The 2021 Women’s College World Series began Thursday in Oklahoma City, and the venue for the event this year will allow for more fans, as well as a better view of the action on the field.
The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the debut of the new upper deck seating down the first and third baselines of the USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium in 2020, but the new features will be prominent fixtures of the facility for years to come.
Both sections of the upper deck can hold 2,000 fans each, which increases the stadium’s fan capacity to 13,000.
“In Japan, they play a lot of their games in baseball stadiums, but for something that is softball- specific, to my knowledge, there is nothing like this in the world,” said Rich Cress, the director of membership services for USA Softball.
All of those seats will be available to fans this year. USA Softball announced May 21 that the stadium would allow 100% capacity for the Women’s College World Series following updated guidance from the NCAA COVID-19 Medical Advisory Group that leaves fan capacity limits up to local authorities.
The stadium, which is also the home of the U.S. national softball team, has hosted college softball’s pinnacle event every year since 1990 with the exception of last year’s cancellation and 1996, when the Women’s College World Series was held in Columbus, Georgia, the site of the Summer Olympics softball competition.
The additional upper deck seating, along with new LED lighting, was funded by a $27.5 million bond package passed by Oklahoma City voters in 2017.
These additions are the latest in a long line of renovations that have taken place over the past decade at the USA Softball Hall of Fame Complex. Each time Oklahoma City voters supported bonds for improvements.
In 2011, a multipurpose field house was constructed behind the scoreboard in left-center field. During the WCWS, it is used to house the umpiring crews, and teams use to gather before and after games.
In 2013 and 2014, four new locker rooms and larger dugouts were part of a renovation to improve the student-athlete experience at the event. Concession stands and additional restrooms were also built. Also, during this time, batting cages were added down each baseline to help for possible pinch-hitting duties or to warm up before games. This is in addition to the two practice fields that were built at the complex in 2003, where teams prepare for their upcoming games.
In 2018, metal roof coverings were added to the batting cages. The following year, the press box and broadcast areas were renovated. Teams can walk through tunnels in the complex to reach locker rooms and to reach rooms where they answer questions from the press.
All the renovations have led to Oklahoma City remaining the host of the WCWS through 2035.
“Softball is big in this area, and the voters have supported the bonds through the years,” Cress said. “It has been like one ongoing project. The completion of the upper deck is going to be the most visual change to everybody. When I’m driving into work every day, you can see the stadium from a couple of miles away. It is impressive.”
Because of all the cranes and heavy trucks needed to move the concrete and steel to construct the upper deck, the eight participating teams are going to be playing on a new playing surface.
Instead of the native Oklahoma soil, the field is now sand-based with Bermuda grass designed for athletic competition. The field can handle up to 15 inches of rain an hour.
“We had a tournament not too long ago where we had the tarp on and our grounds crew guys dumped the tarp in right field, and there was standing water out there,” Cress said. “But within 10 minutes, it was all gone and looked like it hadn’t rained at all.”
Cress has worked permanently for USA Softball since 2009, but his days of being around the complex date back to 2003, when he worked part time while in high school.
He’s been on hand for most of the enhancements and thinks the players, coaches and fans will be in for a good experience.
“After the new upper deck was completed last year, I was standing around the pitcher’s circle with other people from our staff,” Cress said. “Looking up at the extra 4,000 seats was pretty amazing and kind of intimidating. And there was no one in the stands. People here want the Women’s College World Series to be around here for a while.”