David Owen

Hockey - Olympic champions; cricket - world champions; and now netball – Commonwealth Games champions.

Bearing in mind that England finished second in last year’s rugby union World Cup and are currently ranked second in the world at football, probably the most genuinely globalised of all games, this is an outstanding period for British women’s team sports.

These trailblazers have shown what is possible when women’s team sports gain access to significant funding: in netball’s case, Sport England put the figure at £16.9 million ($24 million/€19.4 million), although most of this is channelled into the grass roots.

Bearing all this in mind, spare a thought for what Great Britain’s top women softball players are having to go through as they strive to inscribe their names on this roll of honour by qualifying for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Things are so desperate that catcher Stephanie Pearce has been driven to dispatch a lengthy email to the likes of me, drawing attention to a newly-created Go Fund Me page.

Here is an extract:

"Team GB softball is a self funded program, and is one of the only countries in Europe without any funding to help cover the costs of competing at the European, and world level.

"Despite this we still achieve admirable results.

"Last summer at the European Championships in Bollate, Italy we achieved a bronze medal, and qualified for the World Championships 2018 in Chiba, Japan.

"However, each year we are required to pay thousands of pounds out of our own pockets in order to compete for GB, and this year we are attempting to raise £65,000 ($92,000/€75,000) as a team to cover the costs of competing in Japan from 3-12 August 2018, and a pre Olympic qualifying tournament in Holland from 17-23 September.

"Covering the costs of competing for Team GB softball can be a challenge, and as you can imagine takes away from time being spent on practicing, and playing in order to better ourselves individually, and as a team."

Britain's women's softball team have launched a crowdfunding campaign to try to help them qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo but they still have a long way to go ©Go Fund Me
Britain's women's softball team have launched a crowdfunding campaign to try to help them qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo but they still have a long way to go ©Go Fund Me

Checking out how likely it is that I will actually be able to meet Pearce and her team-mates in the softball mixed zone in Japan in two years’ time, I am forced to conclude that it is a bit of a long shot - but nowhere near as far-fetched as, say, Leicester City winning a Premier League title.

The long odds are partly a consequence of the minimalist nature of the Olympic tournament: there will be only six qualifiers.

Since one of these six slots is reserved for host Japan, there will be only five other teams present.

And, without going into too much detail, the likelihood is that only one of this quintet will be a European team, although it is possible that the European contingent might be two, or even zero.

Looking at the current rankings, there are three European sides - The Netherlands, Italy and the Czech Republic - above Great Britain.

Team GB is currently in 14th spot, so it looks a bit of a stretch to argue that the team has Olympic podium potential, at least for Tokyo 2020.

Having said that, if the world’s 14th-best marathon runner or breaststroker were British, I would be fairly sure that she would receive elite performance funding, especially if her career were on an upward trajectory.

When I contact Pearce in Holland, where she plays for the current Dutch champions in Haarlem and runs her own personal training studio in Utrecht, she argues that the Italian and Dutch teams, Europe’s best, are both "beatable".

"Our chances are pretty high," she tells me.

"We have more team players at a competitive level who are either improving or at their peak."

Since six of the Dutch team are in Pearce’s club side, and other GB players perform in Italy, there is certainly no shortage of inside knowledge in the British camp.

Pearce, 26, also reminds me that this generation of British softball players suffered the heartache of thinking one moment - when London was awarded the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics - that they would have the opportunity of representing Britain in their home Games, only to have this dream torn away from them when softball was dropped from the Olympic programme days later.

"I was helping at an athletics event in the UK," on the fateful day, she remembers.

"My heart sank."

Stephanie Pearce is leading a campaign to raise funds to help Britain compete at Tokyo 2020 ©Purple Knights
Stephanie Pearce is leading a campaign to raise funds to help Britain compete at Tokyo 2020 ©Purple Knights

Team manager Simon Mortimer, a former hockey player who works as a submissions manager for a construction company, tells me that all staff are volunteers and that "all my leave apart from five days is going on softball teams".

He talks me through some of the complexities of budgeting for this summer’s world championship in Chiba - which carries an Olympic qualifying place for the winners.

His overall figure for this is around £70,000 ($100,000/€80,000), including flights.

This allows "ideally" for two or three beds per room in a budget hotel.

Apart from a contribution to the sport’s high performance academy, "all the money we get is from individual players or individuals' donations," he says.

Figures provided by Sport England show that grants to BaseballSoftballUK (BSUK) ran at about £600,000 ($853,000/€689,000) for each of 2017-2018 and 2018-2019.

Sport England told me this represents 0.85 per cent of total funding to all national governing bodies.

Of this money, just under £50,000 ($71,000/€57,000) a year is earmarked for the talent pathway, including the high performance academy alluded to by Mortimer. 

According to BSUK’s Bob Fromer, softball was funded to the tune of £176,000 ($250,000/€202,000) a year by UK Sport from 2005 to 2007.

"Funding was given in knowledge that softball would not be in London, but had a chance of getting to [the] Beijing [2008 Olympics]," he told me.

The team ended up coming third in a qualification tournament from which only the winner was selected.

On very brief acquaintance, Pearce - who left home at 18 to study in Texas and is now running her own business in another foreign country, besides performing at a high level in her chosen sports discipline - seems just the sort of role model we look to sport to produce.

I wish her and her team-mates well as they try to get to the Olympic Games the hard way.