Inaugural ESPN softball tournament in Clearwater packs a punch

Fans turn out in droves all four days, exceeding expectations for the 16-team college invitational.
Florida State University Fans pack the stands on the final day of the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational at the Eddie C. Moore fields in Clearwater. (LUIS SANTANA | Times)
Florida State University Fans pack the stands on the final day of the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational at the Eddie C. Moore fields in Clearwater. (LUIS SANTANA | Times)
Published February 17
Updated February 17

CLEARWATER — DeAngelo Sanchez stakes out his spot in front of the stands at the Eddie C. Moore Complex, site of the inaugural St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational.

Everything about Sanchez is loud, from his exuberant antics to his wardrobe.

Sanchez, 32, proudly wears purple and gold, the colors of LSU’s softball team. He sports band-aids with the name of the school underneath his eyes. He even has a championship belt around his waist.

And Sanchez is there just about every game.

“If the Tigers played in China I’d be there,” said Sanchez, who works as a shift manager at a PetSmart warehouse.

Sanchez became an LSU softball devotee to support his sister, Shemiah, the team’s starting second baseman.

“It costs a lot, but you only get a short window to cheer on your loved ones,” he said.

The bulk of Sanchez’s traveling comes during weekend tournaments. That is what brought him to Clearwater.

“This is one of the best tournaments I’ve ever seen,” Sanchez said. “The staff is great. It’s just good for college softball. No matter who wins or loses, everyone is just here to support the ones they love. That’s what it’s all about.”

The initivational,a 16-team tournament featuring several nationally ranked programs, is the first ESPN owned-and-operated event in college softball. Of the 39 games played, 25 were televised or streamed.

While Sanchez might be among the more noticeable fans, there were plenty of others in the stands, with the projected attendance at more than 9,000 combined for the four days games, according to Visit St. Pete/Clearwater CEO Tim Ramsberger.

“It’s certainly exceeded expectations,” said Kristen Shaver, director of ESPN Events. “When you look out in the stands for every game, there’s a standing room only crowd. It’s just been a steady flow of people coming in and out. That’s exactly what we want and I know the company as a whole has been really impressed with this being an inaugural event.”

Shaver said the biggest measurement is the student-athlete — and fan — experience.

“You want happy teams and good games,” she said. “We want to make this an annual thing so we want teams to tell others about their experience.”

DeAngelo Sanchez, 32, supports his sister, Shemiah, and LSU during the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational. (TAILYR IRVINE | Times)
DeAngelo Sanchez, 32, supports his sister, Shemiah, and LSU during the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational. (TAILYR IRVINE | Times)

Throughout the tournament, players stayed after their games to sign autographs and pose for pictures.

Keith Porasky waited Saturday night with his daughters, Jordan and Madison, to interact with Oregon’s softball team. The Ducks obliged, even taking a group picture with all the young softball players who stood along the first-base line after their team meeting.

Porasky, 46, who coaches a travel softball team in Pennsylvania, became an Oregon fan a few years ago. He said he spent about $5,000 this weekend to see the Ducks play in person for the first time.

“I’ve been to some college tournaments before, but this one is spectacular,” said Porasky, who owns a medical equipment repair company as well as several other businesses. “I’d have to put it near the top. The teams were strong. The weather was nice. And there was incredible access to the players, which you don’t get at every tournament.”

College softball has become big business. The sport generated $450 million in revenue during the 2016-17 school year, making it the highest NCAA revenue-producing sport among women according to Department of Education data compiled by Softball America.

And the sport has made significant progress in television coverage at all levels. Former Admiral Farragut coach Linda Derk guided the Tampa Bay FireStix professional team to a title during its debut season in 1999. Derk said the Women’s Professional Softball League paid ESPN to televise its games — and that was on a tape-delay basis.

“Even though it was on tape delay, the games had better ratings than hockey,” said Derk, who worked as a volunteer during this weekend’s tournament. “To be out here and see this many college games televised this early in the season is amazing. It shows just how far this sport has come.”

This weekend’s games were played on six fields at two sites, creating some logistical adjustments for an ESPN crew that is used televising games at one location for a tournament.

“When you’re doing something for the first time you just never know really know what’s going to look like,” said Meg Aronowitz, coordinating producer at ESPN. “There were some technical challenges to overcome, but you would never know looking at this tournament. We didn’t know that the stands would be packed. I came out for the Florida State-Oklahoma game (on Friday) and it was standing room only.

“The crowd was infectious. There was a moment there where you felt like you were at the Women’s College World Series. You felt that looking at your television screen from home. We couldn’t have asked for anything better.”

Shaver said the tournament is expected to stay at 16 teams next year and has already had teams inquiring about participating.

By spring, tickets likely will go on sale for next year.

“This was a fantastic start,” Shaver said. “But it will only get even bigger — and better.”

Read more:

[ Andrews sisters are the perfect softball ambassadors ]

[ Ace Shannon Saile happy to share the workload these days ]

[ Tiffany Greene goes from calling prep softball games to ESPN’s ranks ]

[ A homecoming for FSU’s College World Series star ]

Contact Bob Putnam at bputnam@tampabay.com. Follow @BobbyHomeTeam.

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