CLEARWATER — For years, Michele Smith kept pitching the idea of having an elite college softball tournament in the Tampa Bay area that would be televised on ESPN.
The network also was looking for a way to expand its coverage in the sport. That is how the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational started. The 16-team tournament, which made its debut last season, is the first ESPN owned and operated event in college softball.
Smith, a two-time Olympic champion who has lived in the area since 2000, knew Clearwater would be the right destination. Everything was in place: warm weather, access to beaches and hotels and the support from a city with a long history of softball devotion.
Her validation came in the turnstiles. The attendance was estimated at more than 9,000 combined for last year’s inaugural four-day event, surpassing everyone’s expectations, including Smith’s.
Now the invitational might be the biggest draw in college softball outside of the Women’s College World Series, an impressive feat considering the tournament is held at the beginning of the season.
Passes that included access for every game at this year’s tournament sold out in early June. When single-game tickets went on sale in October, they were gone within 48 hours. The only tickets left are daily passes for games Friday-Sunday and only for Fields 1 and 3 at the Eddie C. Moore Complex, site of the tournament.
“It’s incredible,” said Tim Ramsberger, chief operating officer for Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the main organizer of the event. “This obviously had the chance to be successful, but I don’t know if anyone could have imagined this.”
Every game of the tournament will be televised or streamed by ESPN channels. Yet fans still want to attend.
It is more than just parents of locals in attendance. There are softball devotees from all over the country flocking to Clearwater in February.
“This has turned into something special, which I knew could happen all along,” Smith said. “The event has become a bucket list for softball fans in just two years. They all want to attend.”
Part of the reason for the sudden success is the quality competition. Defending national champion UCLA is among 10 participating teams ranked in the top 25. Players and coaches are also accessible with many staying after games to pose for pictures and sign autographs.
As an added bonus, this year’s event includes the United States national team, which is playing three exhibition games as part of its preparation for playing in the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
“They’re doing it right by getting great competitive programs here and having it on ESPN,” said Liberty coach Dot Richardson, a softball icon whose team is playing in the invitational for the first time. “I remember the Olympics (in 1996) and hearing NBC was not going to broadcast the games. Softball right? It just didn’t make any sense. All these years waiting for this moment and to not be on television. And then all of the sudden the popularity of it helped get on TV.
“I think television is a way to really reach out and get people engaged. You can see it with the excitement of the fan base in just one year of this tournament, I saw they brought in more bleachers. It’s awesome.”
ESPN has an all-star women’s crew broadcasting feature games with Beth Mowins doing play-by-play, Smith and Amanda Scarborough providing analysis, and Holly Rowe roving the bleachers and dugouts as a sideline reporter. There are other crews onsite, including one where local star Tiffany Greene will do play-by-play.
“This is pretty much the same staff we have for the World Series,” Smith said. “ESPN is taking Beth and Holly away from college basketball during the heart of its season for a softball tournament at the beginning of the season. And there’s about 150 more working behind the scenes, the same amount during the World Series. That just shows you how much ESPN thinks of this tournament.”
St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational
Where: Eddie C. Moore Complex, 2780 Drew St., Clearwater
Tickets: Tournament passes are sold out. Single-game tickets for Fields 1 and 3 can be purchased at the gate on the day of the game for $25 ($20 for youth). Tickets for the Wednesday game between Team USA and Liberty University will be available for $5 one hour before the 6 p.m. start. Find more info here.
Wednesday: Liberty vs. Team USA, 6 p.m.
Thursday: Liberty vs. Alabama, 9:30 a.m. (ESPN3), Virginia Tech vs. Oklahoma State, 10 a.m. (ACC), South Carolina vs. Texas Tech, 12:30 p.m. (SEC), Missouri vs. Kansas, 1 p.m. (ESPNU), Oklahoma State vs. USF, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN3), Alabama vs. Washington, 4 p.m. (ESPN2).
Friday: South Carolina vs. Virginia Tech, 10 a.m. (ESPNU), Alabama vs. USF, 10:30 a.m. (ESPN3), Minnesota vs. Oklahoma State, 11:30 a.m. (ESPN3), Georgia vs. Kansas, noon (SEC), Washington vs. FSU, 1 p.m. (ESPNU), Liberty vs. Missouri, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN3), Northwestern vs. Georgia, 3 p.m. (ESPN3), Texas Tech vs. James Madison, 3 p.m. (ESPN3), UCLA vs. Alabama, 4 p.m. (ESPNU), Oklahoma State vs. Missouri, 5:30 p.m. (ESPN3), Minnesota vs. FSU, 6 p.m. (ESPN3), South Carolina vs. Kansas, 6 p.m. (ESPN3), Washington vs. Liberty, 7 p.m. (ESPN3).
Saturday: Texas Tech vs. Georgia, 10 a.m. (ESPN3), Alabama vs. Oklahoma State, 10:30 a.m. (SEC), Kansas vs. Northwestern, 10:30 a.m. (ESPN3), UCLA vs. Liberty, 11:30 a.m. (ESPN3), Missouri vs. Virginia Tech, 1 p.m. (ESPN3), Kansas vs. James Madison, 1:30 p.m. (ESPN3), FSU vs. Northwestern, 2 p.m. (ESPN3), UCLA vs. Georgia, 4 p.m. (ESPNU), Virginia Tech vs. Minnesota, 5 p.m. (ESPN3), USF vs. Texas Tech, 5:30 p.m. (ESPN3), James Madison vs. Missouri, 6 p.m. (ESPN3), Washington vs. South Carolina, 8 p.m. (ESPNU)
Sunday: Georgia vs. USF, 9 a.m. (ESPN3), Missouri vs. Minnesota, 9:30 a.m. (ESPN3), Texas Tech vs. Washington, 10 a.m. (ESPNU), Team USA vs. Oklahoma State, 10 a.m. (ESPN3), FSU vs. Liberty, noon (ESPN3), Northwestern vs. Virginia Tech, noon (ESPN3), James Madison vs. South Carolina, 12:30 p.m. (ESPN3), Team USA vs. Washington, 12:30 p.m (ESPN3), USF vs. UCLA, 3 p.m. (ESPN3), FSU vs. UCLA, 7 p.m. (ESPN2).
Locals in the tournament
Alabama: P Lexi Kilfoyl, Fr., Academy at the Lakes
FSU: UTIL Elizabeth Mason, R-Jr., Gaither; C Kaia LoPreste, Fr., Riverview; IF Morgan Noah, So., Sickles; P/UTIL Cassidy Davis, Sr., Newsome
South Carolina: IF Kenzi Maguire, R-Sr., River Ridge
USF: IF Alexis Buchman, Fr., Alonso; IF Maddison Epperson, Jr., Tampa Catholic; P/UTIL Jordan Kadlub, Fr., Pasco; OF Bailee Leistl, Fr., Newsome; OF Brooke Leistl, R-Jr., Newsome; IF Megan Pierro, So., Steinbrenner; IF Natalie Zweig, Fr., Sickles.