America’s Pastime Remains Strong

Baseball continues to be a favorite sport to play or watch, and there is still an intense desire among young athletes to participate in the game.

Last year saw a slight decline in youth participation of -0.5 percent according to the 2020 Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) Single Sport Participation Report. The numbers were down from 15.8 million in 2018 to 15.4 million in 2019, based on a survey of 18,000 individuals.

However, baseball was still on a high after growing participation by 3.8 percent on average over five years and 2.3 percent on average annual growth for the three-year average.

Those numbers reflect focused work by rights holders and the national governing body of USA Baseball to reach more young people through developmental programs.

High School Athletic Associations Across the country also focused more on keeping young people involved in team sports at the high school level.

Approximately 6.7 million people responded to the SFIA survey who said they casually play baseball one to 12 times a year, and 9.1 million respondents said they play 13 or more times a year. People who said they play baseball said they participate in one or more other sports throughout the year in team and individual sports.

But baseball was expected to make a big jump in its participation numbers this year with the 2020 Summer Olympics. Baseball would have been featured for the first time since the 2008 Olympic games. It is well known that broad exposure through major events and television audiences historically create buzz around a sport, which in turn increases grassroots and organic participation.

Then the Coronavirus swept the world. The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games postponed to 2021. Ballparks shuttered as the world learned about COVID-19.

In March, USA Baseball announced that it was closing its offices in Durham, N.C. and its National Training Complex in Cary, N.C. until further notice. It also postponed the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) Baseball Americas Qualifier for the Olympic games. USA Baseball canceled the 2020 National High School Invitational (NHSI), the Futures Series in Melissa, Texas, and the Baseball Coaches Clinics and National Team Identification Series (NTIS) regionals tryouts.

Major League Baseball (MLB) announced the cancellation of spring training and the regular season’s postponement.

With warmer temperatures in the summer and more safety protocols in place, spring training resumed in July for MLB. Teams played a reduced schedule of games through the World Series, where the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Tampa Bay Rays 3-1 in Game 6 in October.

This year with reduced schedules and late start dates will be one notated with an asterisk highlighted in bold words — COVID-19.

Larry Thompson, owner/CEO of Grand Slam Tournaments held its 4-week-long session of World Series events in Panama City Beach, Fla., this summer.

“We were well on our way to our biggest year ever,” Thompson said. “On March 19, we had a total of 391 teams registered for one of the four-week-long events.” The Grand Slam World Series included 85 teams in World Series (WS) I, 165 teams in World Series II, 57 teams in World Series III, and 83 teams in World Series IV.

Thompson said 153 teams withdrew from scheduled tournaments from March 19 until June 15, with other new teams signing up. “Despite this, we still held the events for teams who wanted to play. Our final numbers were WS I with 37 teams; WS II with 88 teams; WS III with 18 teams and WS IV with 95 teams,” Thompson said. “We practiced social distancing at the events making sure that there were no groups of more than 50. Panama City Beach Sports Complex and Frank Brown Park did a great job of making sure that people felt safe. They sanitized dugouts and made sure hand sanitizer was plentiful throughout the park.”

The Panama City Beach Parks and Recreation Department, the Panama City Beach Tourist Development Council, and Visit Panama City Beach estimated the event generated approximately $10.5 million in economic impact for the area.

“The challenge was very real, but at the end of the day, we were just glad that we got to play and have some semblance of an event for the teams who wanted to play,” Thompson said.

Also, this summer, the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) Space Coast Complex in Viera, Fla., announced that it would host a 70-team baseball tournament in June after the Brevard County Commission approved the go-ahead for hosting baseball again. Other tournaments planned at the complex included an 82-team tournament known as “Battle at the Beach,” and the 12U Summer Nationals.

Other states and municipalities opened their fields and facilities to baseball this summer and fall to answer the growing demand to resume play.

But in high schools across the country, the National Federation of High School Associations (NFHSA) reported that many participants in traditional spring sports, including baseball, never had the chance to play this year.

The National High School Athletic Foundation said many high school baseball players didn’t take the field this spring because of school closures and it will be difficult for NHSAF to compile data this year for the foundation’s annual participation report.

In a letter to the 51-member state associations, Dr. Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the high school sports association, said the organizations’ annual participation report would not be available this year because of lack of data.

Before the 2018-19 school year, the number of high school sports participants had increased for 29 consecutive years. “Despite the first decline last year since 1988, we anticipated a quick turnaround in 2019-20 because of the continued strength of education-based high school athletic programs across the country,” she said

And Little League Baseball, with a million adult volunteers and two million players aged 4-16, playing baseball and softball across the country and in 80 countries, Little League International made the difficult decision to cancel its World Series and Region Tournaments for the first time in its history because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is a heartbreaking decision for everyone at Little League International but more so for those millions of Little Leaguers who have dreamt of one day playing in one of our seven World Series events,” said Stephen D. Keener, Little League President and CEO on April 30.

Little League International said the decision to cancel play was based not only on the world-wide virus threat but the inability to play qualifying tournaments in many U.S. and International regions because of federal direction, immigration requirements and travel restrictions.

The cancelations included 82 regional qualifying tournaments and seven world series events that would have played in South Williamsport, Pa.; Greenville, N.C.; Livermore, Calif.; Taylor, Mich.; Kirkland, Wash.; Easley, S.C.; and Sussex County, Del.

“As 2021 was originally supposed to be the playing of the 75th Little League Baseball World Series, that celebration will now take place in 2022,” he said.

Little League provided resume-to-play guidelines and best practices for playing and watching during the pandemic through the website to its members. It also offered educational webinars and FAQs on various topics.

“Little League International continues to evaluate the impact of the Coronavirus as it looks ahead to the 2021 season with the goal of returning its leagues to the field for both regular and tournament season opportunities,” said Kevin Foundation, director of media relations with Little League International. Fountain encouraged leagues and districts to adhere to the guidelines set forth by state and local governments and health officials when considering a return to play, and he said the organization would update its members with resources.

Before the pandemic, support from Major League Baseball (MLB) and other affiliated clubs was strong. That is no different today. Players and broadcasters continue to promote Little League Play through the #LLPepTalk initiative. On August 23, MLB, with the Los Angeles Angels and the Cleveland Indians announced that they would participate in the 2021 MLB Little League Classic.

And Fountain said Little League International remains committed to the rich tradition and history of the sport while realizing society, including baseball and softball, constantly evolve from when the organization started in 1939.

This year, Little League International outlined a strategic plan around a player-centered approach in its programming. The plan allows Little League to emphasize the vital role the program plays in developing its youth and the growth of the community support around the world.

From that strategic plan, Little League Sandlot Fun Days was created to encourage fun through the program. The player-led, unstructured Sandlot Fun Days allow local leagues to provide a fun, relaxing activity for baseball and softball players where kids make the rules, the lineups and the calls.

According to Fountain, more than 100 local Little League programs have already held or plan to hold a Little League Sandlot Fun Days event in their community.

With 2020 a wrap for the Little League organization, expansion of the Little League Baseball and Little League Softball World Series will be postponed until 2022 to allow the focus to remain on the 2021 season.

“Expansion of our Little League Baseball and Little League Softball World Series is one of the centerpieces of our strategic plan, and, while we’re sad to delay these plans, we are excited to welcome more communities to Williamsport, Pa., and Greenville, N.C. in 2022,” said Hugh Tanner, Little League International Board of Directors Chairman. The original plan was to expand the number of teams from 16 to 20 for baseball and 10 to 12 for softball to provide more children the baseball experience.

This February. before U.S. citizens were aware of the threat of COVID-19, there was a push to attract young African-Americans back to baseball. Local baseball leagues teamed with MLB players to introduce the sport to children who may not have seen the game and never played.

The programs are designed to get kids involved at a young age and keep them engaged for life.

And in USA Baseball, after completing the inaugural National Team Championships North Carolina in August, USA Baseball shifted its focus to 2021 programming, including preparations for the 2021 Olympic Games qualifying opportunities. It is also looking ahead to hosting the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) U-18 Baseball World Cup in Sarasota-Bradenton, Fla.

“We are looking forward to a full slate of USA Baseball programming in 2021, including restarting our National Team Identification Series events,” said USA Baseball executive director and CEO, Paul Seiler, in a release issued October 13. “This year, while challenging, has given us a chance to learn and develop as an organization and we are excited for the opportunities presented to us to get back into action in 2021 and continue developing young athletes both on and off the field.”

The full schedule of USA Baseball events will be announced later. What is already known is that the 9th Annual National High School Invitational (NHSI) and the Futures Invitational, the National Team Championships in Arizona and North Carolina, and the National Team Identification Series will be on the calendar in 2021.

The 2021 Olympic Games, scheduled from July 23 to August 8 in Tokyo, are also planned, giving Team USA a chance at two remaining spots in the Olympic Games baseball tournament.

And Thompson, whose Grand Slam Corporation includes leagues in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Florida, said tournaments ran throughout the summer through Labor Day, highlighting how kids and their parents were eager to return to the fields.

“As we move forward, we have learned a lot as to how to put on a safe event and make sure all participants and attendees feel comfortable in a tournament environment,” Thompson said. “We anticipate the 2021 season to be our biggest year yet as teams are itching to travel and play baseball. I’m glad we can be a distraction from the everyday stress we all live under now. Just a few hours at the ballpark, watching kids laugh and play along with their parents cheering and even yelling at the umps is a welcome sight.”