Though the nights are still long and the temperatures low, women’s softball teams across Europe are hard at work. Indoor tournaments and practices are underway and national team rosters are being firmed for 2017. This is a Championship year and the stakes have never been higher.
On June 25, 2017, 26 teams will arrive in Bollate, Italy to participate in the largest European Championship in European Softball history. A tournament of national pride, this year’s event has a record number of teams signed up.
Last played in 2015, Italy beat the host team The Netherlands for the top spot, walking away with a 1-2 victory. This year, it’s Italy’s turn to play host. Currently ranked 8th (NL) and 12th (IT) in the world, and the top two teams in Europe by the WBSC, it begs the question, will we see a rematch at week’s end? It is possible but the pool has expanded by nearly 25% over previous records so the dynamics have been significantly altered with additional games and new faces.
In 2015, 20 teams participated. That was on the top end of the tournament average, which had previously averaged between 18-20 teams each event. At year’s end in 2016 however, 26 had registered for the 2017 festivities. This is the highest level of entries in the history of the tournament. In fact, it is easier to list which of the 33 federation teams are staying home than who will be there. Not participating this year are Jersey, Turkey, San Marino, Romania and Malta. Guernsey, who only have slow pitch teams, will also not be in attendance.
Still there are some new kids on the block. Finland will make their first-ever appearance. Bulgaria, who generally participate in slow pitch events, have decided to make a rare fast pitch appearance. For only the second time both Ireland and Slovenia will be sending a team to the Championship. Lithuania, who are very new to softball and Hungary, who have very few softball players, are both sending teams.
Part of the peak in interest has to do with Softball EuroLeague. The league organizes tournaments 3-4 times a year between countries in areas where there are very few teams locally but several bordering communities. Started just a few years ago by a player in Eastern Europe, the league has now been folded into the European Softball Federation (ESF) whom have supported the project from the start. The ESF will roll out EuroLeagues across Europe beginning in areas with size concerns and grow the process from there.
Places like Italy, the Czech Republic, Germany and The Netherlands have self-sustaining systems with leagues and plenty of players to create multiple teams. In regions where fewer teams exist however, it is an opportunity for the players to get in extra games and additional experience. The first addition tournament run by the ESF will take place in Northern Europe with Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland, all the teams who generally participate in the Baltic Open, expected to participate. The Open is being renamed EuroLeague North. The ESF’s plan is to continue to roll out new EuroLeagues in additional regions where similar size concerns are at issue.
While EuroLeague is a great asset to the Federations, it is not the only reason for expansion at this year’s tournament. The ESF's Development Commission is credited with much of the growth in participation this year. Ami Baran, Chair of Development, has taken a personal interest in each Federation's progress. The Commission stays in regular contact with the Federation offices asking how the ESF can help them to grow their program and get them participating regularly in tournaments across Europe. One example is in Lithuania. The entire country only has 20 players. With Baran’s help, they regularly participate in camps and tournaments, opportunities he helps them find, in order to give these few players a chance to compete and improve.
For 2017, the European Championship rules remain unchanged from the 2015 format. Livestream is currently being scheduled from the main field. It is expected that the finals will be broadcast with additional games possible. The tournament runs every other year, alternating with the Men’s European Championship in even years. The European Championship is for the National teams only with one team per country participating. Tournament play begins on Monday and the championship game will be held on Saturday. Usually there are three fields of play but this year they will need four due to the number of participants. The ESF is currently planning a few additional ways for folks to interact with the tournament from home so keep an eye on the tournament page of their website for details as those become available.
On February 4, 2017, the ESF will join the CEB for annual meetings in Belgrade, Serbia. Both organizations are holding elections and each will come away with new leadership in the president’s spot.