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Clearwater remains a destination for top-tier softball tournaments

An ESPN-backed, talent-packed college invitational is coming to the Eddie C. Moore Complex next week.
Florida State's Kylee Hanson holds the trophy as players celebrate after defeating Washington in the second softball game of the best-of-three championship series between Washington and Florida State in the NCAA Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, June 5, 2018. Florida State won the game 8-3 and won the championship. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Florida State's Kylee Hanson holds the trophy as players celebrate after defeating Washington in the second softball game of the best-of-three championship series between Washington and Florida State in the NCAA Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, June 5, 2018. Florida State won the game 8-3 and won the championship. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Published Feb. 5, 2019

CLEARWATER — For nearly two decades, Michele Smith has made Eddie C. Moore softball complex her second home, whether to conduct clinics or put together an annual college softball tournament to benefit pediatric cancer.

The two-time Olympic champion, though, wanted something bigger to showcase the facility and the sport. So she used her ties as the lead analyst for ESPN’s softball coverage to pitch the idea of a major college tournament that not only would kick off the season, but be televised by the network.

That is how the inaugural St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational started. The 16-team tournament, which includes defending national champion Florida State as well as nine other ranked teams, will be held Feb. 14-17 at Eddie C. Moore.

It is ESPN’s first owned and operated softball event. Of the 39 games scheduled, 25 will be televised.

“This was not just an overnight thing,” said Smith, who has lived in the area since 2000. “It took a couple of years of me putting it in ESPN’s wheelhouse. They’re so great with softball and do such a good job with massive events.

“And Clearwater has always been an incredible softball city that has truly embraced the sport on so many levels. This is where I was focused on bringing a tournament like this. It’s a natural fit.”

Clearwater’s softball roots go back to the 1950s with the now-defunct Bombers’ men’s fastpitch team.

The focus is now on female players at the youth and collegiate levels.

Two years ago, the city hosted the World Baseball Softball Confederation Jr. Women’s Softball World Championship along with the USA Softball Gold 18- under and 16-under national championships. In December of last year, the Eddie C. Moore complex was the site for USA Softball’s Junior Women’s National Training Team tryouts.

JoJo Staton, with the St. Petersburg College softball team, dons cleats recently during a team practice at the Eddie C. Moore Complex in Clearwater. The complex will be the site of next week's inaugural St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)
JoJo Staton, with the St. Petersburg College softball team, dons cleats recently during a team practice at the Eddie C. Moore Complex in Clearwater. The complex will be the site of next week's inaugural St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)

College tournaments are big, too.

For 17 years, USF has hosted a softball series in Clearwater that is comprised of three different tournaments during a three-week span in March, including the Michele Smith Pediatric Cancer Invitational.

Still, nothing comes close to the magnitude of ESPN’s inaugural event.

“To have something this big at the beginning of the season, to me, is historical,” said Amanda Scarborough, a former Texas A&M standout who is now an ESPN softball analyst. “When you turn on ESPN at this time of year men’s and women’s college basketball is dominating the airwaves. Softball is thought of a few more months down the road. To have this many quality teams televised in a tournament in February is unheard of. But it also shows the investment ESPN has made in the sport.”

When the Seminoles won the national title last season, their Game 2 clincher on ESPN drew 1.5 million viewers, making it the most-watched softball or baseball game this past year since the Dodgers-Marlins on opening day (2 million). In fact, FSU’s title-deciding game outdrew the Marlins-Cardinals game on FS1 (383,000) the same night by more than a million viewers.

Those numbers are a big reason why ESPN has increased its coverage in women’s softball. More than 125 games will be televised in the regular season with 1,000 more available digitally.

“We’ve been pretty passionate and bullish about women’s softball,” said Kristen Shaver, director of ESPN Events. “The popularity and ratings success led our events team to seek out an opportunity that will continue with the growth of the sport and this was the perfect setting.”

ESPN Events owns and operates more than 30 college bowl games, tournaments and award shows almost exclusively in football and men’s college basketball. The St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational is just the second women’s college event in the network’s franchise.

“By doing this event, it gives us a chance for a solid bookend so we have a tournament at the beginning of the season that gives viewers a chance to see some of the teams they might be watching at the end of the year in the College World Series,” Shaver said.

And it all starts in Clearwater.

To get ready for the tournament, ESPN is building a booth that will house its A-list team of broadcasters that includes Smith, Scarborough, Tiffany Greene, Beth Mowins and Holly Rowe.

“To have ESPN and have that many games televised nationally is tremendous exposure for the area,” Visit St. Pete/Clearwater Chief Operating Officer Tim Ramsberger said. “We don’t see this as a one-time thing. We intend to make this a long-term project that will continue to grow.”

Smith has even bigger plans. She is pushing for a 3,000-seat softball stadium to host the sport’s biggest events.

“There’s no better place than Clearwater for a diamond sports fan,” Smith said. “But there’s so much more we can do. A stadium like that would be a crown jewel for a city that already has some top-notch facilities in place.”

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

St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational

When: Games start at 10 a.m. Feb. 14, 9:30 a.m. Feb. 15, 10 a.m. Feb. 16 and 10 a.m. Feb. 17.

Where: Eddie C. Moore Complex, 2780 Drew St., Clearwater

Who: No. 3 Florida State, No. 4 Oklahoma, No. 8 Tennessee, No. 10 LSU, No. 15 Kentucky, No. 16 Texas, No. 21 Oklahoma State, No. 22 James Madison, No. 23 Minnesota, No. 24 Ohio State, Cal, Florida Atlantic, Hofstra, Notre Dame, Oregon, Utah

Tickets: Daily passes are $20 for adults, $15 for children ages 5-17. A tournament pass is $75 for adults, $50 for children.

TV: Games will air on ESPN2, ESPNU and SEC Network, as well as be streamed on ESPN3.

More info: For a full schedule of events and games, visit www.stpeteclearwatereliteinvite.com.