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People: BaseballSoftball chief executive Jenny Fromer on doubling the sport's participation base

Joint CEO, BaseballSoftballUK

Published in Sports Management 11 Jul 2016 issue 124
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Jenny Fromer, joint CEO, BaseballSoftballUK
Jenny Fromer, joint CEO, BaseballSoftballUK

Baseball and softball are sports which have never really seemed to gain much traction in the UK despite being hugely popular across the pond. While those in North America, brought up on the legends of Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, await the World Series with baited breath, their British cousins have, by and large, only ever viewed the game as a minority sport.

Jenny Fromer – joint chief executive of BaseballSoftballUK – is slowly hoping to change that perception, and has quietly gone about growing the sport with a few key strategies. While the number of participants is reasonably small – 24,000 – the governing body has more than doubled the base from the 10,000 who were recorded in 2013.

Slow-pitch softball, says Fromer, has experienced the most growth in terms of participation as it is “really accessible to anyone”, with mixed genders teams – five men and five women – and a pace adequate for older and younger players.

However, the demographic which is mushrooming more than any other is London-dwelling professionals who are introduced to the game via team building days. Now, the capital’s Regent’s Park is a hotbed of softball, with 18 pitches in play during summer evenings.

“We’ve had real pick-up on that side of things,” says Fromer. “We’ve developed an offer very much aimed at the corporate market – there’s word of mouth and people in the city see the sight of softball being played.”

Hit The Pitch is one of the programmes aimed at professionals, as well as those in higher education, which presents the social aspect of softball where ability comes second to the enjoyment of players. While the scheme, and baseball and softball in general, has gained the most traction though “ABC1 adults in London and the south-east”, Fromer reveals that there is something of a renaissance happening in the north of England where baseball had been traditionally popular.

“Hull was considered the home of baseball for a long time and has had real growth recently,” explains Fromer, who points to Manchester as another potential area of growth. The National League, which is the highest level of baseball in the country, has no northern teams, but Fromer has laid out plans to build a purpose built facility to grow participation and interest in the north.

Laying the foundations
In 2013 the first purpose-built baseball and softball complex in the UK was established at Farnham Park in Slough. Fromer highlights the fact that there had been no dedicated facilities for baseball up until that point, but creating a solid infrastructure is high on her list of priorities.

“For a long time the focus was on helping clubs and leagues establish leases of the land they use so they are able to make some developments such as adding permanent infrastructure,” she says. “We don’t have any facilities that are ours in terms of academy set-up and training and while players can use the Farnham Park complex for outdoor work there’s nowhere indoors to use.”

BaseballSoftballUK has approached other sporting bodies to investigate whether a shared facility would be the best way forward, but funding, like with most minority sports, is challenging.

Sport England is the NGB’s primary funder, investing around £3m over the 2013-2017 Whole Sport Plan cycle – a funding mechanism which will change from next year as physical activity takes precedence following the publication of the government sport strategy.

While Fromer sees opportunities to win funding through appealing to hard-to-reach demographics such as women – who make up a large proportion of participants – she admits she’s “worried” that BaseballSoftballUK can “only extend our resources to reach people so far”. She adds that the organisation is working hard to generate its own income.

While striking large sponsorship or media deals are almost impossible for a sport the size of baseball and softball in the UK, Fromer has earmarked ways to increase income, such as charging people to play and hiring out the clubhouse located next to Farnham Park.

Two factors that could greatly increase the awareness of baseball and softball in the UK – becoming an Olympic sport (see page 36) and London hosting a Major League Baseball (MLB) regular season match – appear to be very much on the cards and Fromer is excited about grasping the opportunity.

Fromer – who used to work for the MLB – said: “When MLB takes games to other countries it’s a requirement that domestic federations do something positive with that in terms of growth. That’s been a conversation we’ve been having and the approach we want to take is around engaging hard-to-reach target groups.

“One of the possible venues for an MLB game is the Olympic Stadium, which sits in an area of deprivation, so there’s some real opportunities for development in terms of those demographics.”

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