Tim Brassfield remembers what he was thinking five years ago when the NCAA and Omaha agreed to an unprecedented 25-year contract extension for the College World Series.
He wanted what Omaha has.
The NCAA makes no habit of anchoring sites for its championships, but it did with the CWS when it became contractually tied to Omaha through 2035 — the same place it had been since 1950.
Wouldn't it be nice, Brassfield thought, if Oklahoma City had the same kind of security and future with the Women's College World Series?
“Every year (the WCWS) has grown here with the exception of one,” said Brassfield, executive director of the Oklahoma City All Sports Association, which co-hosts the NCAA softball championships with the University of Oklahoma. “It's pretty amazing how this event continues to escalate and grow.”
As the WCWS is set to begin today — with Nebraska back in the field for the first time since 2002 — Oklahoma City is maybe only a few months from getting its wish.
Oklahoma City and the NCAA are in negotiations for a potential 20-year contract that the city is hopeful can be completed by August. It would feature a multi-phase renovation of ASA Hall of Fame Stadium that would include expansion to 12,500 seats by 2017 (from the current 8,550).
And, Brassfield said, it would call for Oklahoma City to embrace the WCWS even more than it does now — the way that Omahans take to the CWS every June.
“In our latest surveys, 70 to 80 percent of the people come from out of town, and it's maybe more popular outside of Oklahoma City than inside,” said Brassfield, who has been involved with the event since 1999. “I really think that this event is one of the best tourist catalysts that we have in our community, so it's an amazing event for that reason.
“But part of our negotiations is the stadium expansion, so to accomplish that number it will require folks and local fans to become more involved.”
ESPN regularly touts the “Road to Oklahoma City” during its softball coverage through the regular season and into NCAA regionals, playing off the popular “Road to Omaha” that has gone with the baseball College World Series for years.
The road has led to Oklahoma's capital city every year but one since 1990, where it has grown from the roots planted in Omaha (1982 to '87) and Sunnyvale, Calif. (1988 and '89).
Attendance boomed to a record 75,960 last year, an average of 8,440 for nine sessions. Brassfield said the annual economic impact for Oklahoma City is roughly $12 million to $14 million.
The city is slightly larger than Omaha with a population of nearly 600,000 and 1.2 million for its metro area, but small enough that an NCAA event won't get lost or ignored.
“When you talk to anybody on our staff, they can't wait to go to Omaha and they can't wait to go to Oklahoma City,” said Brent Colborne, ESPN's director of programming for college sports. “Omaha has that hometown feel to it — the culture that's there is innate — and it feels the same way at Oklahoma City.”
Brassfield had attended the CWS previously at Rosenblatt Stadium, but not yet at TD Ameritrade Park. The CWS has an atmosphere and presence, he said, that Oklahoma City would love to replicate, albeit on a smaller scale — the CWS runs almost a week longer and features game crowds in the 20,000s.
“It's a phenomenal event,” Brassfield said of the CWS. “It is a lot of fun.”
The success of the WCWS has been more recent. According to the just-published book “A Series of Their Own: The History of the Women's College World Series,” attendance was so pedestrian from 1990 to '92 in Oklahoma City that local organizers worried that the NCAA might try a new location.
After its highest mark in Omaha was around 16,000 in 1985, the first three years in Oklahoma City actually drew smaller average crowds.
Some factors for the eventual turnaround were the popularity of the U.S. softball team at the 1996 Summer Olympics, the success of some local college programs and the beginning of ESPN's involvement. In 2005, the championship game of the WCWS was moved back from its traditional Memorial Day weekend slot, and a best-of-three format was added.
“Over the last three to five years, we've definitely seen an increase in our ratings for softball,” ESPN's Colborne said.
Watching from afar, people like Mary Higgins and Connie Claussen can take some pride in the fact that Omaha maybe helped get it off the ground.
Higgins was the senior women's administrator and softball coach at Creighton when Omaha hosted the WCWS at Seymour Smith Park from 1982 — the first year the tournament was sanctioned by the NCAA — to 1987. Claussen held the same positions at UNO when Omaha hosted in the 1970s at Dill Field, with the event then governed by the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women.
UNO won an AIAW national championship in 1975.
“We jumped on their laurels and what they already created, so people in Omaha already knew what it was,” Higgins said. “And obviously they knew what the men's College World Series was all about.”
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Both Creighton and Nebraska played in the first NCAA WCWS in 1982, and each made it back again at least once during its time in Omaha.
With many needs at Seymour Smith, Higgins remembers going to the late Jack Diesing Sr. “with my hand out” for financial help, with the scoreboard on Field 1 among the benefits of donations from CWS of Omaha Inc. She also recalls the City of Omaha and the old Omaha Softball Association being instrumental with efforts behind the scenes.
Weather was a constant thorn, however, and during one tournament helicopters were called in to help dry rain-soaked fields. Several coaches lamented that the late-spring conditions were part of the reason the WCWS was moved out of Omaha in the late 1980s.
In addition to her Creighton positions and other duties that included being the national tournament director, Higgins also was nine months pregnant for the final WCWS held in Omaha.
“I think it got to a point where we just felt like it had outgrown us,” said Higgins, now the CU assistant vice president for student retention. “It needed to move on to a bigger venue.”
After a short detour through California, that place was ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City. It was built in 1987 and sits just off Interstate 35 in the northeastern part of the city. The stadium adjoins the national office of the Amateur Softball Association and the National Softball Hall of Fame.
“But we felt like we were certainly one of the cornerstones to getting the Women's College World Series to where it is now,” Higgins said.
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