Florida Gulf Coast League Offers College Players Summer Opportunity
Summer leagues are a college baseball institution—from California to Massachusetts, 73 leagues give college baseball players at all levels the chance to continue their development, face top competition and play in front of professional scouts after the spring season ends.
Until this year, college softball players hadn't had a summer opportunity like that. But the Florida Gulf Coast League is beginning to change that.
The FGCL, which kicked off its inaugural season on June 18 despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, has welcomed 75 players to Bradenton, Fla., allowing players to experience their first game action in more than three months after the college season was canceled on March 12.
Ryan Moore, the FGCL’s executive director, pushed the league to adopt a softball division for summer 2020 after a successful first baseball season last year.
“As fast and as big as the sport is growing, I was absolutely shocked that they didn’t have something out there like this before,” Moore said. “From a spectator standpoint, it’s amazing. It’s absolutely incredible to watch. Everybody likes to go visit the beach for their summertime and get away, and if you can play 25 games of college softball and get a chance to win a ring, maybe you’ll do that too.”
The league was initially going to consist of 12 teams, but ended up with just seven as pandemic concerns limited signups. Still, the FGCL has attracted players from top programs such as Washington, Florida and Oklahoma, but also from strong mid-major teams and even several non-Division I programs.
Players are staying together in a hotel just 10 minutes from the four-field complex where most games are played, at Lakewood Ranch High School in Bradenton. But Manatee County decided that the league could only use two of the fields at a time to limit the total number of people at the complex, so some games are being played at a different complex 30 minutes away. Players are responsible for getting themselves to the games.
The league is also checking players’ temperatures regularly, making sure they sanitize their hands and equipment and encouraging them to wear masks. Moore said the players’ busy schedules will limit potential exposure to the virus. Fans are allowed at the games, but they must practice social distancing in the bleachers.
“We have them playing almost every day,” Moore said. “We do have a couple off days for them, Wednesdays and Sundays, but we also have activities for them on those days. They don’t really have anywhere to go except work out.”
Mario Hernandez, the volunteer assistant at Jacksonville University, is coaching the Manatee Squeeze. Hernandez said the pandemic is actually what encouraged him to coach in the league—Jacksonville’s summer camps were canceled, leaving him free to head to Bradenton.
Jacksonville competes in the Atlantic Sun Conference and has not made the NCAA Tournament since 2011, so Hernandez said he is grateful for the chance to coach players from the Pac-12, Big Ten and ACC.
“It was an easy choice for me. This is going to be something great on my resume,” Hernandez said. “This is going to be an awesome opportunity for me to get my name out there and be able to coach highly talented kids that you only see at the Power Five level.”
Pandemic aside, Moore said this is an ideal time to give softball a new platform—the college game is rapidly growing in popularity. Television viewership for the 2019 Women’s College World Series was up 20 percent from the year before, and the final game drew more viewers than several of ESPN’s Major League Baseball telecasts.
“We’re just excited to have a venue for these young athletes to compete at a high level, enjoy what (baseball players) have enjoyed for all these years,” Moore said. “It’s about time. Honestly, I don’t know why it took so long. These games are thrilling, the fan support is crazy big, the demand to watch it is crazy big. I think the sky’s the limit.”