Across the nation, cities and recreation directors are facing a troubling trend. Participation in adult softball leagues is on the decline. Phil Vargas, Hastings’ sports and recreation coordinator, says it’s a trend seen all over the nation.
A 2002 article in Athletic Business highlighted the problem more than 10 years ago.
“In 1987, there were 31 million slow- and fast-pitch softball participants nationwide, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association,” the article reads. “But by 2000, that number had fallen to 19.7 million, a 36.5 percent decrease.”
In another article published by Athletic Business in 2011, the decline is highlighted again.
“According to survey data compiled by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, more than a third of the slow-pitch-playing population has disappeared since 2000.”
Vargas said he’s seen adult softball leagues vanish entirely in other Minnesota cities.
In Hastings, the trend is visible, although it hasn’t impacted local leagues as much as those in other locations.
“Hastings has been one of the more fortunate cities around the Minneapolis/St. Paul area,” Vargas said.
Hastings has had adult softball leagues since the early 1980s. Softball has since become Hastings’ most popular adult recreation league, with 45 teams playing in the spring and summer league this year. That’s well above sand volleyball’s 15 teams and the four teams in adult soccer, and above even the popular indoor volleyball leagues, which have 30 teams in the men’s league and a few more than that in the women’s, Vargas said.
Hastings’ adult softball league experienced a recent peak in participation about four or five years ago, Vargas said, when there were 54 teams. Now, that number has slipped to 45 for this year’s summer league.
The shift is more visible in the women’s league; Vargas said Hastings used to have about 20 teams, but that’s dropped to just 11 teams this year.
Identifying the cause
What exactly is causing the downward trend is a little harder to identify. Vargas said his hunch is that it has something to do with youth athletics. Twenty years ago, he said, youth athletics weren’t so demanding; now, youth athletes spent four to seven days a week at practices or games, putting more demand on parents – especially in multiple child families.
“It’s just kind of taking up their time,” Vargas said.
At the same time, there are more adult recreation opportunities than ever, including ultimate Frisbee, soccer and golf.
Of course, there are other factors. When the Great Recession hit, many businesses in other communities saw team sponsorships as a way to trim their budgets, leaving many players to choose between paying their own league fees or not playing, Vargas said.
Age is another factor, Vargas said. Currently, adult athletics professionals are seeing a generation that had been deeply involved in softball start to age; many are in their 50s now, Vargas said, and for many, it can be hard to compete against younger adults. Plus, there aren’t as many younger players joining as there used to be.
“There’s definitely more leaving the sport than there are coming in,” he said.
And then there are plain logistics. A softball team requires a minimum of 10 players on a team – more than soccer or volleyball.
“It’s one of the biggest team sports out there,” Vargas said, and it seems to be harder to get teams together.
Counteracting the trend
Vargas isn’t ready to let local adult softball leagues die out. Although Hastings is still doing relatively well with participation, Vargas and the Hastings Parks and Recreation Department are making some efforts to renew interest in the sport.
Last year, Hastings reached out to other communities, including Rosemount, Cottage Grove, Woodbury, Red Wing and Prescott, Wisconsin, “to try and see if we could fit a void that they were missing,” Vargas said.
This year, they’re hoping to reach out to young athletes in high school, college or just out of college and encourage them to join the adult leagues. Vargas said he’s also planning to get into Hastings High School to talk to students and raise awareness about the adult leagues.
Other communities he’s talked to have had some success in creating a high school league, Vargas said, and Hastings may try a similar approach. Another option may be to offer teams incentives for bringing on younger players.
And, Hastings may be able to rely on one local trend: repeat players.
“A lot of our players are from Hastings,” Vargas said.
Oftentimes, he said, the people who participate tend to come back year after year, which has helped prevent Hastings from following the national trend too closely.
About the league
Hastings’ adult summer softball league is the most popular one, but the city also hosts a fall league, which begins the last week of August and runs through mid-October. Registration for the fall league has ended, but spectators are always welcome, Vargas said.
For the fall league, teams (typically about 12 people per team) pay $360 to participate in the season, and the city then takes care of all the associated costs for the entire season, including providing umpires, softballs, utilities and maintenance of the fields.
“All these costs are offset by those registration fees,” Vargas said.
The leagues are one of the ways the city works toward its goal of improving the quality of life for residents, Vargas said. Plus, it’s just a good way for adults to get outdoors, exercise and get a little more social.