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Fort Wayne Journal Gazette

Companies have stepped up to the plate when it comes to workplace activities — minus softball.

Once viewed as a corporate morale mainstay, the sport has taken a back seat to in-house fitness and wellness programs, 5K races and other forms of recreation that executives view as beneficial for the rank-and-file.

Sales of softball-related gear, based on wholesale figures from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association in Silver Spring, Maryland, have stayed essentially flat over the past decade, officials said.

The association reported $457 million in sales last year, a 1.5 percent increase from 2012.

"Sales may be higher, but it's not because people are buying more softball merchandise, it's because prices have gone up," said Mike May, a consultant with the organization. "Softball has certainly seen better times."

But some companies are still willing to sponsor teams because they say the sport has value for employees.

Chris Popp is executive vice president at Aunt Millie's Bakeries in Fort Wayne. Workers at the bread business approached bosses there about a team two years ago.

"We felt like we have a lot of really good people and we ask a lot of them," Popp said. "When they came forward, we thought the team would be a good way to build camaraderie and healthy habits."

Popp said there is no formal wellness program at the company, so paying a $450 sponsorship fee was nothing compared with the benefits of the activity.

"It's a fun way for them to get together and exercise and that's always a good thing," Popp said.

Rick Loy would benefit from more participation. He is co-owner of Imperial Trophy & Awards in Fort Wayne. He supplies the championship and MVP plaques company teams covet.

"Overall, stuff like softball is way down," Loy said.

"People are just too busy nowadays and there are so many other things to do," he said. "Everyone is tightening their belts, so maybe it is economics because there's just so much money to go around. It does affect us."

Evren Esen says she would expect as much. She is director of survey programs for the Society for Human Resource Management. The group has seen a steady decline in company-sponsored activities.

The society's national poll in February showed only 12 percent of 510 organizations supported athletics in 2013, which is less than half the percentage of firms that did seven years ago. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

"They are moving away from softball and similar things in favor of wellness-related activities," Esen said. "Organizations are looking at lowering (health) insurance costs. There are informal things like walking groups and there are exercise classes where employees can get together."

Esen said wellness efforts are year-round and more flexible than softball.

"Softball is only going to appeal to a select group of employees," she said. "There are a lot of other creative things people can do related to health."

Jason Scott says he prefers swinging for the fences.

The 36-year-old is vice president of information technology for Aunt Millie's by day, but every other Sunday he plays left field for the company team.

"I really enjoy it," Scott said. "We have all skill sets, from beginners to people who have played in the past. I can see where some companies may want to do other things, but when the interest is there softball is more exciting."

Shambaugh & Son of Fort Wayne certainly has the interest. The company has sponsored a team for at least 20 years.

"During the recession, it didn't stop," said Steve Tincher, a project manager, who organizes the team for the business that specializes in new and retrofit construction for industrial, commercial, medical and other segments.

"We're a family-oriented company and that probably has a lot to do with it."

So does camaraderie.

"That's 100 percent of what makes playing softball special," said Dona Schaefer, who has organized teams through Fort Wayne Parks & Recreation for 25 years. "That's why you play, but it's hard to field a team nowadays."

Schaefer said two-income families and related dynamics mean people hardly having enough time for themselves.

"So, softball participation continues to go down," she said. "We had 100 or more teams 10 years ago. Today, I have four women teams."

But the numbers can be misleading.

"A lot of companies aren't sponsoring teams, so you have workers who get together on their own, but either keep or take the company name," Schaefer said.

Tincher said he feels there's room for softball and other sports.

"The main thing is getting people involved, no matter what the activity is," he said. "As long as it's healthy."

Phil's One Stop in Fort Wayne decided to embrace softball and started a team last year. Office manager Rebekah Gumbiner says the sport has a place at the table, even if it isn't at the head.

"I know there are other activities out there," she said, "but softball is still a good way to get outside together and get to know each other outside of work."

Gumbiner is the team's manager and plays third base.

"It's been fun so far," she said.

AT A GLANCE

Here's a look at wholesale equipment sales in the softball/ baseball industry over the last five years:

2009...$448 million

2010...$447 million

2011...$447 million

2012...$450 million

2013...$457 million

Wholesale figures in 2013:

Softballs: $30.2 million

Gloves and mitts: $134 million

Batting gloves: $34.6 million

Protective gear: $79 million

Bats: $179 million

Source: Sports & Fitness Industry Association

 

August 5, 2014
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