The world is coming to Surrey, and it’s been years in the making.
“It’s amazing to me, I find it a phenomenon, how hard everybody is working,” said Greg Timm, committee chairman for the Women’s World Softball Championship, which will take place next July at Surrey’s Softball City sporting complex.
At the tournament, a record 30 international teams – it’s normally 16 at the World Championships – will compete for the sport’s crown.
“It’s been a great learning effort for everybody and we really think we’re going to run a tournament here that the world has never seen,” Timm said. “We’re inviting the world.”
It’s the same venue normally reserved for the annual Canadian Open, a summer staple for Surrey and B.C.’s softball community – and the Canadian softball community. But the World Championships are guaranteed to showcase the best of the sport’s best, said Timm, and Canada will enter the melee as the defending Pan Am Games gold medallist.
“Time time around, they have the best team they’ve ever had, in my opinion,” he said.
“If the athletes are ready and healthy in Surrey next year, we’re going to have an awfully proud Canadian contingent… people that want to wave the red and white flags here.”
To fit the tournament and its guests, which include some of the world’s most talented underhand-whirling nations and the sport’s absolute best athletes, the City of Surrey is spending $1.3 million to buff-up the grounds at Softball City.
“We’ll make this an absolute diamond in the crown,” said Owen Croy, manager with Surrey’s Parks department. “(Softball City) is of course set within a beautiful large park… the renovations and upgrades will be a legacy for softball players into the future.”
Croy said the million-plus will be used to improve the ground’s fields, backstops, dugouts, lighting system, and the buildings, while Timm said the upgraded diamonds will have new dirt, irrigation, and drainage.
And don’t worry, he says, the washrooms will be fixed, too – “We’ve read and received mail and feedback about the washrooms,” said Timm. “We will have them completely renovated and cleaned up.”
VIDEO: Surrey 2016 – ISF XV Women’s World Softball Championship
Softball City is a landmark within South Surrey, the North Star of the city’s sporting map, but it’s also 25 years old.
“Like facilities that have been around for a while, it needed a little bit of refurbishment to make it absolutely world-class,” said Croy.
Timm said he expects “lots and lots of people in town,” and estimates over 5,000 spectators for each of Team Canada’s games on Softball City’s championship diamond. Participants will include the 30 international squads, plus all those involved in the Canadian Open youth tournament – in all, 110 to 120 teams playing at once, in Surrey.
“The actual fields, the grounds, were tired,” said Timm. “With the support of the City, they have re-done all of the playing surfaces now, all four diamonds.”
Timm said the committee has reached out to athletes from countries that have participated in past Canadian Opens – “You tell us what you want in a World Championship,” he said, “and we’ve tried to address every one of those as much as we can.
“We want it to be a ‘wow’ experience for the City of Surrey and for the athletes.”
Said Croy: “The diamond will be in fantastic shape and will remain for many years after the tournament… It started with great bones and we’re dressing it up for real.”
The tournament’s existence is a credit to the highest office in Surrey, an event created with the work of former mayor Dianne Watts and current mayor Linda Hepner, who were both instrumental and involved in pushing to win the bid.
Watts was even in Colombia when Surrey was award the World Championships, and Hepner is seeing efforts through till the first game.
Hepner and her council also pushed forward with their Sport Tourism Strategy, which Croy credits as the “impetus” for all the work going into hosting the World Championships.
“I’m really excited,” said Hepner. “I was particularly passionate about it when we made the pitch, no pun intended, and I’m looking forward to it.
“I’m really excited because it’s going to showcase Surrey… to have it here in Surrey, I’m very proud that it’s going to be here, and I’m anxious to welcome the world.”
Hepner says the tournament will be a “big boost in tourism” for Surrey – that it will sell “some 7,500 hotel rooms” and deliver an “economic impact of probably $20 million.”
But the World Championships won’t just show off the host – it will show off the sport.
Softball is one of the world’s largest participant sports, but the best athletes are often quarantined to alternative ESPN channels, or off television entirely. The stars are heroes to every girl who plays the game, but the game exists in a cloud that seems to orbit around bigger sports, mainly professional male sports – hockey, football, basketball, soccer, and baseball.
“I think that’s amazing and, yes, it’s a bit like the Rodney Dangerfield of sports,” said Hepner. “It doesn’t get the attention it deserves.”
The organizers of the World Championships – and the Mayor – aren’t just hoping to put on a great show for Surrey, or for the softball world, but they’re also hoping to stand out only two weeks before the sport goes after its own bid.
A week after the World Championships in B.C., the International Olympic Committee will vote on whether to include women’s softball in the 2020 Summer Olympics.
So if you’re a fan of softball, there’s a lot riding on the success of Surrey’s summer.
“That would make me very happy, if we become the catalyst for something that I think should be part of the Olympic Games,” said Hepner.
“It looks like it’s all systems go, looks like it will be back in the Olympics,” said Timm.
Asked how the World Championships will be different than the Canadian Open, also known by many as the former Canada Cup, which is held on the same grounds every year, Timm said:
“The interesting part for our local people is, we’ve never seen the best teams in the world, with their best roster in the biggest games.”
The Canadian Open has often been a “development tournament” for the highest-ranked nations attending, with teams like the United States, Japan and Canada sometimes treating it as a tune-up for something bigger – last year, it was the Pan-Am Games in Toronto, where Canada won gold just two weeks after it failed to triumph at the Open in Softball City.
“Locally, I think sometimes we feel the frustration of that because we want to see Canada win, and we want to see their best,” Timm said.
“Next year, this is a tournament they play for. This is when they’ll put their best team on the field, and we’re pretty optimistic Canada will be playing on championship Sunday.”
Set-up has so far relied on the hard work of volunteers, support from “all levels of government,” and legacy sponsors.
“That part has been really quite inspiring,” he said. “We’re out in many areas right now, engaging, and (anyone who wants to volunteer) can just track one of our people down.”
The bid took a good 18 months of preparation and planning, he said, and the real work will always be just beginning – whether the tournament is 10 months away, whether it’s the bottom of the seventh sometime next July, or whether the tournament’s over, when the Olympic decision becomes the next checkpoint.
And finally, fans in Surrey will have a must-see event with can’t-miss athletes in its backyard. You don’t need to drive to Vancouver or watch Toronto have fun five provinces away, and that’s something the ‘fastest growing city’ in British Columbia deserves.
“When you have more young people than anywhere else in the province, keeping them active and showing them sporting events… it’s always been a passion of mine,” said Hepner. “That is something that really is necessary in the city.
“We will be injecting a lot of energy into making those fields the best the world has ever seen.”
Anyone who wants to volunteer can do so online at Surrey2016.com, or call 604-536-9287.
PHOTOS: Action under the sun, at the Canadian Open Fastpitch International Championship at Softball City, in Surrey, B.C.
PHOTO: Sara Hopwood (left) and pitcher Sara Groenewegen have starred for Team Canada at the last two Canadian Opens in Surrey, at Softball City.
PHOTO: The scoreboards reads doughnuts, but it won’t soon…
PHOTO: Softball City is preparing to host the 2015 Women’s Softball World Championships, which will run in July in Surrey, B.C.