Once upon a time, weekend warriors took aim at the long, languid arch of a softball pitch as if it were the only game in town, because, with few exceptions, it was.
True, in Days BG (Before Grunge), when disco turned to punk then new wave and big hair too over TV, former high school standouts could find themselves in an occasional basketball pick-up game or even test their aging tennis elbow.
But there was always softball — slow-pitch, fast-pitch, or modified-pitch.
Every spring, aluminum bats would ring in another shot at a recreation league trophy and another order of Ace bandages.
However, recreation administrators now agree that the pace around the bases has slowed in the first decade of the new century, as more softball enthusiasts age out of play and younger players weigh more recreational options.
“We offer a co-rec league, but most of the time we don’t get enough teams to field that league,” Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation athletics supervisor Bernard Leach said. “I think the most we’ve ever had was six teams. We had men’s in the spring, and then in the fall, we offered co-rec. We usually have 11 or 12 men’s teams.”
“Carrboro usually had two seasons of co-rec softball,” Leach added. “My understanding is that the numbers in Carrboro have fallen too. … Maybe it’s just a softball thing.”
“Compared to the 1980s and early 1990s, I think what Bernard shared is pretty accurate,” Carrboro Recreation and Parks recreation supervisor Charles Harrington said. “We get around six to eight (co-ed) teams,” Harrington added. “We don’t get the 12 to 14 teams we got at one point in the past, though.
“It’s just a matter of more varied opportunities.”
Harrington said softball still reigns supreme in some select hotbeds — like Burlington and Rock Hill, S.C. “But a lot of the softball teams we’ve seen over the past few years focus just on tournament play,” he said.
Harrington said that the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area may offer a greater variety of recreation than most regions.
Leach conjectured that some of the disinterest might be because those who began recreational sports with softball fresh out of high school or college sports are now aging out of such competitive activity.
“Also, women started going to fast-pitch,” Leach said. “That may be one reason that some of the co-ed (interest) died down: women were used to fast-pitch rather than slow-pitch. They’re being introduced to fast-pitch as they’re growing up.”
Industry statistics bear out the notion that softball and a few other sports may be on the retreat.Up and down
Softball equipment purchases are down nearly 6 percent since 2007, according to a recent Sports and Fitness Industry report ( SFIA.org
). Conversely, walking shoe sales are up 8 percent, and, somewhat surprisingly, hunting and firearms sales were up 31 percent over the past half-decade.
“The biggest increase in participation in team sports in 2008 was ultimate Frisbee, up 20.8 percent,” CNBC writer Darren Rovell said, based on info from a 2010 Sporting Goods Manufacturer’s Association ( SGMA.com
Rovell noted that GenX activities like roller hockey (down 15 percent) and skateboarding (down 7.4 percent) were on the decline.
“The worst decline in participation in team sports in 2008 was roller hockey,” Rovell noted. “Skateboarding participation was … down 20.8 percent since 2000.”
One notable uptick was owing to a pop culture shift.
“Archery participation was up 7.7 percent,” Rovell wrote.
Later SFIA reports said that swimming was on the rise, alongside fitness sports like yoga and boot camp-style training classes, with a participation rate of 60 percent of the population.
Another notable statistic showed that Generation Y’s were twice as likely to take part in team sports than Generation X “[because] the psychological tendency of Generation Y is more positively disposed to team sports than their Generation X predecessors who are more ‘individual’ in nature.”Trends Henry O’Loughlin
proposed several recreational trends to look for over the coming year(s) on the website ActiveCommunities.com.
“Fitness parks are free outdoor gyms that have been popping up across cities in America,” he wrote. “These outdoor gyms have traditional and new exercise equipment that are built to hold up against weather. Florida has 17 open-air gyms and Los Angeles County has 41.”
O’Loughlin also predicted that initiatives like one by the National Wildlife Federation, First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program, and the NFL’s “Play 60” are dedicated to solving the problem of obesity in children. Also, 2013 should bring more “apps” to the equation of athletics.
running program app “saw a 173 percent increase in the number of downloads in the first week of January 2013 versus the first week of December, 2012,” O’Loughlin wrote. “Couch-to-5K is one of the top-10 paid apps within the Apple iTunes store Health and Fitness category and has had more than a million workouts completed since it launched in August, 2011.”Get movie-ing
Perhaps all softball needs is cultural shot in the art, however. Archery equipment sales saw an increase in sales of over seven percent about the time the Hunger Games novels appeared on shelves.
Harrington said that dodgeball got a big boost from the Vince Vaughn movie several years ago, and that nostalgia also helps to propel interest in playground-style activities.
“Dodgeball: the Movie” came out, and suddenly, it’s the big thing,” he said. “We just need a (softball) movie to come out, and then we’d see a big spike in it.”
“There are the trendy leagues like dodgeball, kickball, (and Ultimate Frisbee), and there’s running and cycling that you can do on your own schedule,” he added. “We used to not have an adult Ultimate league, and that’s 120 people now.”
“Whatever they’re doing in elementary school now, in 20 years it could be the new league.”Play goes on
Still, despite a slight decline, nearly 10 million Americans play softball recreationally.
“We have the spring / summer men’s league,” Leach said, “and we’re taking registration for that right now. We offer co-ed, but there just haven’t been enough teams.”
“We have spring and fall co-ed leagues — one plays April through June, and the second plays from July through early October,” Harrington said. “We had as many as 14 teams, and now it’s still seven or eight teams.”
For those who crave the camaraderie and competition of softball, Chapel Hill and Carrboro recreation departments have no plans to downplay the diamond life just yet.