The end didn't come all that suddenly. In its glory years, the Jock's Nitch Softball Classic drew 140 slow-pitch teams to Pittsburg, Kan., for three days of camaraderie and competition.
The end didn't come all that suddenly. In its glory years, the Jock's Nitch Softball Classic drew 140 slow-pitch teams to Pittsburg, Kan., for three days of camaraderie and competition. First, the women's division dropped 10 years ago. Five years later, the elite teams from St. Louis and Kansas City, several of which flew players in from points all over the country, were no longer signing up in sufficient numbers to support their own bracket. Last year, the total number of teams competing in the Classic stood at 70, half of what it was in the halcyon mid-1990s. With only 13 men's and seven co-ed teams registered two days prior to the 2011 entry deadline this past June, Jock's Nitch, a sporting goods retailer with 13 locations in Kansas and Missouri, unceremoniously gave its 23-year-old tournament the hook.
"We wanted to keep this tournament going, and we didn't take cancelling it lightly," says Jock's Nitch vice president John Minton. "We wanted to give it every chance, but we also wanted to be fair to people. A lot of teams would not have been happy coming down to play in a seven- or 13-team bracket. It's just sad that it died out on us."
Good news is about as common as a perfect game in slow-pitch softball circles these days, as the sport has seen a precipitous drop in participation that has spanned two decades. According to survey data compiled by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, more than a third of the slow-pitch-playing population has disappeared since 2000. In terms of team sports, only wrestling has witnessed greater attrition.
In Pittsburg, 120 teams played in slow-pitch summer leagues a dozen years ago. Today, there are only 30, and recreation officials have told Minton that the sport might not be offered next season. "It's just not there," says the 43-year-old Minton, who played slow-pitch softball for 20 years. "We're seeing it in the store. Our sales are down. The bottom line is, the kids out of high school aren't playing."
SGMA defines core participation as engaging in a sports activity 13 or more times a year. Since 2008, the number of core slow-pitch softball participants ages 25 to 34 has dropped by roughly 400,000. "I think part of the reason for that is there has been big growth in other sports," says SGMA membership manager Jonathan Michaels. "Here in Washington, D.C., there's a huge kickball league. Obviously, it's a lot easier to kick a kickball than it is to hit a softball."
Similar flight has been seen on the other side of the age spectrum - the 45-to-54 demographic. Minton, for one, didn't last that long. "The last year I played, I said, 'Here are my rules: One base at a time. I don't slide. I don't dive.' And I used to pitch. Forget about that. You won't get me near a pitcher's mound. I stopped that because it got to be way too dangerous."
Is slow-pitch softball in danger of dying? Not quite, but some recreation professionals are recommending CPR. As many respondents to an informal AB survey indicated that the number of teams/leagues in their community is in decline as those who reported even the slightest uptick.
Brett Altergott has proclaimed the sport dead in Germantown, Wis. - a village of 20,000 located just up the highway from one-time softball hotbed Milwaukee - where the lone slow-pitch survivors belonged to an out-seam league. "It was a 30-plus league, but most of the guys were 45 or 50," says Altergott, the village's park and recreation director. "It went from eight teams to six, and when it got down to four, the guys were like, 'It's not worth it for a four-team league.'"
Twenty-five years have passed since Sports Illustrated devoted an 11-page spread to the prolific power numbers put up by one slow-pitch softball team - the Men of Steele's. Yet, the sport itself hasn't changed much since. Slow-pitch softball still eliminates the skill positions (pitcher and catcher) required of fast-pitch softball and tilts the scales obscenely toward offense - regardless of players' testosterone levels. What, then, explains its plummet in popularity?
Ron Radigonda, executive director of the Amateur Softball Association of America, points to a pair of societal shifts at play. The first is the aging of the baby boom generation, which counts among its members Radigonda, who once played fast-pitch softball four nights a week and ran leagues in Sacramento, Calif. The other could be viewed as a departure from the "me generation" mentality. "The bubble of the playing population is not as big as it once was," Radigonda says. "And we're seeing more parents foregoing their participation in recreational sports in order to provide recreational opportunities for their children."
For some, it's not so much a lack of personal drive as resources. "I have kids, and I definitely have had to look at that myself a little bit more during the hard economic times," says Bob Adams, leisure services director for the city of Greeley, Colo. "Instead of me playing softball, I'm definitely making sure my kids are able to do the sports programs they're wanting to do."
In many cases, those sports programs are taking over the very softball diamonds that have been left underutilized in the slow-pitch downturn.
Germantown's softball diamond has been retrofitted with base anchors and pitching rubbers at varying distances to accommodate girls' fast-pitch teams from the Metro Milwaukee area, as well as serve the village's thriving Little League baseball program. A permanent clay mound currently rises from the center of a skinned infield. "It's not the greatest scenario in the world," Altergott admits. "But it makes the field as multipurpose as it can be."
In Charlotte County, Fla., where the slow-pitch situation isn't as dire, softball diamonds are nonetheless converted temporarily for baseball through the use of three portable pitcher's mounds costing $650 apiece. "The biggest issue with them is the age of the player and whether or not the mound is capable of handling their stride," says Mike Norton, recreation/athletics coordinator for the Board of County Commissioners. "On a clay mound, you have a constant surface that goes down. With these portable mounds, the stride either needs to hit on the mound or beyond the edge of the mound, and that's where they sometimes have to make adjustments." A second adjustment comes upon the planting of the second foot. "They can't use the typical form that they would if they were coming off a clay mound, because now you have a flat surface all of a sudden," Norton says. "It's a little bit different scenario, so it does change the way they pitch."
Beyond that, the 70-foot base paths required for an AAU baseball tournament held at Charlotte County's five-diamond softball complex placed second base uncomfortably close to the outfield grass. "We're not the only facility in Florida that has done it," Norton says. "It wasn't ideal, but it did work. If we were to continue to go that route, we would adjust the outfield by moving the turf back a little bit."
Other sports finding a home on softball diamonds include the usual suspects (flag football, youth football, small-sided soccer), less common rec sports (field hockey, lacrosse and rugby) and even less common pursuits. Two years ago, the city of Winston-Salem, N.C., spent $400 to have a cement pad installed to make one of its softball diamonds conducive to cricket.
That said, slow-pitch softball has received tremendous life support in certain communities. Fifteen years ago, city officials in Greeley invested $8 million in a four-diamond softball complex, complete with a community park that includes a playground, restrooms, a retention pond, a parking lot and a walking path that connects to the city's trail system. The overarching goal of the infrastructure investment, which coincided with the construction of a new recreation center, was to boost slumping softball participation numbers. "One of the reasons why we built the softball fields with the recreation center was to hopefully generate new interest in softball," says Adams, adding that the plan worked. "We had dropped clear down to about 140 teams at the time. As soon as we built the new fields, we bumped up to 200. It dropped down again, but we've been consistent at 180 teams."
That many teams visited the site on a single weekend in July for a girls' fast-pitch tournament - an emerging market niche for Greeley, according to Adams. "We've had great success bringing in the youth girls' fast-pitch leagues on the weekends now," he says, "because adult slow-pitch has slowed down greatly on the tournament side of things."
At the time of the complex construction, Greeley earmarked an additional $1.5 million toward the conversion of an existing softball diamond for multipurpose use. The project entailed removing fences and eight inches of clay from the infield, then trucking in enough dirt to raise and pitch the field, which had been susceptible to flooding. Lights were also added to support nighttime soccer, lacrosse and rugby use.
Dirt and clay issues no longer concern recreation officials in Sparks, Nev., which sold its existing softball real estate and in 2008 opened a $27 million synthetic turf complex that features six softball fields, two fields each for Little League and Babe Ruth baseball, and three fields designed to accommodate both football and soccer. With brown turf taking the place of a skinned infield, the softball fields have also hosted baseball, kickball and football. "I've talked to a lot of people about the new development that's going on, and people are developing turf facilities," says the ASA's Radigonda. "They're building turf facilities that can be multipurpose, and then they're not dealing with watering, fertilizing and mowing to the same degree."
Even in Germantown, investment in infrastructure is being pitched as a potential economic boon. The village park's 13 acres will still feature tennis courts, a skate park and playground equipment, but it also will include concessions/restroom facilities and three diamonds capable of hosting both girls' fast-pitch softball and Little League baseball tournaments. Temporary fences could be set as far back as 250 feet for baseball - or removed entirely should adult slow-pitch make a comeback. "Something that a lot of our commissioners hang onto is that they don't want this to just be a specialty softball complex," says Altergott, who anticipates a 2014 project completion. "That's why it's important to have movable fences. If you don't have a fence issue and you have green space in the outfield, you can convert that into small-sided soccer fields. Diamonds take up space, but it's how you try to maximize the use of that space that becomes important. I wouldn't be doing my job if we weren't looking at a way to improve an underutilized facility and asking, 'What does it need to be to be utilized five to six days a week?'"
Radigonda seems resigned to the fact that adult softball participation is following the arc of its namesake slow pitch. "I don't think we'll see those numbers that we once saw, because society has changed so much," he says. "When I first started running softball leagues in 1972, the entry fee for a team for 10 games was $30. It's not $30 anymore. It depends on what part of the country you're in, but teams are paying between $60 and $100 a game in entry fees. The economics are never going to get back to where they once were, and that has something to do with how much people play. I was a four-night-a-week player. I played all the time. Economically, I don't think you'll see that people will be able to afford to do that."
At its pinnacle, the Jock's Nitch Softball Classic pumped $1 million into the Pittsburg economy every summer. Minton would like to keep that much alive, even if his slow-pitch tournament cannot be resuscitated. "Everybody really looked forward to our softball tournament weekend, because the hotels were all full. You could go to any convenience store, restaurant, bar, liquor store, Wal-Mart, and you just could tell the tournament was on, because of the softball players. That's something we wanted to do for the community, and that's why we go forward."
Minton envisions sponsoring tournaments for girls' fast-pitch softball and youth baseball teams, beginning as early as next year. "Actually, the youth teams travel better because you get more family members coming with them," he says. "It could end up being a better draw for our community in the end. So many of these kids' parents have played in our tournament at one time or another, and they know what a great event we put on here. That's going to be our big push - to get it going again, but in a youth format."