I'm never happy when I read about a sport that is having trouble attracting participants, and AB's story on the decline of slow-pitch softball really bothered me. It's a sport that traditionally draws more mature players, and nobody in our industry wants to see people become inactive as they get older.
What was good, though, was seeing the steps some areas are taking to reignite interest in the sport. In particular, the fact that some new facilities were being built is a hopeful sign. It's about time someone took this course of action, since it never seems to occur to people that a facility that isn't cared for won't attract new players.
All too often, community members look at a program with falling numbers, then blame the lack of participation on the sport itself, and say it's dead for good and what a shame, blah blah blah. Then they immediately turn the old facility into something else to accommodate the hot sport of the moment. It's always the path of least resistance and it's often totally off-base.
In 1994, Sports Illustrated ran an article headlined, "Is Tennis Dying?" Its purpose was to examine participation numbers and why those numbers were falling, but it helped light a fire under the industry. New player initiatives were developed, as was a series of programs to help communities get their facilities in playing shape again. It's not all the USTA did to bring in participants, though. They now have staffers called Tennis Service Representatives, who work within USTA's geographic sections and travel to community fairs, schools, rec centers, parks and more to promote tennis on a recreational level.
Tennis isn't the only sport to take the initiative when things looked bad. In 1989, when youth baseball participation was way down in urban areas, MLB created the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program. Part of that effort was starting teams and programs, promoting them, pulling kids in and giving them places to play. As a result, participation numbers have grown in this sector, and there is an RBI World Series each year.
The point of all this? It's easy to throw up your hands and say a sport is dead and that nobody plays it any longer. What is harder is realizing that sometimes, players lose interest because nobody wants to play at a facility that is falling apart, and because nobody is out there actively trying to pull people in. Sports that make the effort by keeping up their facilities and using good in-person promotion can and will make their comeback.