Softball: The Game America Plays
9 Sep, 2013By: Peter Francesconi
From its Youngest Players to the Oldest Competitors, Softball is Growing in the U.S.
“While baseball is known as ‘America’s pastime,’ softball is the game America plays,” says Ron Radigonda, executive director of the Amateur Softball Association/USA Softball.
In fact, softball has been growing among Americans. According to data compiled by Sports Marketing Surveys USA for the Physical Activity Council, 7.63 million people ages 6 and up participated in slow-pitch softball in 2012, which is an increase of 6.2% over 2011. For fast-pitch softball, 2012 participation was at 2.84 million, which is up 17.7% from 2011.
One of the great appeals of softball is that it encompasses players of all ages, and provides benefits that go well beyond the physical advantages one gets from playing the game. “From our youth programs that start at age 6, to our senior programs that see players participate into their 80s, softball provides a healthy activity for all ages and both genders,” Radigonda says. “The sport contributes to the quality of life by allowing individuals a healthy outdoor activity and also provides an opportunity to socialize with friends and co-workers.”
Ironically, softball was invented in 1887 as an indoor game. It received a huge boost in popularity when a tournament was played at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, which also happened to be the year the Amateur Softball Association of America (ASA) was founded. Based in Oklahoma City, the ASA was named the National Governing Body of softball by the U.S. Olympic Committee in 1978.
The association now conducts over 100 national championships every year and registers nearly 94,000 adult teams and over 80,000 junior teams. There are all varieties of competition in softball, says Radigonda, allowing players to participate at whatever level is appropriate for them.
Among the trends the ASA has noticed over the last few years is an increase in participation for girls’ fast-pitch programs for under 18s. “Also, the number of travel ball teams, high school teams and collegiate teams remain very strong,” Radigonda says.
In addition to numerous national softball organizations, there are many state and local associations, corporate leagues and more—meaning all types of tournaments and teams in every part of the country, for all types of players.
Beckley/Raleigh County, West Virginia
In Beckley, the main venue for softball consists of the fields at the Beckley Little League complex. Last year, the facility hosted five state tournaments—all at the same time.
“We thought Beckley would be a great place to put on the biggest Little League softball tournament in West Virginia history,” a WV district administrator told the local paper at the time. Community support for the softball complex runs deep, and fund-raisers have brought in money to continue to make improvements.
For players and families, Beckley/Raleigh County offers many attractions. In addition to numerous outdoor activities such as camping, boating and hiking, the area has a deep coal-mining history, and there are museums and exhibits devoted to honoring that rich tradition.
Burlington/Alamance County, North Carolina
Every year, the Burlington/Alamance County area hosts at least two large ASA events, a girls’ fast-pitch tournament and the Men’s Senior Nationals on Labor Day Weekend. Both bring in up to 80 teams from all over the U.S., says Robert Cox, vice president of the CVB.
Three parks within the city of Burlington offer 11 softball fields. The largest complex, with five fields, is in the 75-acre City Park, the flagship of the Burlington Parks System, located a mile from downtown. The unique City Park also serves as the home of an amusement area and has a fully restored Dentzel Carousel, which is listed on the National Historical Register. (The Burlington Carousel Festival, held in the park every September, attracts more than 50,000 visitors.)
Springwood Park, a short drive from I-85/40, has four softball fields in its 78 acres, which includes two concession/restroom buildings, picnic shelters and a playground. Nearby is Davidson Park, with two more fields. Also, Alamance County has many other softball fields available.
“We also host some junior college and conference championships every year,” Cox says. “This year, for the first time, we hosted the Conference Carolinas Division 2 Championships, and also the Region 10 Junior College Championships, two very large events.” The Sports Development Council also has some funds available to help with hosting events, Cox adds.
Softball takes center stage at the state-of-the-art City of Colleges Park in Conway, which features five lighted softball fields. In 2010, City of Colleges Park was selected by the Arkansas Recreation and Parks Association as the Arkansas Sports Facility of the Year.
Softball tournaments and events also have access to facilities at the University of Central Arkansas, which offers four fields, and Hendrix College, which has one field, says Rachel Earls of the Conway CVB. The third school in town, Central Baptist College, uses the fields at City of Colleges Park for its softball play. Conway has hosted many baseball tournaments and now, more softball events seem to be interested in coming to this growing community of 60,000, Earls notes.
“In the last few years, we’ve had a big boom in town with the natural gas industry, which has led to several new hotels, and lots of shopping and restaurants,” she says. Conway, which is 20 miles northwest of Little Rock, and just off I-40, also has an attractive parks system with plenty of biking and walking trails.
“Our biggest and most impressive facility is Heritage Point Park, which has two pods of five fields each—10 fields that are all lighted,” says Brett Huske, the director of tourism for the Dalton Area CVB in northwest Georgia. “That’s the mainstay of our softball activities here; those fields are always in high demand.” The 300-acre Heritage Point Park also has a corporate pavilion that can accommodate 500 people, and all amenities.
But that’s not all the city of Dalton offers softball event organizers. The 55-acre Al Rollins Baseball Complex features five lighted baseball/softball fields, and the 45-acre Lakeshore Park offers two more lighted fields. Also, there’s Edwards Park, run by Whitfield County, which has eight lighted fields in two pods of four, along with concessions.
This year, Heritage Point Park will host a large Southern Softball Association of America boys’ tourney. “They played it in an area north of here for the last few years, but we were able to lure them down here in part because of Heritage Park and its fields—they were very impressed,” Huske says. The area also hosts large men’s and women’s national championship events for the Softball Players Association.
“Part of the beauty of Dalton, and one of our selling features, is that we’re right on I-75,” Huske notes. “For teams, all of the hotels are easily accessible, and it’s easy to get to the ballpark and easy to navigate through town. We provide a unique, warm and welcoming environment.”
Softball is big in Lewisville, according to Carlos Hernandez of the CVB. “We’re a perfect package for tournaments,” he says. “We have three great venues, all lighted. Hotels are close to the facilities, and restaurants and other attractions are all within walking distance of the hotels. Plus, it’s easy to get here, we’re in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, and only 12 minutes from DFW airport.”
The newest venue is Toyota of Lewisville Railroad Park, which offers four ball diamonds that can easily be converted for adult or youth play. “We’re flexible with the fields. We can move the pitching mounds and fences to make it compatible for whatever we may need,” Hernandez says. All four fields have scoreboards.
Other softball venues include Vista Ridge Park, with an adult and a youth field, which is convenient for teams coming from out of town, and the 662-acre Lake Park, which also has two softball fields. Among the tournaments the area has hosted is the large American Southwest Conference Playoffs.
“Our CVB assists event organizers to make sure teams are taken care of,” Hernandez says. “And our parks department keeps the fields in top condition. We always get a lot of compliments.”
South Sioux City, Nebraska
The main softball venue in South Sioux City is the Riverview Sports Complex, with its five fields—two with 200 feet of fencing and three with 300 feet of fencing. Three of the fields are lighted for night play, and the complex also offers bullpens, dugouts, restrooms and a press box.Riverview is in a 133-park on the banks of the Missouri River. In 2011, floodwaters submerged most of the park (which also has 15 soccer fields). The fields were completely reseeded and are back to full strength. Parks Director Gene Maffit gives credit to the Christensen family, Toni, Tony and their children, for getting the park back in form and “running the fields for the city.”
District and state softball tournaments find a home at Riverview, and the area also has four fields available at South Sioux City High School. “There is a lot of community support for softball,” Maffit says.
Off the diamond, there are many other amenities in Riverview Park and South Sioux City, including walking trails, 20 miles of bike trails, and a campground. And many visitors take advantage of the larger city just across the river, Sioux City, Iowa, which has the popular Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center.
“In Waxahachie, all our fields are at one site, the 100-acre Waxahachie Sports Complex,” says James Villarreal, the complex’s director. In addition to baseball, soccer and football fields, the “W” complex has six lighted 300-foot softball fields. “We also use temporary fencing, so we can easily set up the fields for youth softball. It’s all multi-use.” The sports complex has four concession/restroom buildings and more than 2,000 parking spaces.
Last year, one of the larger events Waxahachie hosted was an ASA advanced umpire camp. The umpires were in classes for three days, then there was an 18-and-under girls’ tournament that brought in 60 teams, so the umpires had on-the-job training, with cameras set up and evaluators watching from scaffolding.
“We’ve had adult and youth teams from all over the country come to the ASA national tournaments we’ve hosted,” Villarreal says. Some events have brought in more than 100 teams.
The city of Waxahachie, with about 30,000 residents, also is convenient to get to. It’s located about 25 miles south of Dallas on I-35, and two major airports are both about 35 miles away.
Williamsport/Lycoming County, Pennsylvania
Williamsport is best known as the home of Little League Baseball, and where the Little League World Series is played every year. But there’s a softer side to some of the ball diamonds in Williamsport.
Elm Park is a city facility but is managed by the Williamsport Softball Association and has three fields available. (Also, the original Little League Field is across the street.) “Elm Park is where most of our softball tournaments take place,” says Gina Kennedy of the CVB. If additional fields are needed, Kennedy says sometimes the historic Bowman Field can be pressed into service. Bowman is home to the minor league baseball team the Williamsport Crosscutters, but it’s also the second oldest baseball field in the U.S.