Softball NZ's serious crisis needs real resolution

TONY SMITH
Last updated 05:00 15/12/2012

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OPINION: Chairman Rex Capil's resignation is unlikely to be enough to appease those agitating for change at Softball New Zealand's crisis meeting in Wellington tomorrow.

Ten provincial associations have demanded the special general meeting amid claims that the sport - set to host the men's world championships in March - is in a precarious position.

Even Softball New Zealand (SNZ) president Hilton Earley has cried foul and supported the call for change.

Capil quit as board chairman last week, citing work and family commitments. Nicky Sherriff, a long-time board member, was appointed acting chairwoman.

Sherriff, a senior sports strategy official at Sport New Zealand is seen as a more conciliatory chairperson. SNZ's critics are happy for her to continue in the role.

But there is still a strong push for change at governance and management level.

The backers of the special general meeting issued a document, Rebuilding Our Foundations, to outline their ideas for change.

They want a "high-energy change manager" to come in and turn the national office around, bring a "wow factor" to softball and rebuild rapport with the regions.

That is essentially a vote of no-confidence in current general manager Dane Dougan, a former New Zealand Rugby Union staff member with no softball background.

A growing disconnect has developed between SNZ and its grassroots membership.

The cries for change became a crescendo when SNZ revealed it had lost $300,000 in funding from the New Zealand Community Trust.

That prompted a structure review which led to 10 staff positions being reduced to six.

SNZ decided to dispense with its national pitching adviser, Debbie Mygind, a decision which beggars belief when softball is so dependent on effective pitching. It would be tantamount to the All Blacks flicking their kicking coach.

The review casualties also included New Zealand's current Softballer of the Year, Venita Hokai, coach of the Junior White Sox and the Auckland women's team.

Within weeks of being hailed for coaching Auckland and Ramblers to the national representative and club titles and guiding the Junior White Sox to sixth place at the world junior championships, Hokai was shown the door and effectively replaced in Auckland by a man with no softball background, shotputter Valerie Adams' manager, Nick Cowan, who had joined SNZ early this year as high-performance manager.

The relationship between the five-time world champion Black Sox men's national team - SNZ's flagship side - is still recovering after the SNZ board sacked former Black Sox manager Doug Golightly without public explanation last year.

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The mood was not improved when the Black Sox set out for a tournament in Canberra last December only to discover their uniforms - held at head office - had not been washed since the mid-year tour of North America.

Paul Walford, a Black Sox world champion in 1996, had been the team's United States-based co-ordinator, setting up their North American tours in 2011 and 2012. But he resigned in frustration this year after discovering SNZ had not booked his travel and accommodation for the tour despite him turning down other international offers to work with the Black Sox.

At least the Black Sox don't have to pay to play. They are the only New Zealand softball team to enjoy continued High Performance Sport New Zealand funding.

The White Sox had to stump up $7000 or more to play at the women's world championships in Yukon in Canada last July.

Yet some still had to sleep five to a room and and a coach slept on a mattress on the floor for the duration of the 10-day tournament.

The White Sox finished 13th - a record low. SNZ say Cowan conducted a campaign review but it is being held over as a part of pending review of the entire women's programme, including talent identification and development.

The SNZ board's decision to back an International Softball Federation drive to hold world senior and junior championships every two years instead of four-yearly is beginning to bite on the back pockets of stalwarts of this blue-collar sport.

SNZ now has to send two teams a year to world championships. Most travel on a user-pays basis, meaning the best players are not always available.

Softball people toiling at the club and association coal-face acknowledge they also need to lift their act and that the game's decline cannot be solely sheeted home to SNZ.

But the critics accuse SNZ of a lack of recruitment, media or long-term funding strategies. They are demanding a strategy sub-committee be set up to come up with a new five-year vision for the national game. Some change proponents, including former elite players and ex-board members, are prepared to serve on the sub-committee.

Older softballers remember when New Zealand were triple world champions (men's, women's and junior men) in the 1980s.

The sport - which had twice the number of registered players to the 30,000 today - was then run by a part-time national secretary, Wellington accountant George Vincent, and his office assistant.

But it was governed by a national council comprising former international softballers, elite-level coaches and experienced provincial administrators, people steeped in the sport.

Co-ordinated fundraising campaigns paid for national teams to travel overseas and an internal tours levy assisted international and club teams to tour New Zealand and raise the profile of the game.

Softball needs to look forward but revert to some proven past practices. More use must be made of the expert advice of former world champion coaches Ed Dolejs, Mike Walsh and Don Tricker and Black Sox legend Mark Sorenson, especially when it comes to critical national coaching appointments.

A small sport like softball needs people with a passion for the game in the key roles.

- The Press

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