By MURRAY EVANS, Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The NCAA will keep its Division I softball championship tournament in Oklahoma City through 2020 and likely will extend the deal through 2035, the NCAA said Thursday.
The deal, announced by officials from the NCAA, USA Softball and Oklahoma City on the opening day of this year's Women's College World Series, is the third long-term hosting agreement for the NCAA, following similar deals for baseball in Omaha, Nebraska, and outdoor track and field in Eugene, Oregon.
The WCWS has been held at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium every year but one since 1990 (1996, Columbus, Georgia). Attendance for the eight-team event has been more than 100,000 each of the past seven years and more than 150,000 the past two years.
"I think Oklahoma City is the mecca of softball," said Mark Lewis, the NCAA's executive vice president for championships and alliances. "When you look at the nature of the event, baseball and softball lend themselves to this kind of environment . Having some permanency to the site makes it that much better, because this is quite a production. ... We're very grateful that the city values the championship."
Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said about $20 million - some of that public money from bond issues, some from private philanthropic sources and some from naming-rights fees - either has already been or will be spent on stadium improvements. The Oklahoma City All Sports Association and the Amateur Softball Association/USA Softball said OGE Energy Corp. had signed to a 20-year naming rights deal to rebrand the facility as "OGE Energy Field at the ASA Hall of Fame Stadium."
Cornett said the value of the tournament to Oklahoma City can't be overstated.
"The direct impact you would measure through typical tourism standards," he said. "But the indirect aspects of it are what excite me the most. Every year during the College World Series, I hear from people that I might have met in previous aspects of my life, who are sitting off in some far-off corner of the world watching television and they see Oklahoma City on the screen."
The stadium, which had permanent seating of about 2,000 when it was built in 1987, was expanded to about 5,000 seats in 2002. For the WCWS, temporary bleacher seating outside the outfield has increased the capacity to about 8,000.
Plans eventually call for a triple-deck seating structure that will add about 4,800 permanent seats. A new press box and suites also will be built. The host-site extension to 2035 is based on the assumption that those stadium improvements will be completed, Lewis said.
Significant work already has been done on expanding the team dugouts, said Craig Cress, the executive director of the Amateur Softball Association/USA Softball. Meeting rooms, restrooms and tunnels underneath the stands for team use have been added and locker rooms have been enlarged. Those changes excited coaches of teams in this year's tournament.
"The dugout I was in today made me excited it's here until 2035," Florida coach Tim Walton said. "I've been here six times and have never had the opportunity to go into a bathroom and change and put sunscreen on and do all of those things. What they've done already, I know it's baby steps, but it is awesome. The dugout we had is awesome. It's comfortable. I love it."
Artificial turf also has been installed on the infield portion foul territory on the field.
The stadium also will host the Division II championship tournament in 2015 and the Division III championship tournaments in 2017 and 2018, but there aren't any plans to make Oklahoma City the long-term home for those events, Lewis said.
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