Participation growth – myth or reality?

Thu 12 Nov 2015

By Chris Rawlings
BSUK National Development Manager

Over the years, some people have asked why it’s not more evident on the ground that participation in baseball and softball has increased as much as it has.  Those who hear that participation in teams has gone from 10,000 players in 2008 to nearly 21,800 today might reasonably question how this feels within the sports.

So I’ve taken on the job of trying to paint a picture of what’s really happening and to consider how that might play against the perceptions of ‘hard core’ baseballers or softballers who are embedded in the inner structures of their sport.

How mainstream do you have to be to be noticed?

Baseball and softball are small sports in the UK, with small and closely-knit communities where everyone knows everyone else.  People come and go and there’s a general recognition, especially in softball, that turnover may be quite high – although perhaps a good exercise in the future would be to work out how much turnover there actually is.

But rarely do people ask how people started playing, and therefore it may be quite difficult to spot when new players have emerged through development programmes.

Players who are stars in their grade stand out.  Everyone knows when a new Chiya Louie, Dan Bello or Gabriele Ghio turns up on teams.  But people don’t pay much attention when a new average or below average player turns up one day in right field.

A prime example of this played out at the last Diamond Softball tournament of the year.  Six players from the new Slough Trading Estate Softball League found their way onto teams playing in the tournament.  I’m sure very few people noticed them or knew where they came from.

Even when new teams do form, do you see them?

There are other examples – many of them – where the belief is starting to get challenged that new players who come into baseball or softball through BSUK development programmes don’t necessarily mix and integrate with the established systems. 

In deepest Somerset (my county), the Taunton Muskets Baseball Club emerged in 2014 out of a core of players introduced to softball through our partnership with Wickes, the DIY chain.  So impressive has their rise been that they are now fielding two teams in the South West Baseball League.

The university sector has a long history of teams emerging from their student days and becoming fully-fledged clubs taking part in national and local competitions.  The South Coast has led the way in this, with both the University of Southampton and the University of Portsmouth now fielding teams in the National Baseball League and Solent Softball League respectively.  Meanwhile, over in East Anglia, the Norwich Baseball Club is planning to enter the BBF league structure in 2016 on the back of a long and successful run as the Baseball and Softball Society at the University of East Anglia.

Archway School in Stroud offers a great example of softball gaining a hold and then extending outwards.  Softball was introduced to the school through the School Games programme, and Archway has developed a strong reputation in Gloucestershire for its level of play and commitment. The school holds both Under-16 and Under-18 trophies at county level and now has a comprehensive intramural programme running through Years 7, 8 and 9.  In addition, a combined staff and student team has entered the Cotswold Softball Tournament, staged at the school.

And -- how welcoming are we?

There is a common issue around integration of new players.  It’s a fact that most baseball and softball teams don’t deal well with beginners, because they are really after players who have played the sport before.

Other sports face this problem too – it’s a known issue that you don’t enjoy your badminton if you’re not playing against someone of the same standard.

It’s telling that we don’t have a strong D-grade competition in slowpitch, that the majority of new fastpitch players are youngsters and that baseball clubs churn through enthusiastic novices each year.  This isn’t hard and fast and there are, of course, examples of good practice in Hull and in London for baseball, in Leicester for fastpitch and in the GLSML and the Manchester Softball League, where teams made up of new players are proactively formed each year.  But the exceptions mostly prove the rule.

What is “the community”?

Here at BaseballSoftballUK, we often throw around the phrase ‘the community’ -- meaning the community of baseballers or softballers. 

But what does this actually mean?

Is it just the inner core of week-in-week out players, those who play in leagues or tournaments?  Or is it anyone who plays the sport in a ‘real’ team?

And what about those who play in universities, colleges, schools, or in their workplace team?  Many aren’t given an easy route into membership of the Federations, and even when they are – like university baseball teams (thanks to a zero-rated membership agreed some years ago) – they’re not seen as first class citizens, nor are their views on how the sports are organised sought.

So there are a great many factors playing into that frequently-asked question: ‘Why don’t we see the growth?’

The measure that we use at BaseballSoftballUK to count participation is based on whether a person is playing on a team with a name and a captain which plays organised games on at least six occasions during the season.

Given this measure, and the effort we put into verifying the data collected, we are confident that we know the number of people playing our sports – even if it doesn’t always look that way on the ground.

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