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Columbus set for glorious home run blast from Olympic past and a marketing game changer

Just days after USA Softball unveiled plans to bring its Olympic-style International Cup to Columbus next summer, Merri Sherman is flying to Chicago Wednesday to discuss more details of the major event taking place at South Commons with a national fast-pitch coaches group and other organizers.

On Tuesday, however, she gushed about the impact the USA Softball International Cup will have both in dollars and prestige on Columbus and its future as a historic hub for softball in the coming years. The city hosted Olympic softball when Summer Olympics came to Atlanta in 1996.

“The exposure that we’ll get, we couldn’t buy that amount of advertising, if you will, by being on ESPN, by being on a live stream, by having all the social media aspects of it and all of these players from young teams here talking about Columbus, Georgia, and their experience here during International Cup. So that exposure to softball enthusiasts around the world is very important for us to grow our softball market in the future,” said Sherman, executive director of the Columbus Sports Council, which was formed in 1995 to prepare for the games the following year.

Sherman said the current estimated dollar impact on the city for hosting the USA Softball International Cup July 1-7 is slightly more than $1 million, which would include stays in hotels, dining in restaurants, purchases of gas and other items people need to shop for while traveling.

But that conservative figure could be fairly low considering that while the International Cup is taking place at the large main stadium at South Commons, a youth softball tournament with between 50 to 60 teams will be in action at the site as well, using at least five of the smaller softball fields and possibly another three fields at Northside High School.

“We’re grateful to the City of Columbus for stepping up to host this premier event and welcoming USA Softball along with some of the top international teams in the world,” USA Softball Executive Director Craig Cress said in a statement. “Returning to Georgia for the 2019 USA Softball International Cup is particularly special for us because of the memories we have from the 1996 Olympic Games. It has been over 20 years since fans in the area have had the opportunity to watch some of the world’s best softball teams in person, which is evident in the enthusiasm and support the city has displayed and we look forward to seeing that passion on display next July.”

Sherman said work is now getting under way to prepare for the major event next year in which seven top-level women’s softball teams are currently committed to play in, with the possibility that number could rise to 14 teams.

The city is contributing $3 million to the project to prepare the stadium for the competition, with an additional $2.6 million being raised in the private sector, she said. The stadium work includes painting, improving restrooms and upgrading technology to allow speedy wireless internet in the vicinity. Future work will include improving fire and sprinkler systems, concessions stands, and converting lights to energy-saving LEDs.

There also is the matter of gathering the large number of volunteers from within the community to support the International Cup and youth tournament, just as they did during the 1996 Olympic competition. Team USA won the gold back then, with it tasting victory at Golden Park. Sherman said several hundred people will be needed to pull off the 2019 event, with volunteers already being contacted.

“It’s a week-long event and hours will be from early in the morning to late at night,” she said. “So we traditionally try to break it up into shifts so we’re not asking a volunteer to be there the full extent of the day.”

Ultimately, Sherman said, USA Softball International Cup will serve up a home run blast of marketing momentum for Columbus and its softball amenities, which is much needed as competition in the world of hosting competitions has gotten much more intense over the last couple of decades. Cities across the U.S. have built their own facilities and now work steadily to attract tournaments to them.

“It’s a huge marketing advantage to softball enthusiasts from all over the world,” she said of the event next July. “It puts us on that world stage once again and, to me, who doesn’t want to play at a venue where all the greats have played. It’s notable to be able to do that.”

Columbus hosted the first Olympic competition in 1996, with the sport being eliminated from the Games after the 2008 Olympics, a run in which Team USA took three of four gold medals. The sport will be back in the Olympics in 2020, when they are held in Tokyo, Japan.

The South Commons softball complex itself was built in 1994 for $3 million, using a special purpose local option sales tax. The 2,500-seat main stadium was added shortly after the 1996 competition from private money and cash left over from the local organizing committee, Columbus ’96.

This year’s USA Softball International Cup, formerly known as the World Cup of Softball, was played in Irvine, Calif. Aside from two Team USA teams, Puerto Rico and another American women’s team called “Scrap Yard Fast Pitch,” countries represented included Chinese Taipei, China, Peru, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Czech Republic. The three U.S. teams swept the gold, silver and bronze medals.