State of America's Games
At all levels of play baseball and fast-pitch softball remain an integral part of the youth sporting scene in America. Sure, they all face their challenges in participation and product availability, but the bottom line for team dealers’ bottom line is that kids of all ages are playing ball.
The High School Baseball Scene
Interest in high school baseball in the U.S. is strong and established and is great shape, according to Elliot Hopkins, director of sports, sanctioning and student services at National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). “We began this baseball season with just a few rule changes and the promise of new programs emerging in different pockets of the country.”
The primary big-picture goal of high school baseball is to keep all players free of injury. “Safety and risk-minimization are always at the forefront of the start of each season,” says Hopkins, and product innovation has not only helped propel interest in high school baseball, but made the game safer as well.
“Technology is always in the discussion when you talk about baseball,” says Hopkins. “The equipment is always improving and the creativity of new products to improve the performance of today’s high school players is astonishing.
“With the introduction of new and innovative equipment, we have to maintain the balance between technology and skill,” he adds. “When the technology assists in improving the skill of the player, then we have an ideal balance.”
The future of high school baseball in the U.S. is tracking in the right direction. “We are very optimistic that interscholastic baseball will continue to thrive,” Hopkins adds.
The High School Softball Scene
In that same vein, girls’ high school fast-pitch softball is back on the sports scene after the 2020 and 2021 seasons were mostly a washout. While not completely back to pre-pandemic levels, softball is certainly trending in the right direction.
“State associations are estimating high school softball participation numbers to be near pre-pandemic levels,” reports Sandy Searcy, NFHS director of sports. “Varied levels of participation occurred across the country over the last two years, but we are optimistic for increases in players taking part in high school softball in 2022.”
While fast-pitch softball players and their coaches and parents are happy to be back on the diamond, the one group in the softball family that has not returned in large numbers is the all-important umpire.
“The number of umpires remains low, causing contests to be cancelled across the country,” Searcy laments. Unfortunately, fast-pitch softball is not the only high school sport that has been impacted by the decline of game officials, referees and umpires.
“A survey of state high school associations indicates that approximately 50,000 individuals in all NFHS sports have discontinued their service as high school (sports) officials since the 2018-19 season — the last full school year unaffected by the pandemic,” Searcy reports, adding that while there are several contributing factors to this sizeable decline, such as the age-old problem of unsportsmanlike behavior by students, coaches, parents and other fans, one of the latest challenges is related to the pandemic.
The Youth Baseball Scene
At the younger levels, it remains too early to know if participation levels are back to pre-pandemic levels.
“Although we won’t have our participation data for this season until the end of the year, we have seen many of our local leagues returning to the field for the 2022 season,” reports Stephen Keener, president and CEO of Little League Baseball in Williamsport, PA. While he understands that some leagues are still recovering from the impact of the pandemic, he is pleased to see the number of leagues that were able to return to the field for the 2022 season.
Because of the pandemic, the business of conducting Little League Baseball has changed. And some of those changes will remain, moving forward.
“Like many other organizations, Little League International embraced the use of technology throughout the pandemic to help communicate and educate its volunteers around the world and plans to continue to use that technology to enhance those efforts in the future,” says Keener. Meanwhile, on the field, opportunities such as the Sandlot Fun Days Program (LittleLeague.org/SandlotFunDays) now provide leagues flexibility and additional ways to increase interest in the game of baseball and softball.
As a result, this is a special year for Little League Baseball, which is expecting full houses at its season-ending championship tournaments.
“After two years of not being able to hold our events in full capacity due to the coronavirus pandemic, Little League International is excited to announce the return of all seven World Series events, and their respective Region Tournaments, with the anticipation of international participation and full fan and visitor opportunities in 2022,” says Keener. The 2022 World Series also marks the first year of the expansion of teams in both Williamsport and Greenville, with four new teams being added at the Little League Baseball World Series and two new teams being added at the Little League Softball World Series.
For baseball and fast-pitch softball conducted by the Babe Ruth League, 2022 has been better than 2021, which in turn was better than the dark ages of 2020.
“Currently, our numbers are not back to 2018/2019 participation numbers,” reports Steven Tellefsen, president/CEO of Babe Ruth League, but its participation numbers have increased from 2020 to 2021 and now to 2022. Before the pandemic hit, Babe Ruth League had just under one million participants among all the divisions.
Now with international travel becoming more possible, Tellefsen and his team are pushing for more participation from overseas teams.
Meanwhile, Sandy Jones, commissioner and CEO of Dixie Boys Baseball, remains very optimistic about the current state and future of youth baseball.
“We have an increase in teams from the 2021 season,” says Jones, although it is unlikely the group will reach its 2019 participation numbers.
Jones is bullish on the future of Dixie Boys Baseball. “We are trending toward our 2019 pre-pandemic numbers and have already surpassed 2021 numbers,” Jones says. “While most leagues are smaller in overall numbers, we are excited to see a return to league play in many less-populated communities. Some leagues haven’t had a program in years and are returning to play.”
There have been some significant changes to the baseball-playing calendar for Dixie Boys Baseball, which condensed its tournament calendar days through maximizing weekend play that allows more parents and spectators to attend. Also, during the pandemic they moved its five World Series events from August to July due to conflicts with the school calendar and the August 1 date of high school football practices.
As it emerges from pandemic-related challenges, Jones is philosophical about the role of Dixie Boys Baseball in the grand scheme of the youth baseball world. “There appears to be a renewed interest in the game and it is our responsibility as leaders to find ways to make the game more enjoyable for the participants.”
At the American Amateur Baseball Congress (AABC), 2022 “has been a great year,” according to executive director Richard Neely, who reports that all of its numbers are up and tournaments are all set for the summer. “We made no changes due to the pandemic, except that now we are playing baseball.”
With approximately 100,000 boys playing baseball this year under the AABC banner, the organization has eight World Series sites for eight different age groups, although some teams have had to cancel playing in a World Series because of team and family finances.
The business of conducting youth baseball at Pony Baseball & Softball is quickly improving after the shutdown of play in March 2020. “In 2021, we were probably 60 percent of capacity and this year we are probably close to 85 percent of what we were prior to the pandemic,” estimates Pony Baseball president Abraham Key.
Two of the biggest issues impacting participation in Pony’s programs are somewhat beyond the control of Key and his staff. “The slow return to play is partly due to limited facility availability and some local leagues have closed or merged with another local league,” Key reports.
But, the reports from the front lines remain upbeat. “Everybody – players, coaches, and parents – are happy to be back playing,” says Key. “Kids are excited about playing baseball and softball.”