For two decades, the Frost Classic has drawn college softball teams from across the country to Chattanooga. The 2012 version, which begins Friday morning at Warner Park and Frost Stadium, includes schools from as close as Johnson City and as far as Lewiston, N.Y. on the western shore of Lake Ontario.
When it comes to selecting participants, though, little has changed since the UTC softball program was established in 1994.
“Basically now its just the first 12 teams that call in and sign up,” UTC coach Frank Reed said.
But as the tournament has grown in popularity and Reed has started turning away more and more interested parties, ideas for a new model have developed.
Thursday afternoon, Reed discussed the possibility of shifting the format to an invitational tournament that would create a higher quality of play and bring in a select field from around the region. The transition could begin as soon as 2013, and will likely be fully in place by 2014.
“We’re looking at maybe sending out two invitations to the (Ohio Valley Conference), two to the (Southeastern Conference), two to wherever and try to get it across the board,” Reed said.
"We’re definitely going to do it. … It’s definitely something we feel like is going to enhance the quality of the tournament and give us a chance to show off Frost Stadium and the things that we’re doing here.”
In the past, SEC schools such as Georgia and Kentucky have been a part of the field, but their participation has been sporadic. Reed said the presence of more recognizable schools may not make a significant impact in ticket sales, but it would provide a consistent format and a higher quality of softball.
“When we put it out, teams are jumping to the point where they’re saying, ‘Let me come, we want to come,’” Reed said.
Part of the reason teams have traveled in the past to Chattanooga was evident in the 70-degree weather that warmed the area Thursday afternoon.
Niagara University, which will make the 13-hour trip from New York, was quick to sign up, leaving snow and freezing temperatures behind.
The other reason for a shift in tournament format has little to do with sunshine at Frost Stadium and Warner Park. The combination of a feature field with stadium seating and quality the diamonds within walking distance separates the Chattanooga complex from most softball facilities.
“I don’t know of any place, maybe in the country, that has what we’re able to offer,” Reed said. “You may go to a park that has the fields but doesn’t have the stadium. Or you may go to the stadium that’s nice but you don’t have the park.
“So Chattanooga’s obviously the perfect place to play.”
This year’s tournament is scheduled to start Friday morning at 11 a.m. with UTC's first game set for 1:15 against Valparaiso at the stadium.
This year’s 12-team field includes regulars such as East Tennessee State and Tennessee Martin, as well as Purdue, the lone representative from a BCS conference.
One problem with the current format of the tournament is the cluttering of schools from the Ohio Valley Conference. The proximity of UT Martin and ETSU attracts fans, but the team’s unwillingness to play each other prior to the start of the conference play creates scheduling complications.
If regional SEC teams could be lured, the local aspect would remain while conflicts would lessen.
Reed expressed little concern about getting teams to come to Chattanooga.
“If you go to a West Coast tournament you’re going to get a quality experience, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get the quality of venue that we’re able to have in Chattanooga,” Reed said.
“You can go to SEC teams and they’ve got great facilities, great stadiums, but they don’t have the opportunity to play in the parks or anything like this is. Usually if you go there, they keep the tournament smaller.”
Another avenue for change, according to Reed, was the size of the tournament. The field has fluctuated from season to season, but there has always been the possibility of adding more teams.
“We’ve got two fields that we are just going to practice on,” Reed said. “So if we wanted to bump this to 25, 24, 30 teams, we would have no problems in doing that. We’d have to broaden our schedule a little bit, but we could make this tournament whatever we want to make out of it.”