Winning Diamonds on the Diamond: Softball’s Home-Run in Popularity

Gone are the days of football, baseball, basketball, and soccer being the only sports that get team rings. If you go online and search “softball championship,” “softball championship rings” is the second search option that pops up.

Televised softball games are racking up equal or higher numbers in comparison with their male counterparts. What has skyrocketed this sport? Courtesy of Danielle Cox.

According to the Aspen Project Play’s 2019 report, softball showed the largest participation increase with a high 12 percent. Softball’s 12 percent increase in 2019 is up from a small 2 percent increase in 2018. It is currently estimated that over 408,000 youth athletes between the ages of 13-17 play softball nationwide. Contributing to such a large increase in participation is availability. Many former collegiate athletes have started softball teams, camps, clinics, and showcases spanning the country. Since so many new organizations are popping up, softball tournaments are at an all-time high.

USSSA Insights

Organizations such as DCB Elite Academy Productions and the rapidly growing United States Specialty Sports Association, more commonly known by their moniker USSSA, have been contributing directly to the increase in softball participation across the Unites States resulting in more tournaments nationwide.

USSSA’s headquarter field is Space Coast Complex in Florida.

Ryan Highfill, National Director of USSSA Fastpitch and Danielle Cox, owner of DCB Elite Academy Productions, both agree that “softball really took off in the early 2000s due to the high level of exposure the sport was getting due to the Olympics. After the Olympics, people wanted more and more softball which led to the Women’s College World Series (WCWS) getting a time-slot on ESPN.”

Highfill mentions how, “the visibility to the game on television has really helped the progression of the sport. It is much more visible today than it was even 5 years ago. More and more regular season college games are being televised each year and I really think that has helped the growth and popularity of the game. The visibility has gotten so large that this past year, the WCWS television ratings outdrew the Men’s College World Series (MCWS). We have seen steady growth in team participation within both the USSSA in the sport itself, and we see no signs of that slowing down. “

Highfill is no stranger to the MCWS. After growing up in the small town of Garnder, Kan., he went on to Baker University where he played both basketball and baseball. During his collegiate years he had dreams of teaching and coaching, but after working several USSSA tournaments quickly changed his mind.

Highfill says the perfect tournament is planned upwards of six months in advance.

When it comes to planning tournaments today, Highfill says he likes to be six months or more out on planning events. Due to his role as National Director, Highfill has several planners reach out to him before planning a large tournament, which he says, “need to be at least six months our or more before beginning.” The three main things I always bring up when talking to a prospective director about running a softball event include what their plans are for facilities, what their plans are for securing umpires, and how do you wish to market this event. When it comes to getting a facility and developing a marketing strategy, you then get into the execution phase of the event. Here, over-communication is key, and you can never over-communicate.” Cox also agrees that “over-communication does not exist. You have to have every little detail planned out, or else your event loses credibility—which is a planner’s worst nightmare.”

Cox comes from a very similar background as Highfill, so it is no secret that both say similar things and say the EXACT same phrase when it comes to the popularity of softball as well as communication strategies.

From Pro to Planner

Danielle Cox is a former softball player turned sports event planning expert who founded her own softball performance academy, the DCB Elite Academy Productions, in 2016. After breaking records such as most stolen bases in a season with 73—which she still holds second place in—and breaking the all-time batting record at Florida State University, Cox went on to play professional softball in the National Pro Fastpitch League for four years. During those four years, Cox was selected to the all-star team as well as inducted into the Florida State University Athletics Hall of Fame. Cox mentions how after those four years were up, she “answered a calling to the world of sports business. I knew I still loved sports, but I wanted to view it from a different perspective.” Due to her sports background, securing a job in the sports planning world was a no-brainer. “I started out doing sports marketing for Florida Atlantic University which made me fall in love with the business side of sports. I then went on to my alma-mater club of the National Pro Fastpitch League where I planned sports events, and then went on to the Boy’s and Girl’s Club of America in South Florida where I planned events as well.” Cox, who then decided she wanted to move to Alabama to be closer to family, left Florida with a game plan.

Danielle Cox founded the DCB Elite Academy Productions after seeing a wide-open need in the softball world for top-notch camps and showcases. Courtesy of Danielle Cox.

She started reaching out to colleagues and friends in Alabama discussing what the needs were surrounding softball in 2015. For a year, Cox offered private lessons to residents in the town, which then progressed on to softball camps. “I really saw the needs of the players in front of my own two eyes after a year of doing private lessons. What these players needed was a camp, and I was going to make that happen. I left corporate America for softball camps, and I have loved every second of it,” she says. In 2016, she started planning and executing softball camps in Alabama that soon drew participation from other states. “I think my background not only being a softball player but also being a sporting events planner helped me tremendously. I know the needs of these players just as much as they do.” To stand out from other camps, Cox made sure the fine details were spot on. She kept a low camper to coach ratio, had organized skill stations, provided equipment for every station, and kept costs low. “I saw a need for affordability in a world where travel ball can get so expensive. I wanted everyone to be able to come to the camps and prove themselves regardless. While it is expensive—the most common camp scenario is around 170 kids on seven fields all working the same skill sets, it is necessary. I also value safety over anything. I have a trained nurse on my staff at all times, and we make sure that each camper gets a well-deserved break whenever they need it.”

Cox says that spending time around elite softball players gave her an extra boost to start showcases in the south.

In 2018, Danielle Cox saw another need.

At her camps, Cox noticed how players were frequently talking about playing the same teams repeatedly in travel softball. Because she was a player herself, she knew that the girls needed a bigger challenge—and she was determined to make that happen.

In 2018 after two years of regular performance camps, Cox founded Stars Over Alabama, an elite showcase where collegiate coaches would be in attendance.

To prepare, Cox got in touch with several collegiate coaches—after all, they were going to be the ones coming to the camp to scout players / help. One coach she was able to turn to for frequent advice was Florida State University head softball coach, Lonni Alameda. Alameda, who is entering her 14th season as head coach, is highly recognized in the softball realm and a close friend of Danielle’s.

“She was really able to help me execute the new Stars Over Alabama showcase since I needed it to be quick. It started off with nearly 80 teams in the state of Alabama with over 25 collegiate coaches in attendance. From other coach feedback, I was able to create Stars Over Alabama what it is today. We make sure the venues are close-by if we have a larger camp, we make it affordable, and we take care of our people. We make sure they have great food to fuel their bodies, put them in a great location, and we make sure they are playing others with top notch talent as well.”

However, in 2018, Cox did not expect what happened next.

“Over time I started noticing players from other states show up to the camps, so I started doing them in those states. This led me to start Stars Over Mississippi in 2019, and now Stars Over Georgia this year. Since travel softball is such a family-oriented sport, I try my best to do each showcase in a mid-sized city with family attractions. Not everyone is going to want to go to the softball field all day every day, so it is always crucial to me that I plan my events around families and not just the athlete.”

Softball is only growing in popularity; what will the numbers look like 10 years from now? Courtesy of Danielle Cox.

Expanding the Market

Gone are the days where softball is only for youth athletes up to collegiate athletes. Adult softball leagues are becoming increasingly popular. Softball is a popular sport with adults due to its competitive nature, while being safer to participate in when compared with a contact sport. Adult league tournaments are now being included in facility rotations, and adult league championships are being live streamed via Facebook and YouTube for thousands to watch. After the pandemic, softball is also popular due to the ability to always be six-feet-apart on the field. Planning adult tournaments are not nearly as time-consuming as youth tournaments. Most adult leagues take place in cities or counties to accommodate the player’s lifestyle. Most players work from 9-5 and have children who are involved with sports, so weeklong tournaments are not as requested as weekly Sunday afternoon games in the Spring or Fall, making last minute tournaments for each league possible. Since softball is becoming increasingly popular not with just youth but amateur adult athletes as well, softball participation is expected to increase this year even more.