Talking softball, Olympics with Harvey Schiller
Harvey Schiller has held leadership positions with many sports organizations over the course of his nearly 30-year career in sports.
From serving as SEC commissioner to executive director/secretary general of the U.S. Olympic Committee to president of Turner Sports and the Atlanta Thrashers to chairman and CEO of YankeeNets, Schiller's experience spans many sports and leagues.
Schiller, currently the chairman and CEO of GlobalOptions Group (an international risk management and business solutions company), recently served as president of the International Baseball Federation, the sport's world governing body, and continues to work for the return of baseball and softball to the Olympic program. He serves on many boards, including the IOC Commission on Women and Sport.
The former U.S. Air Force pilot spoke with espnW about the state of women's softball, the sport's potential return to the Olympics and more.
Question from Val Ackerman: How has women's softball evolved over the past few decades?
Answer from Harvey Schiller: It started at the grassroots [level] in park and rec programs in the United States and around the world, and in school programs. It gave an expanded opportunity [to girls], taking advantage of the fields that were available from Little League baseball to regular baseball fields and other softball fields. Equipment was already available, fields were available and most coaching was available, somewhat uniquely because of the tie-in to baseball; so that gave a unique opportunity for the sport to grow, not just at the beginning level, but to almost the expert level.
Softball as a sport on the men's side has been around for a long, long time. If you go back 40-plus years, there were teams that most companies, industries and Armed Forces had, and it seemed to be a sport that women could play, so the growth of women's softball has been significant. I've been around the Olympic movement for 30-something years, and it's been a participant sport there, in the Pan American Games and regional games around the world.
Q: So how is the sport trending today?
A: Women's softball continues to grow. It's still not played at every high school or at every college and university. [But] the advent of Title IX has created more opportunities and given the advantage of introducing larger numbers. And, relatively speaking, it's an inexpensive sport. The equipment is not that expensive. Fields are available. You may not know this, but the dimensions for women's softball are the same as Little League fields in terms of the distances to the outfield walls. Which is a little unusual compared to baseball, which has no defined outfield distance, but softball does.
And young people can play without a glove, and when they have gloves, they can play, as well. So it doesn't have economic barriers and that's really important in the development of sport. More communities are participating in it; and as the colleges continue to show their interest, the high schools show interest in it, as well.
Q: Can you talk about the growth of NCAA softball?
A: There is a college world series in softball. And, just like college baseball, the teams that tend to rise to the top are where the weather is good and they can play almost year round. So whether it's Florida or Southern California or places in Texas, that's where the game is more popular than in some of the northern reaches, like Illinois and Minnesota or New York and New England. That doesn't mean they don't play there, but the seasons are shorter.
Q: How is the sport doing in urban areas versus rural areas and the suburbs?
A: I think the single challenge to baseball and softball, and I would even say American football, is the movement away from rural America to the cities because of the limited space you have. So, even with dedicated park space, it's becoming tougher and tougher -- whether it's New York, Chicago, Washington, Boston -- to have opportunities for young men and women, baseball and softball, to play the game.
And again, softball and baseball tend to be the strongest where the weather is good ... that's where the population growth is the largest, too; that's where the top players tend to come from because they have the opportunity to play almost year-round, so those tend to be the most developed systems that we see. That doesn't mean the Michigans and Penn States of the world aren't competitive. It's just that the numbers typically are larger where the weather is warm.
Q: What are the sport's biggest challenges going forward?
A: I would start with the removal [of the sport] from the Olympic program, because you want every young person to have the opportunity to participate at the highest level. The other challenge is the viability of the professional league. And you can say the same thing for women's soccer and other women's sports, even women's basketball. They are all tied to television revenues and marketing and licensing and people attending. It's a very competitive atmosphere. Hopefully, as more people play the game and more fans participate, there'll be more going on at the professional level.
Q: You mentioned the Olympics. Let's talk about that one. What's the background on softball's elimination from the Olympics, and what are its chances of reinstatement?
A: Softball was introduced at the Atlanta Games in 1996 as part of an initiative of the International Olympic Committee to try to equalize the number of participants in men's and women's sports. Unfortunately, in an effort to [later] limit the number of participants at the Olympic Games, and with the idea of adding new sports, softball and baseball were voted out in 2005. That really hit both sports very, very hard, because for some countries like Cuba and others, it was their single chance to participate at the highest level.
There was [an IOC] re-vote a year later in Torino to try to bring them both back in, but both baseball and softball lost by just a couple of votes. So since that time, the sports have tried to rally support to be part of the Games again. The last time both sports participated was at the Beijing Games in 2008. The sports were not put on the program for 2016 and 2020 because of the addition of rugby sevens and golf.
[On Wednesday] at the SportAccord meeting [in St. Petersburg, Russia], the IOC executive committee will make a decision on what sports to put before the IOC Congress in Buenos Aires [in September], which will then decide which, if any, of those sports will be added. [Editor's note: This interview was conducted before the IOC's decision Wednesday to include the joint baseball-softball bid, wrestling and squash to its shortlist for potential inclusion starting in 2020.] The competition in the past included sports like roller skating and squash. But because wrestling was voted out [of the Games] at a recent meeting of the IOC, the competition is getting even tougher, because most people believe wrestling probably has the best chance to get voted back in at the expense of softball and baseball.
Q: What factors will the IOC consider in making its decision?
A: The criteria that the IOC uses ... include [whether a sport] is widely played. Baseball and softball can prove they are played in 80 or more countries from among the 200-odd countries that have National Olympic Committees. Eighty-plus is usually the standard, and over 100 countries play both baseball and softball.
In addition to that, the IOC typically [looks at] interest on a global basis, not just [who is] playing the game but [who is] following it. What kind of television ratings did the sport get at the Olympic Games? What kind of fan interest? How many tickets were sold? And then there are [other] points: Do the best players get a chance to play? Have there been drug and doping issues in those sports? Unfortunately, baseball and softball do not have a high viewing audience at the Games. That's because the focus has always been on sports like swimming, gymnastics, track and field and volleyball.
Trying to understand what's in the minds of the Olympic voters and what they will and won't support is the single biggest challenge for any sport either trying to get onto the program for the first time or to return. Wrestling needs a venue like the Olympic Games, and so does softball. I think the best thing any sport can do is to spend as much time as possible with each individual member of the IOC to convince them why it's important to remain or return to the Games.
Q: What will be softball's sales proposition as it makes its pitch to return to the Games in 2020?
A: I believe softball's best argument for being in the Games is the inclusion of the number of women who are participating. Adding golf and rugby sevens doesn't add the same number of participants, and [softball] is truly a team sport. Secondly, I think there is the argument that you make about the popularity of the game on a global basis. Women's softball has more participation, more interest and even more television revenues if you add it up around the world.
Baseball and softball were told by the IOC that their best chance of coming in for this particular session was to bring the two sports together, because one of the other arguments the IOC makes is both men and women have to participate. Men's softball was not seen as strong as men's baseball, and women's baseball was not seen as strong as women's softball. So the new federation is called baseball/softball, and it's taking advantage of the fact that we have two games with a bat and ball. ... So those have been the arguments that we're going forward with.
Q: If softball doesn't get it done this time, can they keep trying, or is there a point where the IOC just says, "No more"?
A: No, sports have been trying and trying and trying. Karate has been trying for a long time. Triathlon tried for a long time before they [succeeded]. Some of the more popular sports which draw a lot of TV viewers, like swimming, have been able to add events within their sports. As you keep adding more events, you keep adding more people. And as you keep adding more people, it works to the detriment of the team sports.
Q: How are other countries doing in advancing women's softball? Where is the power globally now besides the United States?
A: I would put Cuba on the list, and certainly Canada. There are a number of Latin American countries that have come up, like Brazil and Argentina. I'm going to predict that, over time, China will be a strong player. Along the Malaysian Peninsula, there are a number of teams that have been competitive. Across Europe, baseball and softball have not taken hold like you'd think, except in Italy. Most people thought after World War II, baseball and softball would grow in Great Britain and through the British Isles, but that just hasn't happened.
Q: Let's shift gears and talk about women's professional softball. What are the prospects for National Pro Fastpitch, which currently has four teams? What needs to happen to get that segment of the game to move forward in a bigger way?
A: I would liken women's pro softball to minor league baseball. I think it's going to be attractive on a regional basis, but not something that's going to be able to compete in large metropolitan areas. Towns like Akron and others are where I think the upside is. I don't think women's fastpitch will grow to the level of the top minor league baseball teams; I think that's expecting too much, and not because of the quality of the game, but mainly because of the competition for the dollar in the sports world.
Q: What role can Major League Baseball play in developing softball professionally?
A: I believe it's in the best interest of Major League Baseball to be supportive of women's softball for a variety of reasons. It's an extension of their fan base. It's an extension of their marketing. It helps in terms of television ratings and attendance at ballparks, both at the major league level and the minor league level. So it's in everybody's best interest to do it.
Q: How important is scheduling? The WNBA is played in the summer so it won't go head-to-head against the NBA or college basketball. It's kind of hard to imagine softball in the winter, but do you think that would help the sport's prospects?
A: Maybe the thing to do -- I'm not sure this has ever been suggested -- is forget about trying to launch on a national level but create a Florida league. Do a Southern California league or a Texas league.
Q: And play in the baseball offseason?
A: Yes. In Florida and California, you can play any time of the year. You can play any time of the year in Alabama. You can play even in most of Georgia and other places. I think that's the way to go at it. To try to play and expect fans to come in the Chicago area when you have two Major League Baseball teams and a half a dozen other teams and all the other summer leagues going on at every level I think is asking for trouble. Having said that, it's going to be what we all call semi-pro ball -- that is, don't expect to try to earn a full-time living out of this. But to hold down a job somewhere and also play softball at the professional level, I think that's what we're talking about.
Q: Can you think of any strategies that could be used to generate interest in women's softball beyond what's happening on the field?
A: Sports tend to follow two different things [to attract fans]. One is personalities and [the other] is events. Softball has to do a similar thing. They have to promote a few of their players, like they've tried to do following the Olympics [in prior years], and, in addition, create some special events in places that draw national interest, aside from the Pan American Games and even the Olympics. Go to a major metropolitan area and put on a tournament that brings a lot of focus.
Softball has one advantage of having strong support from a cable network like ESPN. That probably has brought more national interest to the sport, just like it's done for Little League. Putting that aside, one of the most popular things in leisure time in the U.S. is co-ed softball. It's played everywhere in the summer, from Grand Forks, N.D. to Central Park in New York City. That will create more interest in the game at the collegiate level, school level and eventually the pro level.
Q: What's your perspective on career opportunities for women who want to work in sports?
A: My biggest disappointment in women's sports over time is there aren't more women at the coaching level. Whether it's women's basketball or softball or whatever it is, I'm always asking why more women have not taken it on as a career. Maybe there are stumbling blocks along the way. I had a daughter who played sports, and if it wasn't for men, people like myself, coaching our kids in soccer and basketball, there wouldn't be a team. Women certainly love the idea of being in management, from marketing to other positions, but I wish there were more women coaching at the basic level, as well as the highest levels.
Q: For the women who do want to go into the business side of sports, whether it's sales, marketing, television work or other management areas, what advice would you give them as they try to work their way up the ladder?
A: I think the single [most important thing] in any career is education. I'm not sure you necessarily need a degree in sports management, because if you look at the people who have the top jobs in sports, none of them have a degree in sports management. They have degrees in everything else. My son is vice president of the Atlanta Braves and he has a degree in civil engineering. I have a PhD in chemistry, so figure that out.
All of us have the opportunity to create positions for people. We have to help and mentor. But I start with having a successful educational background and paying a price early. Most of the people who are [trying to be] successful in sports spend their time in internships and work their way up the ladder to get as much experience as they can, changing positions whenever they can -- and also not being tied to geography. If you're willing to take a job in Iowa, that may be the stepping stone to getting a job in Chicago.