Loughborough University: how to build a baseball and softball club – and win!
Tue 10 May 2016
On the 27th of April, on a typical sunny, rainy, windy day in British springtime at Farnham Park, the University of Loughborough’s A Team won BSUK’s National University Softball Championships, to no one’s great surprise, for the third straight time. But how has this dominance been achieved?
In fact, Loughborough’s dominance on the university scene extends to baseball as well. All told, in both sports, Loughborough has won six national championships out of eight competitions the club has entered, an achievement that PhD student Luke Stott, President of the Loughborough Baseball and Softball Club, deems as “something really special”.
Loughborough is known as a university with a concentration in sport, and there is an easy assumption made that the campus is full of top athletes who are going to excel at whatever sport they turn their hand to. But Luke Stott refutes that and insists that the student population at Loughborough is much like that at any other university – and where there are top athletes, they are generally engaged in the more established sports.
“There are only 4,300 student athletes at Loughborough out of 18,000 students,” Luke said, “and there are 58 clubs in the Athletic Union. We’re competing with cricket, hockey, athletics, rugby etc. We’re always looking for experienced players, including international students, and particularly women, but we often lose them to these other sports. So the quality of player we get at Loughborough is fairly similar to other universities.
“Once you get people,” Luke added, “they do tend to stick with our sports. But it’s what we do with them that matters.”
For Luke, the keys to building a successful baseball and softball club at Loughborough have been recognition by the University Athletic Union, good organisation, decent coaching, reasonable costs, crossover between the club’s baseball and softball teams and plenty of competition opportunities.
But how did it all get started?
Baseball and softball at Loughborough started with some BSUK Hit the Pitch sessions back in 2012, and a club was eventually formed in the autumn of 2013. Although the club embraced both sports from the very beginning, there were only 12 or 13 members at the start, and the first competitive match the club ever played was a baseball game against the Nottingham Rebels team from the BBF leagues.
A year later, however, the club had almost 60 members and was able to become a fully-fledged university sports club, supported by the Athletic Union. This support meant access to facilities and the ability to set up stalls at Freshers’ Bazaars in order to attract even more members.
Now, as the 2015-16 academic year comes to an end, the club has upwards of 70 members and is still growing, albeit more slowly than during its first major growth spurt in 2014-15.
“We’ve made it work,” Luke Stott said, “because we’re very competitive, we got better organised, we train three times a week, we don’t ask the players for much money as we have a shirt sponsorship deal with L’Oreal and we will play over 100 games this academic year across all our teams.
“One of the key problems at university level,” Luke added, “is coaching proficiency, but we have trained 25 coaches at Level 1 through a BSUK pilot programme this past winter and we hope to get half a dozen on to a Level 2 course in the autumn. Next year, we will be looking to employ a Head Coach.”
People join a sports club, especially at university, because they want to compete, and the critical mass that the Loughborough Baseball and Softball Club has now achieved provides plenty of opportunity.
The club now has three slowpitch softball teams, which play in the East Midlands Softball League’s indoor and outdoor competitions, as well as in an inter-club league and in the East Midlands Invitational Championship (run jointly by the club and its counterpart at Nottingham University), which takes places outdoors in February.
Then there are the club’s two baseball teams, which play in the twice-yearly National University Baseball Championships organised by BSUK, and then in the M1ST and Northern University Baseball Leagues (both run by Luke Stott).
When players first join the club, they tend to start with softball, and then those so inclined move on to baseball, which at the moment is played entirely by men.
But the club has also had a few training sessions with veteran fastpitch coach Paul Cooper from Nottingham and hopes to play a game or two this spring and then begin a full fastpitch programme in the next academic year, joining with other fledgling fastpitch programmes in Nottingham and Leicester. Although the club currently has more male than female members (two-thirds of members are men), the aim is to achieve a 50:50 ratio, which will lend itself to women’s fastpitch development and allow even more crossover between the different formats.
The university scene
Loughborough may the biggest and most successful university baseball and softball club, but how does it fit with the larger university scene?
According to Luke Stott, there are 18 universities currently playing baseball and 16 that play softball, with seven of them playing both sports. Another half dozen universities are expected to begin playing one or both sports shortly.
There are now over 1,200 students registered to university baseball and softball clubs, and over 50% of the growth has occurred in the past two years, which means that it’s likely to continue.
But the key to sustaining baseball and softball in universities, Luke believes, is for the university clubs to partner with local baseball teams or softball leagues. It’s a win-win situation, because the local teams and leagues can get access to players while the university clubs can get the benefits of coaching and access to local facilities.
“This kind of partnership is an obvious idea,” Luke said, “that needs to be pushed a lot more by BSUK and everyone involved. Universities are one of the best environments for growing the sports, but to realise this potential, we need a five-year plan for university baseball and softball, including coaching support. The payoff will be a lot more players feeding into BBF and BSF structures.”
The ultimate goal, which would give baseball and softball in universities a huge boost, would be for the sports to be officially recognised by British Universities & Colleges Sport or BUCS, the governing body for university sport in the United Kingdom. But this isn’t easy. To even submit a bid for recognition requires that a sport must be active in 56 universities, including six in Scotland and nine in Wales, so our sports have a long way to go.
Luke Stott, a former professional sprinter who started playing baseball in 2011 with the Nottingham Rebels when his athletics career was ended by injury, and who helped to bring more organisation and structure to the Loughborough Baseball and Softball Club when he began his PhD at the university, thinks that the sports are at a turning point as far as universities are concerned.
“There has been growth,” Luke said, “and the foundations are in place for a lot more. But it’s going to require management and organisation. I’ve been in contact with many universities over the past couple of years and have helped to organise competitions and build up networks. But I’ll be leaving university this year, and there is a gap that will need to be filled – ideally by BSUK.
“The best thing,” Luke added, “would be to have a paid University Baseball and Softball Officer, because so much could be achieved. But failing that, a lot more time and energy will need to go into the university sector to achieve stability and the kind of growth that can really make a different to participation.”