One of the most renowned softball operators in New England is throwing a change-up to the status quo. If David Rocha is right, his move to split from the United States Specialty Sports Association may be part of a revolution in youth sports.
Rocha is the owner of Fastpitch Nation Park in Windsor, Connecticut, an 11-field softball destination that opened two years ago. The complex is an outgrowth of Fastpitch Nation Indoor training facility in Bloomfield, Connecticut.
Fueled by a passion that began while coaching his daughter’s Little League softball team, Rocha hosts 40 weekends’ worth of tournaments in a single year. For the past 11 years, he has done so under the umbrella of USSSA, a volunteer-based national governing body.
But in October, arguably the most influential figure in New England softball announced he was going on his own. The move was a long time coming, he says. Time off and complications reopening stemming from the coronavirus made the timing right.
“I've been doing this a really, really long time,” Rocha says. “You sense when your customer base is becoming dissatisfied with something.”
USSSA brought name recognition and credibility to Fastpitch Nation’s operations when Rocha first launched the indoor complex in 2008. While there was the inevitable red tape, bureaucracy and additional costs working with a national organization, it was worth it. Plus, Rocha’s versatility and knowledge masked some of the headaches from the end users—namely, the parents and coaches registering children to play in tournaments.
By the time the outdoor facility opened its doors more than a decade later, it was a new world. “People were less web savvy” in 2008, Rocha says. “There were no smartphones. All the things that we take for granted now, in terms of information and the ability to do things easily at our fingertips, didn't exist.”
The issue, Rocha says, is not isolated to USSSA and softball. It is part of a larger movement toward for-profit tournament organizers providing a more “professional” feel to tournaments than nonprofit organizations are able to provide.
Much to his chagrin, Rocha says volunteers are few and far between in youth sports compared to a decade ago. Most parents, he says, would rather pay extra to make professionals rake the fields and line the bases than to help themselves. Those same parents are looking for a production of the same caliber as what they see on ESPN.
That business mindset has been the hallmark of a significant shift in youth athletics, Rocha says.
“It's my prediction that over the next 10 to 20 years, there'll be virtually no volunteer organizations running tournaments,” he says. “You can see already that the level of expectation is just too high.”
Not everyone is so sure. While Robert Murdock, director of sports marketing for the Connecticut Convention & Sports Bureau, supports Rocha’s move toward independence, he stops short of suggesting a national overhaul.
Paid staff certainly made it easier to implement necessary changes to operate amid the pandemic, Murdock notes. But it may be too soon to make large assumptions. Even guessing what the protocols will be when the University of Connecticut hosts the Division I, II and III NCAA Lacrosse Championships in spring 2021 is still virtually impossible, he says.
“This is an odd year,” Murdock says. “The volunteer stuff will come back in time.”
Murdock adds the CVB is actively bidding on volunteer-led events in future years.
New Network Emerges
Most participants only interact with USSSA through its software registration system. The web platform is hardly obsolete, but Rocha says the organization has struggled to articulate its value compared to competitors like Ryzer, a brand Rocha recommends.
With extra costs and extra work piling up while partnering with USSSA, Rocha reached out to more than 20 tournament organizers who use the Fastpitch Nation facilities. He asked whether the sanctioning body played a deciding role in site selection. All indicated they would stick with Fastpitch if it became an independent entity.
The group of like-minded softball organizers has formed PlayFPN Tournament Network, a cooperative outfit looking to maintain independence to cut costs and enhance the event experience. The group already has 40 events on the books throughout New England.
“The idea is every independent tournament remains an independent tournament,” Rocha says.
Murdock says Rocha is the state’s biggest events producer in terms of sheer numbers. The 11-field outdoor facility, in particular, has been a boon to the state’s hospitality industry.
He and the CVB understand where Rocha is coming from with the split. “We're going to support him when it comes down to it,” Murdock says. “He has strongly invested in the product that he puts out there. He's really responsive to his clients and people stick with him.”
Murdock points to a scene this summer to underscore Rocha’s credibility. When Murdock stopped by Fastpitch Nation Park before the June 17 reopening, he struggled to get by security whose job was to limit numbers entering the facility due to COVID-19. Ultimately, the guards confirmed Murdock had a professional relationship with Rocha before letting him onto the premises.
“He enforces the rules, even when it’s not the most comfortable thing to do,” Murdock says of Rocha.
Bright Future Ahead
It remains to be seen whether Rocha’s forecast for volunteer-based sports organizations is accurate. The safer bet is his optimism for the sports tourism industry
Having opened the indoor training site in 2008, Rocha has lived to tell the tale of navigating through a recession. Just as parents maintained their commitment to their children’s activities back then, Rocha says the same trend will play out in a post-coronavirus world regardless of economic hardships.
“Modern parents will sacrifice about anything except to deny their children the things that make them happy,” says Rocha, noting his own parents hardly attended his games—let alone practices—when he was growing up. “Through good times and through bad times, and even through a pandemic, there was never downturn in demand.”