Adult Softball Leagues Are Experiencing Shrinking Participation Numbers, Causing League Organizers and Field Complex Operators to Rethink Their Approach to the Game
Organized softball has long been a staple of American sports and recreation, dating back to 1933 with the formation of the Amateur Softball Association (ASA), the sport's national governing body. There was a time when, for many people, playing softball for a company, tavern or church team was almost a given. In 1987, there were 31 million slow- and fast-pitch softball participants nationwide, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. But by 2000, that number had fallen to 19.7 million, a 36.5 percent decrease. In fact, softball - which 14 years ago was a top-ten sport among SGMA survey participants - is now only the 25th most popular sports and fitness activity.
These statistics puzzle and concern softball industry professionals, particularly because girls' fast-pitch teams contributed to a nearly 16 percent increase in fast-pitch numbers from 1997 to 2000. Despite growth in this category, field complex operators and equipment retailers report significant financial losses because, traditionally, the adult male fast-pitch constituency has been the most reliable source of revenue. Whether at the sporting goods store or the concessions stand, adult males have spent more discretionary income on softball than their female counterparts.
According to a 2000 SGMA study, the immediate future holds little promise. During the 1990s, demand for more female sports programs, coupled with the gold-medal success of the 1996 U.S. Olympic women's softball team, helped fuel a 56 percent increase in the number of female softball players on high school and college teams. Currently, the average age of all fast-pitch players is 18, and nearly two-thirds of them are female. In fact, only 10 percent of players age 12 to 17 are boys. As exciting as this may be for female athletes, it is a trend that has many observers predicting that in 20 years, the game of men's fast-pitch softball will no longer exist.
Slow-pitch softball - the choice format for "casual" players for at least the past 25 years - is also in trouble. The SGMA reports that slow-pitch participation levels fell 14 percent from 1997 to 2000, from 20.6 million players nationwide to 17.6 million.
A major contributor to the dropoff is the shift in softball from a largely recreational activity to a game sullied by individuals more concerned with finances than fun. A number of teams are securing sponsorships from deep-pocketed corporations that willingly spend large amounts of money on the softball teams that bear either their companies' or their products' logos - at times even going so far as to pay players salaries and traveling expenses. These corporate-sponsored teams then buy up as much talent as possible - even assembling teams with players from different parts of the country - sacrificing team camaraderie and chemistry for victories. "The buying of players is discouraging grassroots sponsors, coaches and smaller organizations from investing their time and resources into developing players," says Ken Hackmeister, executive director of the International Softball Congress. "Because once they are developed, these players are often bought by an elite team sponsor."
These Major League-like tactics have helped rob casual players of the fraternal experience softball provides for them, and in its place, introduced a manufactured atmosphere, one in which the best players play on the best teams, and in turn dominate local leagues and local tournaments. Because the focus is no longer on recreation, but instead on winning championships, many teams with less talent eventually become frustrated and find that it is not worthwhile for them to continue playing.
Some players feel that the only way they can compete against these power teams is by turning to recent innovations in softball equipment technology to somehow bolster their game. However, according to Todd Strubhart, recreation supervisor of the Belleville (Ill.) Parks and Recreation Department, this technology - which includes increasingly harder balls and double-layer-constructed bats that increase the power and velocity at which a ball bounces off the barrel - has others concerned for their own safety on the field.
These factors have helped decimate and polarize players in the local softball ranks, and while the phenomenon tends to take its toll at the state and regional levels, it is finally becoming evident on a national scale, as well. In 1999, only eight teams participated in the ASA men's fastpitch national tournament series at its top level of competition, while 60 teams faced off in the Class C tournament. The ASA men's slow-pitch national tournament series, too, has had its share of troubles. In 2000, the tournament had 21 teams play at the top level of competition, but last year saw only 14 teams compete. Meanwhile, the 1998 Class C tournament drew 93 teams, but last year, 130 teams between the East and West divisions competed for the title.
In the 1980s, there weren't enough softball complexes to accommodate the increasing number of leagues and tournaments nationwide. The United States Specialty Sports Association and National Softball Association began sponsoring various slow-pitch national tournaments, reaching out to male and female players of all ages. Meanwhile, the International Softball Congress emerged as the organization of choice among male fast-pitch players in the major division. The ASA, as well, began to expand its national tournament play to more levels, and offered more national qualifying tournaments so that teams could qualify early for summer's-end national tournaments.
That decade experienced a building craze like never before, as interest in both slow- and fast-pitch softball neared its peak. Even with so many new facilities being built, complex operators had little trouble keeping their fields full of players. These days, however, many facility managers now realize that they must adopt more creative approaches to attract potential teams and tournaments, and restore adult participation to pre-slump levels.
Mike Armato, facility manager of Players Park in Roscoe, Ill., is working with local teams to run a developmental league, in hopes of introducing more men to fast-pitch softball. Armato hopes to do this by first eliminating the hyper-competitive atmosphere that has permeated fastpitch softball's ranks and return the game to a more relaxed state. Armato lures former players back to the game and recruits new ones at the same time, placing these individuals randomly on teams with the league's current players. These experienced players "teach" league newcomers. Pitchers are encouraged to throw only drop balls to new players, instead of employing their full arsenal of pitches. Catchers, too, are encouraged to help new batters and, at times, identify for them certain upcoming pitches.
The developmental league has also adjusted certain rules to enliven play and make games more enjoyable. Each team is only allowed to play one game, as opposed to the typical doubleheader. Teams are required to have each player bat in a game, while free player substitutions are permitted at any time during play. The end result. The developmental league has quadrupled in size from the summer of 2000 to last year, increasing its participation from only 25 players divided between two teams to eight teams and more than 100 players.
Another practice of Armato's is to allow teams to use his fields for free during weekend daylight hours, hoping the gesture will persuade them to request the fields for future nighttime home games and tournament events.
Some complex operators have taken it upon themselves to offer free-agent lists - lists of players that do not have teams, but would like to be a part of one - to get more softball participants into their facilities. The complex operators then assemble teams within specialty leagues for tavern or church groups. Individuals are often more likely to join a softball team if they can be part of a group with which they identify. Generally, these leagues are less competitive, more recreational and more fun than traditional leagues.
The Miramar (Fla.) Community Services Department found success after it added an adult corporate league last year to serve the area's growing business community. In its inaugural season, six teams and approximately 100 individuals participated in the league, which plays its games on Friday nights at the SilverLakes Sports Complex. The league is coed and uses modified rules to make play less competitive. For example, at least two women must play in the field at any given time, and incentives are available to teams that do not intentionally walk male batters so they can pitch to females.
Bobby McGuigan, the league's coordinator, believes the corporate softball league is a successful tool in improving camaraderie at local workplaces. "It's great because it gives people a chance to hang out in an atmosphere outside of work," he says. League participants seem to agree. Scott Richardson, an employee of a Miramar health-care benefits provider and a member of that company's team, told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel that before he began playing in the league, he had known many of his coworkers only by face. Six teams again registered for league play this season, but McGuigan expects the program will grow as it becomes more popular among local businesses.
Complex operators are also becoming more aggressive in their marketing techniques, utilizing radio and other advertising media to sell their product to the general public. Hoping to spark interest among a new generation - potentially the future torchbearers of softball - many complexes are targeting high school boys and girls and introducing them to the benefits of participating in recreational and amateur softball. Some complexes offer discounts to players under the age of 18, as well as to teams that either pay their fees early or for multiple seasons in one installment. A typical discount rate can range between 15 and 20 percent off the normal rates charged by a facility.
While there is definite concern among softball complex operators about the decline of adult softball participation, measures are being taken by major softball organizations to restore the game to its heyday levels. The SGMA has begun actively supporting programs geared toward building free agent, high school and corporate softball leagues. Fastpitch associations such as the ISC recently assembled a blue-ribbon committee to assess the changing state of softball and develop strategies to increase participation rates through the redevelopment of the men's game. SODA is also studying trends in amateur softball and has recently become more interested in reversing the downturn. Though financial and demographic research is helping provide some answers, perhaps industry experts should focus less on generating revenue and more on putting the enjoyment back into the experience of going to the ballpark.