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Is ESPN’s college softball tournament already outgrowing its Clearwater roots?

The St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational is a draw in only two years of existence. But the Eddie C. Moore Complex as it currently exists won’t allow for the event to get much larger.
Florida State's Elizabeth Mason (5) is on deck Friday as fans pack the stands and line up along the fence during the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational at the Eddie C. Moore Complex in Clearwater. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

CLEARWATER — For four days, trolleys filled with softball fans lined up along Drew Street. Diehards from Alabama, California, Missouri and Washington, among other states, flocked to the four fields holding games for the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational, a 16-team softball tournament featuring some of the country’s top college programs.

Some fans were even turned away.

All-tournament passes sold out in June. Single-day tickets for every game were gone within 48 hours in October. Daily admission was limited to two fields (1 and 3) at the Eddie C. Moore Complex for just three days (Friday-Sunday) on a first-come-first, serve basis.

The invitational, with attendance for the four days at 12,089, has surpassed expectations, so much so that there is concern the event has little room to grow given the restraints of the facilities.

ESPN, which owns and operates the event, worked with Visit St. Pete/Clearwater officials to increase the fan experience. There was more public transportation, better food and drink options, added bleachers.

And every game also was televised or streamed by ESPN channels.

A cameraman with ESPN captures action off the first-base line during the third inning of the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational game between the University of Washington and Florida State at field No. 9. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

Still, it was not enough to entirely feed the insatiable appetite of those who wanted to be there for the experience. Or accommodate those who were.

Bleachers at each field can only hold a few hundred fans. Seats were scarce this weekend. Some softball devotees watched from the bleacher steps or just stood.

“The complex is very tight,” said Kristen Shaver, director of ESPN events. “The venue consistently sells out quickly. We always want more space, and we’re doing the best we can with that.”

Shaver said ESPN already is committed to holding the tournament in Clearwater next year and plans to be here for the foreseeable future. The 16-team field for the 2021 invitational will be announced within months but the number of teams likely will not increase anytime soon.

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“We’re certainly excited to be here and want to continue with that partnership,” Shaver said. “I don’t think we’ve even come close to reaching a point where it’s no longer a viable option. But each year we do have to revisit how we can lay this out to where we can get more fans to be here and have this experience.”

Georgia players Sydney Kuma (6), left, and Mary Wilson Avant (5) line up to give autographs to fan Mahal George, 9, of Mulberry. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

If the event were to ever move, the options would be limited.

Typically, college teams come in droves to Florida for tournaments at the beginning of the season, thanks to the warm weather and access to beaches.

That is what drew ESPN to the area for its first owned and operated event in softball. Fans come because of the teams. This year’s tournament included the past two defending national champions (FSU and UCLA), who met in the tournament finale Sunday night. There also was the added bonus of having the U.S. national team, which played two exhibition games (another was cancelled) as part of its preparation for the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

“It’s a great tournament,” said Oklahoma State’s Samantha Show, who played in the tournament as a senior with the Cowboys last season and coached with her alma mater in it this season. “In Stillwater (Okla.) it’s like 28 degrees. It’s good for us to come out in the sun and sweat a little bit and face great competition to get ready for regionals and the World Series.”

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All of that is incentive enough for local officials to make sure the invitational remains in Clearwater for years to come.

“We’re bullish on keeping it here,” Visit St. Pete/Clearwater CEO Tim Ramsberger said.

Patrons of the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational walk between Fields 8 and 9 between innings as Florida State University plays the University of Washington. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

To do that, ESPN lead analyst Michele Smith is pushing for a softball-specific stadium to be built. Smith, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who has lived in the area since 2000, was the one who convinced network officials that a televised tournament, held here at the beginning of the season, would work.

For her, a stadium would provide a solid foundation to keep it local.

“To have something with 2,000-2,500 seats would solve a lot of problems,” Smith said. “Look at all the resources that area leaders have put into the Phillies and Blue Jays and other major-league teams here for spring training. If they just put even 10 percent of those efforts into softball we could get this done.”

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ESPN officials have not had any talks yet with area officials about building a stadium.

“I think how popular the tournament has become speaks for itself and certainly would help in those conversations,” Shaver said.

Smith has already tried to convince several national softball associations to place either branches of or their national headquarters here, which would help to make a stadium become more viable than just a home for a tournament held once a year in February.

“Softball is so big in this area,” she said. “Men’s slowpitch. Girls travel teams. College teams in every division. It can even be used as a training center for the Olympics. There’s a lot this area can offer — not just this one tournament.”