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Women's game takes off in Europe

TAMPA - The speed with which women are taking up baseball in Europe is coming at just the right time for the sport's international profile.

The first US women's team was created in 2004 yet now the success of the International Baseball Federation's campaign to grow women's baseball around the world has sparked the proposal for a women's competition at the Olympics.

Already more than 30 of the 128 federations manage a women’s discipline and the interest is accelerating.

Alexander Ratner, second vice-president of the Confederation of European Baseball (CEB) confirmed, “There are seven European teams taking part in the Baseball World Cup and 22 all together. The fact that the Baseball World Cup will be staged in seven different European countries can also help to promote women's baseball on the continent.”

Baseball is one of seven sports competing for perhaps two slots at the Games in 2016 and added its women's competition amendment in April.

Increasing numbers

IBAF president Harvey Schiller explains: "The growth of the sport in places where baseball is already popular, as well as the request by new federations to increase the number of young girls playing in baseball, led us to move ahead on this.

“We have shown that baseball is a sport for all, and the addition of a women's discipline for the Olympics only further illustrates that point."

With the increase Little League for all is growing quickly and federations now do not have to have girls switch to softball with a choice of having girls play baseball at an older age. Initial reports from Little League baseball, working with the CEB are showing an increase in enrollment of more than 10pc for boys and girls playing Little League baseball across the continent.

Senior figures in the international game such as Andre Lachance of Baseball Canada, Donna Lopiano and Sandra Monteiro have no doubt about the power of progress within women's baseball.

Lachance, coach to Canada's national team, found out all about that potential during an eight-day whirlwind European tour which took him France, Belgium, England, Sweden and Portugal. He says: “In every country, over the years, I have worked with them on development and encouraged them to start their own program. We need to give them the tools to market the sport.

Leadership and training

“It’s just that many countries have not been exposed to certain levels of the game, so when I showed them some of the footage from a DVD of a gold medal game they were really impressed. It is only a question of leadership and training and having someone to guide them. The capacity is there - they just need to cultivate the talent.

“That’s partly a matter of administration and partly a matter of opening people's minds to the possibilities.”

Understanding the significance of mind and matter is, Lachance, believes, crucial to helping grow baseball amid different sports cultures. He says: “If you look at France, for example, they offer baseball only for girls until they reach the age of 15 or 16 so we are discussing keeping them in the game for longer. It would create more interest for the sport and hopefully prevent us losing them to something else.”

He adds: “Women’s baseball has always existed it just hasn't been as aggressively promoted in such a strong way. But the interest is there and with the new bid the sport could really grow.”

Rise in standards

Lachance believes that one of baseball’s strengths is the minimal number of differences across the gender gap. He says: “It’s exactly the same rules and field dimensions. The only difference is the bat - the women are allowed to use aluminium bats whereas with the men it’s wooden bats. That’s just a matter of power and strength.”

An 11,000 home crowd saw Japan win the Women’s World Cup last year and Lachance believes that competitive standards will continue to rise as leading European baseball nations such as Netherlands and Italy work to develop the women’s game.

He adds: “In addition, if Latin American countries such as Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela could step on board that would be great too. It is just a matter of funding; they have the culture of the sport, it is just a question of development.”

In Portugal Lachance met Sandra Monteiro, the first woman president of a national baseball federation and who is putting enormous drive and energy behind the message.

Monteiro believes that opening up the Olympic door to baseball would offer her federation a perfect platform for growth as well as the prospect of government funding to enhance youth and school programs. She is working hard to promote the value of baseball in the national physical education programme and even sells it as a radical new sport.

Significantly, Monteiro wants to see more information published about how successfully baseball is catching on. She says: “Baseball is very well received in Portuguese schools and the kids have high interest to learn the game as it is perceived as an exciting new sport.” 

Personal mission

Helping match that need is Dr Donna Lopiano who was appointed this past April as chair of the IBAF’s new Women's Baseball Committee. Lopiano is president of Sports Management Resources, an educational sport consulting firm, and the former ceo of the Women's Sports Foundation.

She feels she is a personal mission, saying: “My life's work has been about increasing opportunities for girls to play any and all sports.

“My own life goal was to be a pitcher for the New York Yankees but when I tried out for Little League in the 1950s I was told no girls were allowed.  So now, if I can do anything to advance the dreams of any girl who loves baseball and wants the opportunity to play, I would be honored to do so.”

The strategy which led to Lopiano’s appointment was launched almost three years ago in the Plan for the Future of Baseball 2007-2015. Ambitions included establishing “a women's baseball program worldwide to involve women in all aspects of the game and within the structure of the IBAF.”

One year later, in 2008, she represented the IBAF at the Jordan IOC Conference on Women's Sports - at which it committed its full support for worldwide development.

Long-term initiative

Lopiano says: “I wouldn't be involved if I didn't think this was a serious long-term initiative and that the IBAF was committed to doing this in the right way.

“Our member federations are excited about women's baseball and we have to listen to them telling us what they need. In some countries it will be basic equipment, in others, it will be technical training of coaches and officials.”

The strategic plan calls for the establishment of under-13 and under-16 girls' programs in each of 20 targeted countries each year. Thus all IBAF members should have solid female baseball programs in place by 2015.

Lachance, like Lopiano, has no doubt about a positive future – to his own admitted surprise. He says: “When I was first asked to be the head coach of the women's national team I said I didn't really want to coach women but having worked with them now I wouldn't go back to the boys.

“All the women are very keen and have a strong desire to be professionals so I am really enjoying working with them. They are trendsetters, breaking new ground.

“It’s exciting to see the progress.”