When the Oklahoma Sooners made their remarkable run to the 2000 softball national title at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, Tim Brassfield had just completed his first year as Oklahoma City All Sports Association executive director. Like hundreds of others, Brassfield watched the games from the grass berms.
That backdrop provides insight why Brassfield was filled with emotion last week when the NCAA announced Oklahoma City will host the Women’s College World Series through 2035, provided the city makes good on its promise to complete a four-phase renovation.
“I don’t even think Stanley Draper Jr. or (former OU coach) Marita Hynes could have ever envisioned this event and this stadium expanding like it has,” Brassfield said. “I never doubted our ability to do this. And we got it done.”
With crowds growing at an alarming rate the past decade, Oklahoma City officials knew at some point they’d have to make significant renovations to receive a long-term deal like Omaha, Neb., which has a contract to host the baseball World Series through 2033.
Oklahoma City has upgraded ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, built in 1987, but the final four phases are what will secure the long-term deal OKC officials have craved.
“When we played Oklahoma two years ago they shut the gates because it was sold out,” said Alabama coach Patrick Murphy. “When this is finished you’ll have room for 4,000 to 5,000 more people. It’s great for the sport, the athletes, the television coverage and it’s great for the city of Oklahoma City.”
It was never a major concern whether the WCWS might leave town like the National Finals Rodeo 30 years ago. That was an entirely different situation.
The primary factor was the bright lights of Las Vegas. Back then, Oklahoma City looked nothing like it does now, including the development of Bricktown.
“I did a lot of research on why the National Finals Rodeo left,” said Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett. “They felt their event deserved more worldwide attention, and Las Vegas delivered that.
“ESPN is the third key partner in this. ESPN didn’t care where it was held as long as it catered to their needs, which we’re addressing.”
Softball pioneers are amazed, overjoyed, by the rapid ascent of their sport.
ESPN analyst Michele Smith is an ASA Hall of Famer who played on two Olympic gold-medal teams. She also played at Oklahoma State in the late 1980s.
A quarter of a century later, Hall of Fame Stadium eventually will have the capacity to host crowds of 13,000 once 4,200 upper deck seats are added in 2018 or 2019.
“I played the first collegiate game in this stadium back when there was red clay and one-fifth the seating they have now,” Smith said. “Oklahoma has won two national titles, but back then they played on a parks-and-rec field. That’s how far the sport has come.”
Following OU’s run, Hall of Fame Stadium expanded to 5,000 seats in 2002. Outfield bleachers brought capacity to 9,300, including standing-room-only tickets.
At first, some attributed the rapid rise in attendance to OU making it to the WCWS five straight years through 2004.
What grabbed everyone’s attention is attendance continued to rise to 60,000 a year, even though the Sooners didn’t make it to the WCWS the next six years (2005-2010).
Oklahoma City’s commitment has helped boost the economy. It’s estimated 70 percent to 80 percent of fans are out-of-town guests that produce $30 million to $70 million of new money every year during the eight-day event.
“It’s been thrilling to watch this event grow. Oklahoma City is proud to be part of the success story,” Cornett said. “We believe these improvements reflect our commitment to making this event the best it can be. The worldwide attention the event brings to Oklahoma is difficult to measure, but it’s very real.”
With ESPN putting the sport in the spotlight by televising every game, softball enthusiasts started circling Memorial Day weekend to travel to Oklahoma City. Fans continued to show up in 2005, when the tournament was pushed back to the first week of June and went to a best-of-3 format in the finals.
“It’s been something to see,” said OU coach Patty Gasso. “I remember in 2000 a crowd of 5,000 was overwhelming, how we were rattled. You couldn’t hear anything. I look up at the scoreboard, and it said 9,000-something was at the game.
“It’s a great sport that’s growing because of what television has done for the sport, the exposure, the interest. And fans have a blast. I’m honored to still be coaching to experience where the sport is going. It just keeps growing and growing. It’s really incredible.”
Renovations at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium won’t produce dramatic changes for another three to four years, but plans are in place.
The NCAA last week offered a contract that stipulates Oklahoma City will host the Women’s College World Series through 2035 provided $23 million of renovations are completed.
Currently in Phase II, new additions this season included new padded dugouts with tunnels attached to team rooms and training rooms underneath the bleachers and a media base camp for ESPN.
Next season, Phase II-b will include an expanded press box, a new game operations facility and hospitality venues down the right-field line that will free up space in the press box for ESPN and national media.
Phases III and IV are the major undertakings. Construction won’t begin until 2018, following a December 2017 bond election.
“Fundraising is part of it, but one reason we have to go in phases is we’re building around this event,” Brassfield said. “We just need to stay the course.”
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