Big Time Softball had been around for decades. Players like Big Jim Galloway, Tex Collins, Mighty Joe Young and Bruce Meade belted towering home runs before huge, captivated crowds dating all the way back to the wood bat era.
Everybody wanted a piece of the action. Over the years, multiple associations flooded the market with their versions of Major NIT’s and the net result eventually became a bunch of smaller, watereddown get-togethers that lacked the appeal of large events from softball’s heyday. Sure, premier showcases like the Smoky Mountain Classic in Maryville, TN and Dudley Classic in Brooklyn Center, MN still flourished as always. But many of the newer and less-visible tournaments often turned into disappointing six-to-eight-team brackets that served as nothing more than glorified scrimmages.
By the end of the 20th century, numbers had dwindled drastically. Sponsors who were spending big dollars on airline tickets, hotel rooms, rental cars, meal money and equipment became discouraged with what they were getting for their investment and began leaving the sport.
Something had to be done, fast, before the upper level of slow-pitch softball became extinct. After the 2005 season, USSSA Executive Director/CEO Don DeDonatis came up with the concept of Conference USSSA. Many now hail it as the savior of the sport.
“Basically, we wanted to get the best teams in the country together for several weekends a year to showcase the best players and teams at locations from coast to coast,” said DeDonatis. “This is the Major League of softball.” Conference USSSA has been a resounding success. Eighteen teams bought into the new program in 2006. After witnessing the popularity of the venture, many more teams jumped on board and the Conference maxed out at 32 teams for both 2007 and 2008. DeDonatis expects Conference USSSA to fill up even faster in 2009 than it has in previous years.
“With all the positive feedback from Conference USSSA 2008, I can’t wait for the 2009 season to begin,” DeDonatis said. “With more teams joining, Conference USSSA 2009 will be even more exciting.”
Teams must invest $5,000 to join Conference USSSA, but what they get in return makes that fee a bargain. For starters, it covers their entry fee for any six of the 19 Conference NIT’s that are spread around the country. For the bigger budget teams who want to play in more than six Conference events, additional entry fees are $350. For smaller budget teams from remote areas who perhaps cannot make it to six Conference tournaments, they may apply unused entry fee money toward any other USSSA tournament.
Conference USSSA is not just for Major and class A teams, either. It is an excellent opportunity for top B, C and even D teams to play a competitive schedule to better prepare themselves for their own World Tournaments.
“Instead of playing down all the time and winning nothing more than a trophy, some of these folks (B, C and D teams) are stepping up to see how well they stack up against the best competition in the country, and it is turning into valuable points and ultimately dollars for them down the road,” DeDonatis said. “Everybody is treated equally..” Conference USSSA 2008 consisted of the three Major teams (Resmondo/ Worth, Dan Smith/Combat and Long Haul/Miken), 11 class A teams, 15 class B teams, two class C teams, and one class D team. Even more participation is expected from B, C and D teams in 2009.
Teams receive points based on their results at Conference events, which are then used to compile the standings. If a team plays in more than six tournaments, their total points will be based on their six best finishes. After the last Conference NIT, all team point totals are accumulated to determine the top 14 Men’s Major World series teams and the top eight Men’s B/C/D teams. The highest finishing A, B, C and D Conference teams then get 500 bonus points toward their open class point total, plus an additional $500 travel money for their respective World Tournaments. In addition, 100 participation points are awarded to all B, C and D Conference teams for each entry into a Conference NIT.
At the end of the season, the Conference USSSA Championships are held at the USSSA National Headquarters in Kissimmee, FL on fields that are the spring training home of the Houston Astros. The top eight class A and above teams play in the Conference USSSA Major Championships, while the top eight class B and below teams play in the Conference USSSA B Championships. Each of these 16 teams receives 10 rooms for two nights at one of the host hotels and the events are covered live on USSSA Live.. One of the highlights of championship weekend is the Awards Dinner and Ceremony, where Conference USSSA superlatives are presented and All-Conference teams are announced.
Don DeDonatis III of Resmondo/Worth was named Most Valuable Player for 2008. Jeff Hall was named the Batting Champion and Greg Connell was the Home Run Champion. Both Hall and Connell also played for Resmondo/ Worth. Scott Nastally of Dan Smith/Combat was named the Outstanding Defensive Player, while J.C. Phelps of GTL/Worth was named the Outstanding Offensive Player. John Rector of Resmondo/Worth was tabbed the All-Conference Manager.
The benefits continue. The top 14 Conference teams, regardless of class, receive paid berths to the Men’s Major World Series played at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Stadium. Each team also receives 10 hotel rooms for four nights at one of the host hotels, plus $2,000 travel money. All class A, B, C and D teams who participate in Conference USSSA receive paid berths to their respective World Tournaments, along with $2,000 travel money for those events. Class B and C teams also get paid hotel rooms at their World Tournaments, while D teams receive an additional $1,500 to apply toward their rooms at World. DeDonatis points out that 22 of the 32 teams in the Conference will receive the big financial package at the end, which will more than recoup their initial $5,000 investment.
The 2009 Conference USSSA schedule will begin April 17-19 with the USSSA Hall of Fame Classic in Kissimmee, FL. The next stop is a week later on April 24-26 at the USSSA Worth Men’s Major in Glenn Burnie, MD, which is followed by the Gateway City Classic on May 1-3 in St. Louis, MO. The circuit makes its first of two trips to Texas on May 8-10 for the 8th Annual Texas Legends N.I.T. in Euless, which is near Dallas. The Columbus Major is held May 15-17 in Columbus, IN and is followed by the Peach State Shootout on May 23-24 in Atlanta, GA. Two Conference events are held on the May 29-31 weekend; the 21st Annual Mike Davis Memorial in Concord, CA and the Music City Classic in Nashville, TN.
The second half of the Texas two-step will be held June 5-7 with the 3rd Annual Space City Classic at the Big League Dreams complex in League City, which is just outside Houston. The Windy City Invitational will be held June 12-14 in Joilet, IL and will be followed by the heralded 27th Annual Dudley Classic in Brooklyn Center, MN. The tour travels to New England on June 26-28 for the Easton Sports Northeast Shootout in North Branford, CT. Two Conference events are held on the Fourth of July weekend; the Combat Major in Kent, WA and the Busch/ Pepsi Classic in Little Rock, AR.
Given the success of Conference USSSA, all other associations have virtually abandoned trying to compete in the upper level of softball, making the Conference the only game in town.
An added benefit of playing in Conference USSSA is nationwide exposure on USSSA Live. The new company arrived on the scene for the 2008 season and broadcast many of the Conference events live via the Internet. Softball fans everywhere could sit in front of their computers in the comfort of their homes and watch the action live, complete with announcers, multiple camera angles, instant replays and great interviews.
“They came in with a vision of taking softball to the next level by showing all the folks out there what is going in these premier events,” DeDonatis said. “The exposure has helped the Conference, and fans get to see their favorite teams play.”
USSSA Live will further expand into girls fastpitch, boys baseball and possibly even other USSSA events.”
Conference USSSA has been a savior of Big Time Softball. Conference events averaged a robust 28.7 teams per tournament in 2008. Sponsors who were beginning to feel neglected are now seeing more value in their investment and sticking around the game longer.
That means softball fans everywhere should be able to watch and enjoy whenever the next Big Jim Galloway, Tex Collins, Mighty Joe Young or Bruce Meade comes along.
The United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA), headquartered in Osceola County, Florida, USSSA is the World's Largest Multi-sport Athletic Organization. Founded in 1968, USSSA has grown to over 3.7 million participants, competing in 13 nationally sanctioned sports including Baseball, Fastpitch, Slow Pitch, Karate, Basketball, Soccer and more! For more information on USSSA and to register your team visit USSSA.com. Also be sure to visit USSSAToday.com for the latest USSSA News!