Originally Published: May 29, 2018 8:49 p.m.
Hold your horses on the notion that baseball is a dying sport. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), a non-profit trade organization that promotes sports and fitness participation, youth participation in baseball is on the rise.
The SFIA looks at participation data not only at the “formal level,” such as Little League, travel teams and the like, but also at the so-called “casual” level – what those of us over 40 did on the school yard or the local park.
Recent data collected by the SFIA shows that in 2016 there were 14.8 million baseball participants in the U.S., more than soccer and football combined. While basketball has the highest number of participants, if baseball and softball participants are combined, they outnumber basketball. And baseball is the only one of the four sports mentioned whose participation numbers have grown during the period 2011 to 2016.
Perhaps most significant, there were 5.7 million “casual” baseball players in 2016, an increase of 49 percent in three years. Those numbers are likely to increase after MLB and USA Baseball announced last week a new initiative called Hit and Run Baseball.
The program is aimed at increasing levels of youth participation in general, but especially casual participation. The goal of the initiative is to support “modified” forms of the game with a dual purpose: enable players to develop their skills in a more interactive format while also promoting player health and safety.
Hit and Run Baseball is part of the Play Ball initiative, another joint venture of MLB and USA Baseball. It will provide youth leagues and amateur coaches with suggested game formats that can be easily applied at all levels of youth and amateur baseball.
The recommended rules for kids 8-and-under include six-inning games, four batters per inning, and three swings per batter, with no balls or strikes called on pitches that are taken. If a player doesn’t make contact after three swings, a tee can be used or a coach can toss the ball to the batter. Additionally, six players should rotate positions each inning with only one outfielder who roams behind the infield. Coaches act as catchers.
Leagues and coaches are encouraged to create their own modified rules and formats for games and practices, which is exactly what we did at the local park. Granted, hardly anyone plays baseball at a park today, in part because most parents won’t allow their kids to spend the day – alone – at the park. But that doesn’t mean baseball needs to be structured like the Major Leagues beginning at age six.
Chris Marinak, MLB’s Executive Vice President - League Strategy, Technology and Innovation, says, “If I could sum up [Hit and Run Baseball] in one sentence, it would be to remind parents and league operators that there are lots of ways to play our game and lots of ways to have fun.”
Sounds like a winning formula to me, one that is destined to stimulate interest in baseball at a younger age and, ultimately, create more fans for MLB.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in and chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.