It's summertime and softball is hot. On this unseasonably sweaty weekend, for example, Warner Park's fields are sprinkled with girls in glitter bands whirling balls, gripping bats, chanting fight
songs. Misting fans whoosh. Cleats click across pavement that sizzles like a pizza oven. The park's emerald bleacher shades, daisy-filled planters and groomed infields belie a serious purpose - keeping kids busy while lining up millions of dollars for the Scenic City.
This month, Chattanooga boasts a doubleheader of national softball tournaments: The Tri-state Fastpitch Association's Girls' East Division A World Series July 25-31, and, from July 30 to Aug. 7, the American Softball Association's Girls' 16-and-Under Class A Fast Pitch National Championship.
Together, the events are estimated to bring about $6.5 million to the city's hotels, attractions, restaurants and gift shops. The TSFA expects to host about 180 to 190 teams - some 10,000 to 12,000 people, says director Tom Devlin.
The ASA expects about 160 teams and about 5,000 people, estimates American Softball Association National Tournament Director Kim Swafford. Once, college sports were the town's rainmakers. Today, girls' softball has become its mighty income machine. From 2003-2007, the city estimates visitors spent about $18.28 million each year during sporting events. The average for the past three years was 25 percent higher, about $22.66 million. Softball tournaments contributed nearly half the total, almost $10 million, says Scott Smith, president of the Greater Chattanooga Sports and Events Committee.
Even smaller events, like the recent ASA Memorial Tournament, regularly bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars, including $200,000 over Memorial Day weekend, according to the Sports Committee. "We've taken a little heat for losing the NCAA football championship," says Smith. "But the past two years have been our highest ever, even during the recession. Softball is definitely our bread-and-butter."
Nationally, softball has picked up momentum too. Warner Park's Frost Stadium was state-of-the-art 10 years ago, says Jill Higdon, a former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs softball player and co-owner of Fury Academy, a Rossville, Ga.-based training company. "Now, every SEC team has one," she says. "People have come to expect awesome softball venues."
When the best fastpitch players hit the field this month, more than 300 college coaches are expected to be watching. College scholarships are a strong possibility for every member of the Fury 94 team, as with many others at the national tournament, says Higdon. "I'm so Pro-Chattanooga," she says. "I'm always trying to recruit people here, I say 'you've got to come see this place, it's the coolest place in the country.'"
The town's home fields were once magical places. Children and grownups, girls and boys spent many happy hours pitching, catching and stealing home in pickup games to championship tourneys all over town. From 1989 to 1999 Chattanooga hosted 10 straight ASA national championship events, says Swafford. In 1996, the year the Olympics were held in Atlanta, the NSA hosted 587 teams from around the region.
But Warner Park aged and Montague Park, built on a landfill improperly capped in the 1960s and lacking safe methane vents, closed for repairs in 2003 (it has never reopened). Under then-mayor (now Senator) Bob Corker, the venerable Chattanooga Metro Sports Association disbanded.
Then, in 2005, mayoral candidate Ron Littlefield campaigned with a pledge to restore softball and baseball to its glory days. Since his election, the city has spent $2.8 million on ball fields at Warner Park and $12 million on the state-of-the-art Summit of Softball complex near Collegedale.
Armed with top-notch facilities, the city's parks and recreation department, the Sports Committee and local softball teams began pitching for national tournaments again. As she admires Warner Park's precise 200-foot outfields, cleanly raked infields and sleek aluminum bleacher benches, Swafford, a local federal government attorney, explains how ASA's teams will rent the pool for team parties, and visit the zoo. Papa John's and Frost Cutlery signed up as sponsors. "I tried Volkswagen," she adds, "but they're into soccer."
Regardless, the downtown Marriott Hotel expects the classic American sport to produce a homerun of 19 soldout nights in both June and July, says Mary Childress, director of sales and marketing. Youngsters in uniforms with cheerful families in attendance lift the staff's spirits, she adds. "We're looking forward to the energy the teams bring to the hotel and to the city."
And as for public funds spent on Warner Park and the new eight-field Summit of Softball complex in the Collegedale area? "It's a great use of tax dollars," says Chattanooga Choo Choo General Manager Jim Bambrey, adding that the hotel expects to take in some $200,000.
The softball teams have filled 225 rooms, the majority of the hotel's 363 accommodations. "Many people make this their vacation. It has a great economic impact to the whole community. It's a no-brainer."
For the past seven years, Landon Pickett, a special education teacher in Jackson County, Ala., has watched his 15-year-old daughter Cassie Pickett - a Baylor School sophomore and Fury 94 team member - play more than 1,000 softball games. Having traveled to more national tournaments than he can recall in Georgia, Texas, Ohio and California, Pickett feels grateful for the new local facilities.
"Now, we don't have to spend as much money on the road." The Lady Panthers, a Brainerd-based team, used to spend some $15,000 per season traveling the country from June through mid-August, says Letha High, a part-time day care assistant in Brainerd whose daughter, Cricket High, is a 15-year-old pitcher for Baylor School. Many of the team's parents are single mothers.
"We have always found a way to take them," says Letha High, "but I love it that the national championship this year is close to home."
Softball's most important benefit, according to many adult enthusiasts, is that it gives girls something to do. It also "brings families and communities together," says TFSA's Devlin. The dedication, discipline and cooperation required also prepare girls for success says Swafford. "Women who play sports in high school and college are often very successful in the business world. They know how to be team players."
This May, Baylor School's Lady Raiders shut out the Girls Preparatory School Bruisers to win the State Division II-AA state championship. By the next weekend, the top players had hit the road. For the next three months, former teammates will become rivals and former opponents will be, at least temporarily, best friends. Big collegiate contests are being slowly replaced by not just softball, but rowing regattas, early bird basketball, ultimate Frisbee, triathlons, bowling. As primetime spectator sports give way to youth and leisure activities, the number of people buying tickets to Ruby Falls, Chattanooga Ghost Tours and the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum seems to soar.
Meanwhile, for the stars of the shows, the pleasures are simpler. "I like playing with my teammates," says Lindsey Fadnek, 17, a Coalfield (Tenn.) High and Fury 94 pitcher. "I make a lot of friends," agrees Corey Swafford, 16, a Girls Preparatory School sophomore and Fury 94 pitcher. "And I love the really intense moments - I like to try to strike someone out - it feels good to beat them."