team softball

Fast Times Fast Pitch

Photo: Stuart Seeger, Flickr, Wikimedia Commons

As the team sports business transitions on the sports calendar away from winter to the spring season, the outlook for fast-pitch softball couldn’t be better, especially at the high school level.

“The future of high school softball is very encouraging. One positive is that this year, all 51 member state associations will be offering a state championship in softball,” reports Sandy Searcy, the director of sports for the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). “The sport, in general, continues to increase in popularity. Media coverage of high school softball raises the level of awareness of opportunities and the sport. It also increases the reach of softball at the grassroots level.”

According to Searcy, the NFHS participation studies indicate that girls’ fast-pitch softball took a hit in 2020, along with every other team sport, but the participation numbers for fast-pitch softball are trending in a positive direction in 2023.

Proof can be found in the NFHS High School Athletics Participation Survey for the 2021-22 school year — its first official report since 2018-19. Even though survey found a slight drop in the number of fast-pitch softball programs and participants, it did demonstrate that high school sports are on the road back after schools in many states were unable to offer programs in normal fashion.

In fact, Searcy anticipates an increase in next year’s numbers (2022-23) as the 51st member state association, South Dakota, will be offering a state-sponsored softball tournament for the first time this year.

The big-picture participation numbers from the NFHS confirm that fast-pitch softball is a major sport at the high school level:

• There are 15,454 high school fast-pitch programs, which is fourth on the list of NFHS sports.  

• From a player-participation perspective, there are 340,923 participants, placing it fifth on the list for all NFHS sports. 

• For comparison purposes, high school slow-pitch softball shows just 358 programs, with 5580 participants.

According to Searcy, COVID-related restrictions are no longer impacting high school fast-pitch softball in any way.

“We are not aware of any states that have COVID restrictions in place that apply to softball,” said Searcy.

“With our great year-round weather, interest in fast-pitch softball is strong. We had a record level of sales last year and we’re already ahead of last year’s pace.” Dan Wells, owner of Bases Loaded, Rancho Cordova, CA Photo: KeithJJ/Pixabay.

Dealers Pitch In

The team dealer community agrees with Searcy, reporting that for the most part early-season sales of uniforms, gear, practice apparel and accessories are trending in the right direction and the supply chain issues – which have impacted deliveries the past three years – have lessened.

In West Lebanon, NH, Bud Hill, the baseball/softball manager for Stateline Sports, is “hopefully optimistic” that the upcoming fast-pitch softball season will be better than it was in 2021 or 2022. For one thing, inventory levels are much improved —“not ideal, but better,” according to Hill.

While most team dealers supply head-to-toe in softball teams, Stateline Sports focuses on equipment and accessories.

“There’s a local apparel company that provides team uniforms, so we focus on the hard goods, such as softballs, batting helmets, bats, gloves and cleats,” says Hill, adding that this year, high schools seem to be interested in buying high-end bats.

In New Jersey, fast-pitch softball sales for Darrow’s Sporting Edge in Lighthouse Station, NJ, are the strongest that they have been in quite a few years — again due to increased participation and better inventory levels.

“In recent months, we’ve sold record amounts of catcher’s gear,” reports Vinnie Iaione, customer orders manager. “In fact, we’ve had to reorder more catcher’s gear. Last year, we had a big issue with receiving shipments of catcher’s gear.”

 That’s a strong sign that supply chain issues are not as prevalent as they were in 2021 and 2022.  

For Darrow’s, softball bat sales were strong in the first two months of the year and cleat sales are expected to pick up in the spring.

“We expect a pretty good year for sales in fast-pitch softball,” adds Iaione.

In Wilmington, DE, Bob Hart, owner of Al’s Sporting Goods, is busier selling girls fast-pitch softball than he has been in a few years. “Fast-pitch softball is our top sales category for girls and baseball is for boys,” he says.

Al’s Sporting Goods operates both a team dealer division and a 17,000-square-foot retail store, so it caters to both teams and individuals.

“In team sales, we sell uniforms, softballs, bases and marking paint and in our retail store we sell a large selection of bats, gloves and cleats as well as socks, visors, belts and batting gloves to individual players,” Hart explains.

“In recent months, we’ve sold record amounts of catcher’s gear. In fact, we’ve had to reorder more catcher’s gear. Last year, we had a big issue with receiving shipments of catcher’s gear.”Vinnie Iaione, customer orders manager. Darrow’s Sporting Edge in Lighthouse Station, NJ Photo: Dave Hensley.

Picking Up in Ohio

In Marietta, OH, high school fast-pitch softball teams from West Virginia and Ohio are making a beeline for Zide’s Sports Shop for their uniforms, softballs, belts, hats, visors, socks and a few softball bats.

“Our fast-pitch business has picked up this year,” reports buyer Tim Cochran, although they sell only a few bats, very few cleats and no fielding gloves at all due to price competition from online sellers.

In Battle Creek, MI, cereal from Kellogg’s is not the only popular item in town for young female athletes playing fast-pitch softball and buying the necessary accessories from Jack Pearl’s Sports Center.

“We sell fast-pitch softball to six-to-10 travel teams and nearly 40 area high schools,” reports owner Keith Manning, who says travel teams are buying lots of sublimated jerseys, backpacks, batting helmets and whatever else they need from head to toe, while high schools are buying uniforms every two or three years.

According to Manning, spending by high schools on bats has declined and it’s now more of a purchase by individual players. “Schools are not buying softball bats like they used to,” he says. “So many players are on travel softball teams and they have their own bats.”

While Manning stocks very few gloves and bats – and no cleats, at all – he will sell them on-demand. “If a player or a team needs a specific bat, glove or a cleat, I will order if for them.”

Meanwhile, in southern Indiana, softball is a solid sales category for Kratz Sporting Goods in Clarksville.

“Over the years, softball has been a good category for us, especially with high schools,” says owner Allen Krebs. “And, now the softball product is back in our inventory and on our shelves.”

Yet Krebs sells very few cleats, fielding gloves and bats because the online prices are lower and selection is wider.  

While Kratz doesn’t sell too much product to travel softball programs, he’s willing to give them a great product at a very competitive price with exceptional delivery. “Travel teams are always welcome here,” adds Krebs, who admits that many travel teams enjoy ordering and designing uniforms through online channels.

Throughout the Hawkeye State of Iowa, softball diamonds are expected to be at capacity this summer, filled with high school fast-pitch softball players because girls’ high school softball is played in the warmer months there. And Iowa Sports Supply owner Jake Koch reports that sales of fast-pitch softball gear and equipment have been steady and strong this year, a reflection of the sport’s resurgence.

“High school girls’ softball has started to turn around,” says Koch, whose business has a team sales division and separate retail section. Between the two sales outlets, Iowa Sports Supply sells everything in softball except cleats.

Even though the softball season doesn’t begin until the summer, teams have been placing early orders – especially for hats and catcher’s gear – to make sure everything arrives well before the opening of the season.

“Many coaches placed orders for caps as early as January because of possible delivery delays,” Koch reports.

The Western Swing

Out west in Las Vegas, NV, girls’ fast-pitch softball sales are strong with local recreational leagues and high schools for Turf Sporting Goods. “I just finished doing business with a local 40-team league and a 15-team league for fast-pitch softball,” reports owner Jerry Ocuda. “We’re totally into girls’ fast-pitch softball.”

According to Ocuda, his local travel teams are playing and ordering more softball product throughout the year. But like many other dealers, he sells very few cleats and even fewer bats and fielding gloves.

“Players are going to the Internet to buy their bats and gloves,” he says.  “I sell very few cleats.”

In California, fast-pitch softball is thriving, especially in Rancho Cordova, CA, just outside Sacramento, where Dan Wells, owner of Bases Loaded, reports has the second-largest concentration of fast-pitch softball players in the U.S.

“With our great year-round weather, interest in fast-pitch softball is strong,” says Wells. “We had a record level of sales last year and we’re already ahead of last year’s pace,” says Wells, who is celebrating the dealer’s 26th year in business in April.

The supply chain issues that affected many retail businesses in softball the past two years are not impacting the inventory levels for Bases Loaded. “We often have better inventory levels than manufacturers,” boasts Wells.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Softball Scorebook

There are some eye-opening and attention-getting statistics about today’s female fast-pitch softball participants. According to research from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), of the 2.1 million fast-pitch softball participants, nearly 70 percent of them are female — close to 1.5 million. And a significant percentage of those – 69 percent – are between the ages of six and 24. Among the other interesting findings from SFIA research:

Of those 2.1 million fast-pitch softball players, nearly 1.2 million are classified as core participants, who play the sport 26 or more days a year. And of those, more than 80 percent of them are female. Combined, more than 60 percent of all core fast-pitch softball players are between the ages of six and 17.

From a household income perspective, 39 percent of all female fast-pitch softball participants live in households with annual incomes of at least $100,000.  

Of the 1.2 million core players, 39 percent live in homes where the annual household income is at least $100,000 a year.

Other than playing their favorite sport, fast-pitch softball players are into walking for fitness, basketball, bowling, fishing and running/jogging.

Geographically, the four most popular regions for fast-pitch softball players in the U.S. are the South Atlantic/16.7%, Middle Atlantic/15.7% , East North Central /15.4% and the Pacific / 13.8%.