Softball slides into the 21st century

Softball slides into the 21st century – growth in popularity of softball in schools

Misti Flynn

Softball is not just a backyard, Sunday afternoon kind of game anymore. And it doesn’t just mean slow pitch. In today’s softball games, it is not unusual to see the ball cross the plate at speeds of 70 miles per hour or more as women’s fast pitch storms its way across the country. More women and girls than ever before can be found on softball diamonds, and co-recreational leagues are becoming more popular.

As women continue to pursue the same opportunities available to men, fast pitch softball continues to expand. According to the National Federation of High School Athletic Associations, fast pitch softball is the fastest growing high school sport in the country.

The National Amateur Softball Association classifies fast pitch as the fourth largest sport in high school and college with 257,000 girls playing high school fast pitch alone.

A Little Help along the Way

Bill Redmer, editor of Fastpitch World, attributes much of this growth to Title 9 legislation that requires colleges and high schools receiving federal funds to give their women’s sports programs a reasonable proportion of the monies given to the men’s sports programs.

Assistant Coach Larry Ray with the 1994 NCAA Champion University of Arizona Wildcats agrees. “There is a major gender equity issue in college sports,” he states. “Colleges are trying to offer as many sports opportunities and scholarships to women as men. Football throws the numbers off, so many universities are adding softball. Softball is played worldwide, and it raises the number of women participating in collegiate athletics since a typical team consists of 15 to 20 members,” he adds.

Legislative mandates related to this issue also are fueling the surge of fast pitch. “States in the deep south have switched from slow pitch to fast pitch. Many like Florida, Texas, Kentucky, Alabama, and Georgia were mandated by state legislatures and threats of parental lawsuits to do so, because female youth slow pitch softball is considered discriminatory,” says Redmer, adding, “No scholarships are provided for slow pitch.”

Rex Bradley, vice president of amateur sports with Louisville Slugger, a leading manufacturer of softball bats and gloves, explains the implications. “The scholarship discrimination issue is a major reason fast pitch is enjoying a rapid growth period right now,” says Bradley. “Every state has authorized and mandated women’s fast pitch for high school and college programs. So a school must have a fast pitch program if the school has softball at all,” he adds.

The growth of fast pitch is relatively new and its impact mainly can be felt in high school and college athletics. However, this also affects park and recreation programs, as – since fast pitch requires advanced skills – these same high school and college girls and women are the ones playing fast pitch in community programs. According to Louisville Slugger softball consultant Hank Bassett, most public league players either do not wish to compete or are not qualified to play at this level.

“It will be about five to 10 years before we may see an increase in fast pitch leagues,” predicts Bassett. “At that time, the girls and women currently playing fast pitch in school may form a sufficient base for leagues,” he notes.

Terry Fullmer, national director of the American Fastpitch Association, also believes athletic ability affects recreational ball (parks and recreation league) participation. “More girls and women will be playing travel ball (traveling all star teams) instead of recreational ball because college play is the equivalent of the women’s professional career, since there are no professional organized fast pitch leagues after college,” he says, adding, “Travel ball is more competitive for the women and enables them to achieve peak performance.”

Los Angeles’ Municipal sports director Jim Gilbert also believes the nature of the fast pitch game keeps the sport from being more popular in his districts. “Fast pitch is almost obsolete in the Los Angeles parks system with approximately 12 leagues,” states Gilbert. “People want to feel like they’re playing and slow pitch provides more action in both hitting and fielding than fast pitch,” he adds.

Redmer, however, envisions a brighter future for fast pitch in parks and recreation programs. “As high school fast pitch becomes the dominant venue of the game, fast pitch local league play will take the place of youth travel programs,” he says.

Craig Sowell, director of the Georgia Amateur Softball Association (ASA), says his recreation system is considering fast pitch but has its reservations. “In Georgia, high school fast pitch is growing because of the Atlanta Olympics in ’96,” observes Sowell. “Because of this enthusiasm, the parks and recreation programs in this region are looking to see if they have enough interest to start a league. The parks and recs are hesitant because they believe average to below average players fear that fast pitch is only a pitcher/catcher game,” he notes.

Sowell believes exposure may disperse players’ doubts. He says, “The Tifton department of the Georgia ASA is hosting the Women’s Fast Pitch `C’ ASA National Tournament this year. This will introduce a sport that hasn’t been played since the late ’60s and possibly will spark some interest.”

Milt Stark, executive director of the International Softball Congress, feels that some of this limelight on fast pitch shines on slow pitch as well. “With the introduction of fast pitch softball to the Summer Olympics in ’96 and almost every high school and college supporting a women’s fast pitch team, the game of softball as a. whole is in the public fight,” says Stark.

Slow Pitch Still Moves

As for slow pitch softball, many people seem to be playing more for fun than competition. Rick Robbins, supervisor of athletic and fitness services for the Peoria Park District, is experiencing this trend. “I’m seeing more of a desire for recreational softball instead of highly competitive ball,” says Robbins. “People are enrolling more in the `B’ and `C’ divisions instead of `A’. In fact, there has been a tremendous drop in the `A’ division for women. We have no women’s fast pitch in Peoria right now and only two men’s fast pitch leagues,” he says.

Bassett also has noticed big numbers in the enrollment of “B,” “C,” and “D” leagues. However, Bradley speculates these figures may indicate slow pitch is still played as much for competition as for fun. “Some teams want to win; and if they’re not winning, they may drop down a classification.”

Players don’t have to be in an upper level league of slow pitch to be competitive. Kim Couwenhoven, recreation coordinator two with Phoenix Parks and Recreation, offers an example: “This year we’re offering `High A: to `Low D’ tournaments so people can play for World Championships in their level of play,” says Couwenhoven. The United States Slowpitch Softball Association (USSSA) is hosting its World Championships and World Series in Phoenix and Glendale, Arizona, this October.

Co-recreation Gains Speed

Co-recreation (co-educational) teams are gaining popularity in slow pitch. “It seems that players feel there is more of a `fun factor’ and somewhat less of a `competitive factor’ when men and women play together instead of separately,” Bassett says.

Sowell is seeing the trend as well: “Several years ago we had only two to three co-rec leagues … [compared] to 10 to 15 today. Not only are we organizing coed open leagues, we organize coed church leagues as well.”

Couwenhoven sees more co-rec tournaments and notes, “Co-rec softball is becoming more of a family sport instead of just for adults. Many teams have husbands and wives or girlfriends and boyfriends playing together. Our program provides organized activities for their children at no extra cost.”

Leagues Are Family Affairs

The popularity of co-rec leagues and large numbers of working parents are motivating programs to become more “family friendly.” “It is common to see children’s play areas at recreational complexes, especially in the newer ones,” says Bradley.

Sowell describes the Tifton, Georgia, facility: “Children can practice their ball skills at our training center. It is a multi-station training center where children can join in activities which improve their game, including ball toss drills, a batting cage, and hitting off a tee.”

The park and recreation programs offer child supervision and a place to play, so the whole family can go to the game. These programs also arrange game schedules so that children can spend more time with their parents.

In Phoenix, the women’s league teams play two games in one night to allow for more family time, according to Couwenhoven.

Safety First

“Parks and recreation programs must consider safety a priority due to all the liabilities regarding fields and equipment,” states Robbins. And, in fact, all softball programs have safety as a chief concern.

Bassett says that litigation plays a large part in softball’s constant focus on safety. “Even though today’s fields are fantastic compared to fields 20 to 25 years ago, parks and recreation officials are continually trying to upgrade facilities,” he notes.

Coach Ray claims that many colleges are trying to duplicate the University of Arizona facility which features large spaces between foul lines and netting behind the catcher instead of a chain link fence.

There is much equipment available that can enhance safety. For example, Ray is most impressed with new bases designed to absorb impact. “The cushioning allows for error. If a player slides in late, the base absorbs the impact instead of the player’s leg,” he explains.

Robbins is seeing products designed to eliminate the holes dug in the batting box by cleats. His favorite is a piece of equipment consisting of an Astroturf top with three inches of recycled rubber underneath. He also is looking at rearranging his facilities for safety reasons. Softball equipment keeps getting better and better, and the game is becoming faster because of it. The bats hit farther, and the balls are harder. As a result, the mounds keep getting moved back and the fences aren’t back far enough so it is easier to hit home runs,” he notes. He is considering moving his fences to accommodate the game’s development.

Of course, performance is an integral concern of today’s softball programs and players. “The trend in softball bats is toward high-tech, thin walled, light, aluminum bats. Louisville Slugger spends millions of dollars on research and development to ensure high performance. Many manufacturers use the CU31 alloy, which was originally engineered for aerospace technology, in their aluminum bats. These bats go a long way toward producing high-scoring games,” observes Bradley.

The rapid growth of women’s interest in fast pitch has inspired manufacturers to design products specifically for female athletes. Women’s gloves feature smaller finger sizes and deeper pockets since softballs are bigger than baseballs. Women’s bats provide more hitting area with less weight. Lisa Fernandez – 1994 NCAA Woman of the Year, two-time national champion, and overall fast pitch superstar – has been a leading consultant for Louisville Slugger in the development of women’s equipment.’

Participation is Steady..

for Now

Demand for new products continues to grow. Fullmer wants to see more safety devices designed specifically for women, including chest protectors and more anatomically tailored catchers’ equipment.

The growing interest of women in the sport contributes to steady participation numbers. The Sporting Goods Manufacturers’ Association reports a 2.8% decrease in overall participation from 1987 to 1993 and a 4.9% increase from 1992 to 1993. In other words, the number of people playing softball has remained fairly constant over the past six years.

“Participation has remained steady but is shifting from slow pitch to fast pitch and from all male or female leagues to co-recreational,” observes Bassett. Both of these shifts reflect a major increase in women playing the sport.

Softball’s participation numbers may increase substantially as the new state-mandated programs get underway. Redmer predicts, “The deep south will challenge California and the West as the dominant youth fast pitch region.”

Women’s interest in playing softball, enjoying family time, and reducing stress while having fun and getting fit all may be reasons for the significant increase in co-recreational programs.

“Co-rec membership in the National ASA has doubled since 1981,” says Bill Plummer, director of public relations and media for the National Amateur Softball Association. “Today’s enrollment is in excess of 35,000 players and constitutes 13% of the ASA’s total membership. I believe we will only see that number getting bigger.” Plummer feels that another reason co-recreational leagues will continue to grow is because people are playing softball longer, a trend he associates with baby boomers getting older. He could be right; currently, the National Sporting Goods Association Retail Focus reports 46% of all people playing softball are 25 years and older.

This trend could have a negative side. Plummer speculates people playing softball later in life increases the frequency of injuries. “Injuries occur in any sport, and they are more likely to happen when people are playing occasionally and are not in top shape. The ASA is trying to prevent as much injury as possible with programs such as the safety management course in our national coaching schools,” he says.

If current trends continue, softball will be a popular sport among men and women for years to come. And, in time, when someone says, “Take me out to the ball game,” he or she may well be talking about softball. After all, it’s not just for picnics and Sunday afternoons anymore.

COPYRIGHT 1995 National Recreation and Park Association

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