Expanding Opportunities On The Ball Fields

By Marcia Bradford

Youth Participation
Little League Baseball, 2.2 million+ players (7,000+ teams)

Little League Softball, 366,000+ players

AAU Baseball, 60,000+ players

AAU Softball, 6,000 players

Amateur Softball Association, 1.2 million+ female players ages 8-18, (83,000+ girls’ fastpitch teams)

High School & Collegiate Participation
High School Baseball, 478,000+ players, (~16,000 teams)
 
High School Softball, 371,000+ players, (~15,000 teams)

NAIA Baseball, 6,000+ players, (260+ varsity and junior varsity programs)

NAIA Softball, 4,000+ players, (206+ varsity and junior varsity programs)

NCAA Baseball, 29,486 players, (897 teams, 2006-07 school year)

NCAA Softball, 16,997 players, (942 teams, 2006-07 school year)

National Statistics
Senior Softball USA, 1.5 million+ players, (ages 50+ for men, 45+ for women)

Amateur Softball Association, 3.5 million+ players, (245,000+ teams)

Overall Participation
Baseball: 16 million+, (83% are males age 13 and younger)

Softball: 2.3 million, + fastpitch players, (60% female, 40% male), 9 million+ slowpitch players, (60% male, 40% female)

Figures based on 2008 USA Sports Participation Survey by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association
In August, 16 teams from eight different national baseball organizations competed in the inaugural National Major Youth Baseball Championship held at the Gameday youth baseball complex in Memphis, Tenn. This four-day event organized by the Major Youth Baseball Alliance (MYBA) featured 10U and 12U divisions, but there are plans to expand the tournament to include eight different age groups, according to Eddie Einhorn, interim executive director of MYBA and vice chairman/co-owner of the Chicago White Sox.

Recently, officials with the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) announced plans to expand its national baseball championship tournament from 10 teams to 46 teams in 2009, adding opening-round events throughout the United States, according to Scott McClure, manager of championship sports. 

These are just some of the latest additions to the already long roster of baseball and softball tournaments held each year throughout the United States and, increasingly, other parts of the world.

Tournament play is a major growth area for baseball and softball organizations, providing opportunities for athletes of all ages to compete in a team sport at regional, national and international levels, but tournaments represent just a small fraction of the vast universe of competitive baseball and softball. According to the 2008 USA Sports Participation Survey, conducted by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA), more than 16 million people in the United States play baseball, more than 2.3 million play fastpitch softball and nearly 9.5 million play slowpitch softball. Mike May, director of communications for SGMA, said the high level of participation in these sports is likely related to so many different options. “Baseball and softball have more organizations than any other sport.”

With the formation of the MYBA, eight of these organizations—representing more than 100,000 teams and 8 million to 10 million young ball players—have come together to add another national contest for young ball players. The participating organizations include the American Amateur Baseball Congress (AABC), the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States (AAU), Babe Ruth Baseball, Dixie Youth Baseball, the National Amateur Baseball Federation (NABF), Pony Baseball, Super Series Baseball of America and the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA). While each of these groups has its own series of championship tournaments each year, the MYBA event was created to take the competition a step further and “determine a true national youth champion team,” according to Einhorn. “This tournament gives each organization’s champion a chance to compete and test its team’s skill at the highest level.”

In addition to the large numbers of youth involved in the MYBA, Little League International, which dates back to 1939, charters more than 7,000 leagues—nearly 6,000 of them in the United States, said Christopher Downs, media relations manager for Little League International. Within these leagues are more than 2.1 million baseball players in the United States and another 123,000 internationally. Participants in Little League’s softball programs include more than 356,000 in the United States and 10,600 internationally.

More than 60,000 athletes participate in AAU’s baseball program and 6,000 in AAU’s softball program, according to James Parker, director of sports. Parker said 85 percent of AAU’s membership is below the age of 19. “AAU consistently grows by about 5 percent every year, and the number of female participants has almost doubled in the last 10 years.”

The Amateur Softball Association (ASA), the national governing body of softball, annually registers more than 83,000 youth girls’ fastpitch softball teams, including about 1.2 million girls ages 8-18, according to Kelly McKeown, director of marketing. Each year, ASA conducts more than 90 national championships featuring more than 30,000 players combined.

“The Olympic Games are an important piece to the overall push to grow the sport globally,” Titus said. “We are working with the IBAF every day to help make sure national member foundations, professional leagues, casual fans and players around the world are on the same page and promoting the IBAF’s tagline, ‘I am baseball.’ The hope is that members of the IOC will see how strong the sport is globally and that…baseball is a sport that is worthy of Olympic inclusion.”

ASA, which selects the USA Softball team that competes in the Olympics and in other international championships, is working to get softball reinstated. The U.S. women’s softball team won the silver medal at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, losing to Japan in the final match and breaking the U.S. team’s gold medal streak that dated to softball’s 1996 Olympic debut in Atlanta. Following the 2008 final game, all three medal-winning teams gathered together and spelled out “2016” in front of the home plate—sending the IOC the message that they plan to work for the reinstatement of women’s softball as an Olympic sport.

In an article posted on the U.S. Olympic Committee’s teamusa.org website following the 2008 Olympics, USA Softball Pitcher Jennie Finch stated, “Our sport is too great…to let eight years put it down.”

Tips For Planning A Home-Run Event
A successful event depends on the time and organizational skills of a savvy event planner who is equipped to bring strategies to fruition. Matt Titus, director of baseball administration with USA Baseball; Chris Downs, media relations manager with Little League Baseball and Softball; and Kelly McKeown, director of marketing with the Amateur Softball Association (ASA)/USA Softball, offer these tips:

1. Reach out to sports commissions and chambers of commerce, which are great resources for marketing and rounding up volunteer support.

2. Start early—begin planning spring events in the preceding fall.

3. Organize a solid planning team and delegate responsibilities. McKeown and Downs suggested hiring a strong umpire in chief and tournament director, or, in the case of leagues, beginning with the election of officers.

4. Consider the facilities early on, determine what kind of renovations and tweaks may be needed, and budget that into the operating costs.

5. Offer unique extras, such as a home-run derby, to make a tournament stand out.

6. Communicate tournament updates, schedule changes, rainouts, evacuation plans and other pertinent information on your website and via e-mail.

7. Market the event with unique story lines that aren’t based simply on the game.
Selena Chavis

High school teams offer another option for young people to play competitive sports, and participation in this arena is at an all-time high, according to a report issued in September by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). Baseball was ranked as the third most-popular sport for boys, involving approximately 16,000 teams and more than 478,000 participants. Fastpitch softball placed fourth in terms of most-popular sports for girls, with nearly 15,000 teams and more than 371,000 participants.

At the collegiate level, 210 NAIA schools in 34 states and British Columbia, Canada, sponsor varsity baseball teams that typically have about 25 members each, according to McClure. Additionally, 25 percent of those teams also have junior varsity baseball programs involving about 15–20 athletes per team. NAIA softball participation is slighter lower, with varsity and, in some cases, junior varsity programs in 206 schools and approximately 20 players per team. According to the most recent statistics available from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), 29,486 athletes participated on 897 baseball teams, and 16,997 athletes participated on 942 softball teams during the 2006-07 school year.

Finally, the large and growing number of senior softball players indicates a lifelong interest in the game for many people. Senior Softball USA, the national governing body for senior softball players, based in Sacramento, Calif., estimates there are more than 1.5 million active senior players currently, and participation numbers are expected to increase as more Baby Boomers meet the age requirements of 50 and older for males and 45 and older for females. 

Meeting New Challenges
The SGMA survey found that 83 percent of all baseball participants in the United States are males age 13 and younger. Matt Titus, director of baseball administration at USA Baseball, the national governing body for baseball, acknowledged that one of the challenges for baseball is to reach out to parts of the population that typically have been underserved. He said that many organizations around the country are working to reach non-traditional populations.

“We are seeing growth both in the women’s and urban sectors, thanks to more energy being devoted to the women’s program by USA Baseball, especially on the heels of another strong showing in the 2008 IBAF (International Baseball Federation) Women’s Baseball World Cup in Japan and to Major League Baseball’s continued efforts to strengthen its Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program in Compton, Calif., and in other urban area across the country,” he said. “The future of baseball among both demographics is promising.”

Little League International has also been proactive in taking its program to prospective communities that aren’t currently served, Downs said. In 1999, the Little League Urban Initiative was created to provide financial assistance packages to local leagues and communities in metropolitan settings to help facilitate local Little League growth.

Statistics from the SGMA survey regarding softball participation in the United States reflect a more balanced picture, at least from a gender perspective. Nationally, 60 percent of all slowpitch participants are male, while 60 percent of all fastpitch participants are female. McKeown said ASA is seeing an increasing number of Hispanics competing in women’s fastpitch softball.

Another issue of increasing importance to baseball and softball is the need for facilities that can withstand the wear and tear of ever-greater numbers of games played each season. With this higher demand, a growing trend in field turf has emerged, Titus said. “Many colleges and high schools are now replacing their natural grass fields with field turf, which requires less maintenance and also allows teams to play more games without the wear and tear on the field. Also, these fields are playable under almost any weather condition, including light rain.”

McClure said that many NAIA schools are putting in the new artificial playing surfaces and adding lights to their baseball fields so that more night games can be played. “This means fewer classes missed by our student-athletes during the day and the opportunity for more parents and fans to attend the games.”

An End To Olympic Baseball & Softball
In a decision that some consider controversial, members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to remove baseball and softball from the Olympics following the 2008 Olympics. USA Baseball and USA Softball are both working to get their sports back into the Olympics.

“The Olympic Games are an important piece to the overall push to grow the sport globally,” Titus said. “We are working with the IBAF every day to help make sure national member foundations, professional leagues, casual fans and players around the world are on the same page and promoting the IBAF’s tagline, ‘I am baseball.’ The hope is that members of the IOC will see how strong the sport is globally and that…baseball is a sport that is worthy of Olympic inclusion.”

ASA, which selects the USA Softball team that competes in the Olympics and in other international championships, is working to get softball reinstated. The U.S. women’s softball team won the silver medal at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, losing to Japan in the final match and breaking the U.S. team’s gold medal streak that dated to softball’s 1996 Olympic debut in Atlanta. Following the 2008 final game, all three medal-winning teams gathered together and spelled out “2016” in front of the home plate—sending the IOC the message that they plan to work for the reinstatement of women’s softball as an Olympic sport.
 
In an article posted on the U.S. Olympic Committee’s teamusa.org website following the 2008 Olympics, USA Softball Pitcher Jennie Finch stated, “Our sport is too great…to let eight years put it down.”
 
 
Quick Tips For Shoring Up Sponsorships
Matt Titus, director of baseball administration with USA Baseball; Chris Downs, media relations manager with Little League Baseball and Softball; and Kelly McKeown, director of marketing with the Amateur Softball Association (ASA)/USA Softball offered these tips when seeking event sponsorships.

1. Keep an open mind. The best sponsors could be those that don’t come to mind first.

2. Customize the sponsorship package to fit your partner’s goals and objectives.

3. Keep as many current sponsors as possible from year to year. Follow up with a post-event analysis of the sponsorship terms and emphasize any value areas in which you over-delivered.

4. Offer unique, “hands-on” experiences, not just signage.

5. Target league and tournament-friendly groups for in-kind and monetary donations.

6. Be in a position to track all Internet traffic and e-mail results.

7. Under-promise and over-deliver.
Selena Chavis
 
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