Many softball countries in Europe are facing the same challenge. The number of women playing softball is low, as well as number of teams in their domestic league. Looking to 2020, and the potential money that will be on the table very soon for federations across Europe, some teams have concerns. The quality of play on the local level cannot help develop players’ skills and recruiting new players is tough.
To answer these challenges six teams from Croatia, Hungary and Slovakia created the Softball Interleague, a fastpitch league for women and juniors, in 2014. In their inaugural season the league was comprised of two teams from each founding country. “The first year was considered an experiment. The experience was so good that, after season, we agreed to and started building a long-term program,” said League manager Michal Klasek.
For this season the league changed names and is now called Softball Euroleague. The league is recognized and supported by the European Softball Federation (ESF) as such. The name change is meant to reflect the ESF’s support of the league. “The Federation supports the league by covering the costs of softballs and umpires,” said Klasek. Thanks to ESF´s support the Euroleague has a minimal yearly entry fee of 30€/team. The ESF also has plans to expand the league to other regions across Europe.
Today the league is comprised of eight teams from five countries: Lady Pirates and Princ Zagreb from Croatia, Trnava Panthers and Apollo Bratislava from Slovakia, Budapest Astros and Budapest Reds from Hungary, Ledenice Sharks (Žraloci Ledenice) from the Czech Republic and the Vienna M-Stars from Austria.
The Vienna M-Stars joined the league in 2015. The M-Stars are a top team in the Austrian Softball League (ASL). They have teams across two divisions in their hometown league. Playing in Euroleague affords the club the opportunity to give younger and inexperienced players a chance to play tough international games. It lets them test different lineups and try players in a variety of positions as well. “We want to improve every single player and the whole team,” Stars manager Julia Harringer said.
The Ledenice Sharks, who joined the Euroleague this season, are one of the top teams in the strong Czech Extraliga. Just like the M-Stars, the Sharks use the league for developing their younger players.
For many participating teams playing in the Euroleague during the regular season doubles their total number of games. That is the case for the Panthers Trnava from Slovakia. “Thanks to Euroleague, we are able to provide our players an attractive season. Besides that we can promote the Panthers on the international level as well, said Jan Gajarsky, assistant coach for the team.
In all of Croatia there are only two women´s softball teams, Princ Zagreb and Lady Pirates. For them the Euroleague not only affords an opportunity to double the number of games but to play against different teams in different circumstances. “In our domestic league we play nine games against each other as a season. To be honest, it can get a bit boring,” said Petra Čizmić Pokrajac from the Princ. Petra is one of the founders of the league and a member of the Development Commission of the ESF.
For the Hungarian teams the games in the league are tough. At the moment the Reds Budapest and the Hungarian Astros are in the bottom of the standings, but playing against better teams on good fields with qualified umpires, give them a chance to improve. The main goal for the team this year is not to win the league but to improve. “Of course we play to win, but learning is the most important at the moment. Eventually we want to be one of the top teams in the league,” responded Eniko Gergely for the Reds.
Much like the Reds, league coordinators are looking at these early years as the foundation for their future plans. They have already mapped out four divisions and are currently in talks with teams throughout Europe. “The idea is to spread the league all over Europe and create tournaments in different European regions,” explains ESF Communications Director Helena Novotna, “We’re in the process of spreading the news and invitations to all the clubs we know.”
If federations and clubs in larger softball communities believe that interleague play will benefit them as well, then the Softball Euroleague has a good chance of becoming a notable and attractive league for teams, players and potential sponsors across the continent.