When Lee Allan Smith thinks about the Women's College World Series, and the potential the Oklahoma City could lose the event, he remembers all the unhappy people he encountered when Oklahoma lost the National Finals Rodeo to Las Vegas in 1984.
“Let's not do that again,” said Smith, a longtime civic leader in the state. “It's more dollars for Oklahoma today than it was for us when we lost the NFR back then.
“We need to keep this (WCWS) franchise in Oklahoma. It's a fabulous franchise, from economic development and the nationwide publicity that comes from it.”
Oklahoma City's contract with the NCAA to host the Women's College World Series runs through 2014, and officials with the city, the All-Sports Association and the Amateur Softball Association want to secure a long-term contract to keep OKC as the home of college softball's biggest event — and in essence, maintain the city's stature as the sport's premier destination.
As part of the pursuit of a multiyear contract — something in the 20-year range, similar to what Omaha got for college baseball's College World Series — local entities have developed a plan to add 4,200 upper-deck seats to ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, along with providing other updates and improvements for fans, teams and media.
With the upgrades, the All-Sports Association hopes to provide the NCAA with a suitable facility to be the long-term host of the WCWS, address some of ESPN's desires — because their push to broadcast all of the WCWS games was one of the cornerstones of growing the event — and improve the overall fan experience for the thousands of people buying tickets to watch the event.
Additional locker rooms and warm-up rooms for the players are the first phase of the three-phase plan. The central structure of the stadium will be improved in the second phase, with the upper-deck seats coming in the third phase of an overall plan targeted for completion in 2018, if funding and everything else come together as planned.
The added seats are one of the primary needs, because the stadium, despite several recent upgrades that expanded its seating capacity from 2,000 to more than 8,000, could be in danger of being outgrown by the flourishing event in the coming years.
In both sessions of games on Saturday, All-Sports Association officials had to make the call to stop selling tickets, turning away more than 1,000 fans. Each session had more than 9,500 people in attendance, selling out all of the standing room only tickets.
It's a drastic change from the 2,000-seat stadium that first hosted the WCWS in 1990.
“When I got here in 1998, we had the berms out there and people rolling down the hills,” said ASA executive director Ron Radigonda. “We were getting 25,000 fans back then. In essence, it's the same event it was back in 1998, and this week, we'll have more than 75,000 here, so it's increased threefold in a very short period of time.”
The economic benefit of the WCWS is estimated at $12 million to $15 million for Oklahoma City, Brassfield said, adding that there are benefits beyond money, too.
“What other event do we have that broadcasts seven straight days all over the world, and talks about Oklahoma City, and showcases everything we have here?” Brassfield asked. “It's a great tourist event, with 80 percent of the people coming from out of state. The economic impact is a big number, but the visibility side, I don't think you can quantify the impact and the benefit of that. It's got a great value.”
Who is OKC's competition for the WCWS?
Over the past decade, Oklahoma City has largely been the unopposed incumbent in the race to win the Women's College World Series.
Challengers have been few.
But now the Alabama Sports Foundation is mulling a bid to lure the WCWS to Hoover, Ala. Foundation executives have indicated that they are having initial discussions but that nothing formal has been done.
If the foundation were to make a bid, Hoover Metropolitan Stadium would be the host site. It had been the home of the Birmingham Barons until this season when the minor league baseball team opened a new stadium.
The Hoover Met is the longtime site of the SEC Baseball Tournament and has also hosted football, soccer and beach volleyball. The stadium seats 10,500-plus and has 12 skyboxes, a banquet room with patio overlooking the field, a picnic area and a double-decker press box.
Hoover is no stranger to NCAA championships. For the past two years, the city has hosted the College Cup, the Division I men's soccer national championship.
The Alabama Sports Foundation also has history with NCAA events. It successfully bid to bring the women's gymnastics championships to Birmingham next year.
‘Your Name Here' Hall of Fame Stadium
Improvements of the scale that the All-Sports Association and Amateur Softball Association are discussing for Hall of Fame Stadium don't come cheap.
And a big part of the project is their work to raise the money. The cost of the project is estimated at $20 million, with about $7 million coming from private sources and $13 million from public funds, including a potential future bond issue.
As part of the fundraising efforts, the naming rights for the stadium are being made available for purchase.
The naming rights for ASA Hall of Fame Stadium won't be as costly as what Chesapeake paid for the downtown arena, or what the Chickasaw Nation paid for the Bricktown Ballpark.
“It's a nominal fee, and it's a great right to have,” said Lee Allan Smith, an Oklahoma City civic leader who has been heavily involved in working to keep the Women's College World Series at the stadium. “This is a very visible stadium through ESPN and all the attention the sport brings.”
The All-Sports Association is pursuing a long-term contract with the NCAA to keep the WCWS at the stadium, and likewise, they're interested in doing the same thing with the naming rights — perhaps up to 20 years.
Once a softball field, now a stadium
Back in the 1990s, when the Women's College World Series was gaining its footing in Oklahoma City, ASA Hall of Fame Stadium was an ideal setting for the event.
The 2,000 seats were enough for the crowds coming in at the time. The grass hills down the outfield lines allowed families to bring a blanket and watch the tournament in a relaxing environment.
It wasn't much different from the way many softball fans spent their summers at ball fields for weekend tournaments around the country.
But as interest in the WCWS spiked, especially following Oklahoma's national title in 2000, the event quickly outgrew the quaint setting.
And the push to build Hall of Fame Stadium into the mecca of softball began.
More permanent seats were needed, so the berms down the outfield lines gave way to expanded stadium seating.
Many other amenities were refined and improved, while maintaining a family friendly atmosphere.
Outfield bleachers beyond the fences, with a new video board and scoreboard. Additional bathrooms and concessions. Practice fields and other things that many people might not even notice, like a permanent warning track and outfield fence.
But the next wave of plans for the stadium blows away past improvements.
The three-phase project, which the All-Sports Association is working to gather funding for, includes improvements that will benefit everyone who comes through the gates of the stadium, from teams to fans to the growing media contingent covering the event.
Among the improvements are:
* Upper-deck seating above the current bleachers along the first- and third-base lines, as well as two luxury suites.
* More locker rooms and warm-up rooms for teams.
* New media work areas for print and radio, as well as a television booth for ESPN.
As part of the project, the outer facade of the structure will dramatically change, while bringing the seating capacity up to 12,500.
WCWS moments in OKC
There have been several milestone moments during the Women's College World Series' run in Oklahoma City that have helped the city put a stranglehold on the event.
1997: The WCWS returns to Oklahoma City after being played in Columbus, Ga. It was moved to the site of the 1996 Olympic venue as a test run of sorts for the Games after having been in Oklahoma for six years. Crowds in OKC before the WCWS's one-year hiatus had been decent — growing from 12,073 in 1990 to 20,000-plus the last three years — but after the series returns, attendance blossoms. Crowds top 24,000 each of the next three years.
2000: Oklahoma makes its first appearance in the series, and the Sooners give it a shot in the arm like nothing else could. Attendance skyrockets to 38,102, which bests the previous series high by more than 10,000. A phenomenon is born.
2002: ESPN decides to broadcast every WCWS game live on either ESPN or ESPN2. The telecasts take the event to a broader audience, growing the fan base and luring even more people to Oklahoma City.
2003: Major stadium renovations prove that Oklahoma City is serious about staking a claim in the WCWS. The $5.1 million overhaul adds 3,000 seats, expanding capacity to 5,500; 500 parking spaces; and two practice fields. There are also upgrades to concessions, bathrooms and walkways.
2011: Attendance numbers had hit a plateau between 59,000 and 62,000, but when Oklahoma and Oklahoma State make the series for the first time ever, it kick starts a new spike in attendance that continues to this day. Attendance in 2011 is a record 67,631, which was broken last year with 75,960. That number is expected to be shattered again this year.
What they're saying about the WCWS in OKC
What do you think about the Women's College World Series being in Oklahoma City?
Kim Bruins, Texas pitcher: “This has been the spot for the World Series for as long as I can remember. After this past week, I just think it brings the city together and brings the community together and I think it's a great way for people to bond. I think the atmosphere (makes it special). And then it's just great for the fans, for the little girls, to come out and be inspired.”
Christy Thomas, fan from Tulsa: “It's neutral for everybody but close for us.”
Shauna Brown, fan from Salt Lake City: “It would be nice if it could move around occasionally just to be more accessible, but it's also nice knowing it's in one spot.”
Raven Chavanne, Tennessee third baseman: “Just growing up, every major tournament has always been in Oklahoma City, whether it was 18-and-under nationals, the Hall of Fame, the World Series. So, to me, when I think softball, I think OKC and Hall of Fame Stadium. This is my third time back here, and every time, it's just as magical even more so stepping out on that field.”
Rick Liner, fan from Chattanooga, Tenn.: “I like it fine. I've never been to Oklahoma City; this is my first time. I like the environment and the atmosphere. It seems to support the sport. My daughter is playing in the Hall of Fame qualifier next week, so we came here to see this and the play at this level.”