tanks)
17. University of Durham (Dragons)

New University baseball teams being supported by BSUK

18. University of Central Lancashire
19. University of Essex (Blades)
20. University of Aberdeen
21. Manchester Metropolitan University – Crewe (Eagles)
22. University of Sheffield (Hit the Pitch Programme)
23. University of Stirling
24. Sheffield Hallam University
25. University of Manchester
26. Queen Mary University of London

Related links:
National University Baseball Championships News Article
League link to the newly established National University Baseball League (being managed through the Hit the Pitch website, by league commissioner Luke Stott)

tagged under: baseball, development, tournaments, university, clubs

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About John Boyd

John Boyd

John joined BaseballSoftballUK as one of its inaugural employees in January 2000 after a brief stint with the Major League Baseball office in London, where his last project was concerned with bringing British baseball and softball together into the joint venture that emerged as BSUK.  After seven years heading Operations at BSUK, he moved into heading up Development, where he oversaw the writing of three Whole Sport Plans and the delivery of BSUK’s 2011-17 Facilities Strategy. After serving as Joint-CEO for a number of years, John became BSUK’s sole CEO in April 2017.

John is also a member of the WBSC Development Commissions, a strategic aide to the Confederation of European Baseball and serves on the joint ESF/CEB Commission for marketing and development.

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