BSF and League Heads explore return to play

Fri 10 Jul 2020

The BSF Executive held a videoconference meeting on the evening of Monday 6 July with League Heads and representatives from BSUK and BASU to consider possibilities for a return to some kind of play in 2020 and the protocols under which this might take place.

A total of 21 people participated in the meeting, including seven members of the BSF Executive, CEO John Boyd and Head of Commercial Joelle Watkins from BaseballSoftballUK, BASU Umpire-in-Chief Jes Sandhu and League Heads or Committee members from leagues in Bristol, Liverpool, Milton Keynes, Leeds, Solent, Cardiff and Edinburgh, plus the London Softball League.

The meeting came just three days after the government, following a Boris Johnson U-turn, had announced that recreational cricket matches involving up to 30 participants would be allowed under Covid-19 regulations from 15 July, opening the door for softball and other sports to apply for similar permission.


Changes

“The climate is changing,” BSF President Jenny Fromer said at the start of the meeting.  “Community sports are being asked by the government to create a plan for a safe return to play, and BaseballSoftballUK is currently doing this on our behalf.  But the plan will need to be signed off by the government before any kind of softball games can begin.”

Currently, government regulations permit groups of up to six people to train under socially-distanced conditions; if softball’s Return to Play protocols are approved, it should mean that up to 30 people could come together on one field to play a softball game provided those protocols are strictly observed.

The implication, Jenny told the meeting, with many leagues having already cancelled their season, is that informal or pick-up games might be possible, but it is hard to foresee the possibility of any tournament events this season.  The BSF has now announced that it is cancelling the remaining tournaments it had hoped to run in September, including the Softball World Series


Guidance

Joelle Watkins has been leading the effort at BSUK to produce Return to Play guidance measures for softball, which will be submitted to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) via Sport England on Monday 13 July.  It is not known when a response from the DCMS will be received.

The guidance document does not envision any rule changes or modification to the way the sport is played, and will be based on three elements:

  • Basic health and safety measures designed to minimise the possibility of transmission.
     
  • The appointment of league and/or team Covid-19 Officers to ensure that health and safety guidance is followed.
     
  • Registration of all participants in organised softball games so that track-and-trace can be applied in the event of a participant later testing positive for the virus.  League Heads or Covid-19 Officers will need to ensure this data is kept, and the latter should be appointed and briefed now so they are ready when games become possible.

“Risk is calculated in terms of proximity interactions,” Joelle Watkins told the meeting, and so face coverings would not generally be required during play, except possibly by the catcher and home plate umpire -- and not even then if the umpire can take up a position sufficiently far behind the catcher.  This should be possible in slowpitch but would be harder in fastpitch or baseball.

The three elements – health and safety measures (which will be detailed in the guidance document), Covid-19 Officers and participant registration – might still be necessary next year, Joelle said, even if there is a full return to league and tournament play.

BSUK CEO John Boyd added, “We can’t play until the government has signed off on our plan, and we will be talking about just one game at a time.  Softball is inherently a safe sport in relation to Covid-19, with players mostly spread well apart over a large area.  The issues are more around transport to games, mingling at the venue etc.”

In response to a question, John suggested that games could take place on different fields at a single venue as long as there was no mingling before or after by participants in the different games.

“And as long as we have a protocol signed off by the government,” John said,” facility providers should be willing and able to accept bookings.”

BSF General Officer Mike Jennings added that as long as the health and safety protocols are strictly followed for any games that take place, the BSF’s Civil and Public Liability insurance would be valid for those games.

“Nothing must fall outside government guidance and our protocols,” Jenny Fromer added, “so that we can be sure our insurance will stand.”

Whether insurance would be valid for a game played in accordance with the protocols but on an un-booked pitch was a further question raised, and one that the BSF will check on, though the feeling is that the insurance will stand or fall on the conduct of the game, not on the venue.

All of the discussion to this point was about play in a BSF league context, but the regulations and protocols will of course apply to Independent Teams (the BSF will contact them) and to unaffiliated leagues (who will be contacted by BaseballSoftballUK).


Questions

Indoor Softball.  League representatives had a number of other questions, and one concerned the possibility of playing indoor softball and the different issues that would involve.

John Boyd said, “We’re months away from the indoor situation, and months are years in Covid-time.  There will be a government announcement about indoor sport soon, perhaps during the next few weeks; right now, it’s not clear how many people might be able to gather indoors.  We’ll probably need another set of protocols to deal with that situation.”

Tag plays.  Another question concerned tag plays, since some other Federations have mandated that all tag plays must be made as force plays to avoid direct contact. 

“We can debate whether to retain tag plays,” Joelle Watkins said, “but we’re reluctant to make significant changes to the way the sport is played, and we feel that the contact involved in tag plays is fleeting.”

Other Home Countries.  A further question concerned protocols for a safe return to play in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which are making their own decisions on easing lockdown regulations.

“I don’t think there will be much difference in the protocols that will be accepted in those countries,” John Boyd said, “except for the timing.”

“It is likely that some game play will be possible this summer,” Jenny Fromer said, “but willingness to play will be a personal decision.  We don’t really know how much appetite there will be for play.  The likelihood is that the most we will see this year is scratch games, and not necessarily with a 5:5 ratio.  It will be good to be flexible!”

Junior players.  A question was raised about the application of protocols and regulations to junior players, and the answer was that they would apply to all under-18 players, and that it would also be particularly important to ensure that all the usual safeguarding procedures and protocols were observed, especially parental permission to play.

2021 Calendar.  A final question concerned possible revisions to the 2021 Softball Calendar.  BSF Administrator Bob Fromer replied that unlike with the ESF, no cancelled events from 2020 would be carried over to 2021, so next year’s calendar should be much like that in previous years, provided that the state of the pandemic allowed a normal schedule in 2021.  League Heads that want to reserve dates for tournaments next year were urged to contact Bob and Liz Graham with their requests.


Umpires

Softball’s Return to Play protocols will of course apply to umpires as well as players; and as with players, a return to the field by umpires will be a personal decision.

BASU Umpire-in-Chief Jes Sandhu told the meeting that something like 50% of BASU umpires were cautiously willing to officiate at games, but many others were unwilling to do so.

“In general, umpires don’t want to come back this year,” Jes said, “so self-umpiring will probably be the answer in most cases.”


Affiliation fees

A final topic raised by Jenny Fromer was the question of BSF affiliation fees.

The BSF has made the decision not to charge any affiliation fees to teams in 2020, even if some play takes place this year.

But despite the £20,000 grant the BSF has received from Sport England to help keep the Federation functioning, Jenny told the meeting that there would need to be a surcharge on fees next year, and perhaps for a few years to come, so that the BSF could re-build its reserves to a level that could meet good governance requirements.

The BSF will endeavour to keep this surcharge as low as possible.

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