Keaton Allen slides safely into third base for the Southeast Champions, the Warner Robins American Little League, in their game against Tokyo Kitasuna Little League, representing Japan, for the Little League World Series Championship at Williamsport, PA today, 8/25/07. Kazutaka Kato took the late throw. (LOUIE FAVORITE / STAFF)
Photo: LOUIE FAVORITE/AJC
Photo: LOUIE FAVORITE/AJC

Little League baseball faces declining participation

On a recent Saturday, Holland Youth Sports Complex teems with young ballplayers. Four fields form a circle, with a concession stand in the middle as a central meeting point. Parents gather on the bleachers and along the fences. Youngsters pack into the dugouts under the watchful eyes of their coaches.

This is Athens Little League. It’s where many grow up around baseball, learning the fundamentals of the game. And while Little League appears alive and well here, in many places, it’s a different story.

Little League Baseball has declined in popularity by significant numbers in recent years. The number of players in the Southeast Region of Little League is down 43 percent since 2007. Many communities in metro Atlanta play in non-Little League programs. In some cases, those leagues thrive. In other cases, they also face a decline. In this report for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the focus of the issue is Little League and the issue it faces.

“People started doing this travel-ball thing, and that’s sort of led to the slow death of the rec league,” said Adam Osborne, baseball coach of Clarke Central High School in Athens. 

As Little League has declined, travel baseball has grown. Travel-ball costs are more substantial. As a result, many children don’t get the opportunity to play and develop their skills, and families that turn to travel ball may lose the sense of community that’s often found in local Little Leagues.

“It’s nostalgic for me to think about having the rec park, and everybody showing up on a Saturday and a couple times throughout the week,” Osborne said. “That’s nostalgia, and I think it’s a pipe dream to think that’s ever going to happen again.”

In 2007, the Southeast Region of Little League -- which consists of Georgia, Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia -- had more than 47,000 baseball participants ages 9-12. In 2017, there were 26,664, according to region director Jen Colvin.

Peachtree City Little League also has about half the players it did a decade ago, vice president and coach Scott Proffitt said. 

“I would probably say, from (players aged) about 10, 11 and 12, that's probably where we've seen it impact,” Proffitt said. “We had a lot of 10-year-olds this year that elected to play travel baseball.”

Many young athletes have turned to travel ball as they seek ways to improve their game. It provides a chance to play year-round with more opportunities to be seen by scouts and college coaches.

“I was sitting at a clinic with head coaches for college teams,” said Josh Ray, baseball coach at Cedar Shoals High School in Athens. “They're like, ‘It's easier to go to a travel ball team and see 30 prospects, versus a high school team, and maybe see one.’”

As district administrator for Little League District 5 in Middle Georgia, Roman Jones saw what can drive families to turn to travel ball over Little League. He even dabbled in it with his oldest son, but ultimately preferred the Little League system. 

Warner Robins American, one of the leagues under his jurisdiction, won the Little League World Series in 2007. An uptick in participation immediately followed. But the league’s success also established new expectations. From then on, it was World Series-or-bust.

“Everybody's trying to figure out, how do we get back?” Jones said. “What method could get us there? Oh, it must be that we need to play baseball year-round. Well, how do we do that? Well, you've got to get on my travel-ball team.”

Jones saw plenty of parents turning to metro Atlanta travel-ball outfits to chase athletic scholarships. But the movement to travel ball can leave some with promising talent behind.

“What it does, I feel like, is it makes one group more capable of being able to participate than another,” said Demiko Ervin, director of Little League’s Urban Initiative.

Major League Baseball’s Professional Development Pipeline was created in December 2017 after MLB commissioner Rob Manfred mandated that baseball be made more accessible. The program is a joint effort between MLB and USA Baseball that holds showcase events free of charge, where college and professional scouts can see a bigger pool of players. 

This summer, the program will expand into an all-expenses-paid league, in which 80 of the top high school prospects will compete on four teams for a month over the summer at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

“They're doing exactly what they're supposed to be doing,” Ervin said of the expansion. “If you look at any of the other major sports, they all have similar types of programs and things of that nature that identify the better, top-tier amateur players to try to, obviously, keep an eye on them and help them advance to get them to the professional ranks.”

While the benefits of travel ball include more exposure to college coaches and scouts and the year-round playing opportunities, the participation costs are out of reach for a lot of families. The cost for a season at Athens Little League is approximately $75, said David Meyers, a former board member and president of Athens Little League. 

Travel-ball participation costs vary, but a review of costs for Atlanta-area teams show they generally average $1,000 to $3,000 per season.

“These days, it's become basically everybody that wants to be able to say that their child is on a travel-ball team,” said Jeff Colwell, district administrator for Little League District 2 in northwest Atlanta. “The baseball's frankly not all that different, but the financial impact on families is a huge difference.”

In metro Atlanta, East Cobb Baseball rules the travel-ball world. It’s where MLB players such as Dansby Swanson and Jason Heyward got their start, and baseball players around the country recognize its name brand. 

Perfect Game, a showcase tournament and scouting provider for travel-ball teams, has an office in Cartersville and hosts tournaments at nearby LakePoint Sporting Community. The travel-ball culture is about as alive in metro Atlanta as anywhere in the country, and the Atlanta-area Little League and high school baseball communities have felt its influence.

“The rec leagues are really, really suffering, because even at the younger age, kids that are 10-12, they're not getting the possible coaching that they could get, the individual practice of drills that they could get,” South Atlanta High School baseball coach Jason Anderson said. “A lot of them end up leaving the sport.”

When some of the best players make the jump from Little League to travel ball, it can affect the quality of baseball and coaching at the Little League level. A player who’s played only Little League or rec league baseball might not face the level of competition that once was available in Little League, and they might be turned away by the lower quality of baseball.

“You start seeing the players start going to these travel-ball teams at 8, 9 years old,” Cedar Shoals’ Ray said. “It kind of leaves what's left to the recs, and the developmental programs, and that's probably where we have the high schools (in terms of talent potential).”

Most of the players on Ray’s team, which went winless this season, cannot afford travel ball, he said. 

Cedar Shoals senior catcher Alex Weisenbach played some travel ball. He grew up around East Athens Little League, playing at Satterfield Park from age 4 to high school, when he began playing for Frozen Ropes, a now-defunct Watkinsville-based travel-ball team. 

“It definitely got more exposure out there for me,” Weisenbach said. “I wasn't really doing much over the summer before that, so that kind of just kept me active with baseball over the summer.”

The extra work at a higher level of competition helped prepare Weisenbach for high school ball. This season, he batted .229, tied for second on the team, according to MaxPreps.

Meyers has two sons and a daughter who grew up playing Athens Little League baseball and softball. Meyers never put his children in travel ball for several reasons. One of them was the high cost. Another was the camaraderie and community Little League brought for his family that he said he felt travel ball lacked.

“We don't have aspirations or dreams of baseball turning into a career,” Meyers said. “We didn’t have aspirations about a scholarship. For us, it was about the community part, and it was about kids playing baseball, which is, for me, sharing something that I love with them, and so we had a great time doing that.

“I hope that, as a community, we can figure out how there's an opportunity for everybody to play,” Meyers said. “If we do go too far in that direction, we end up with a lot of kids who don’t get that chance to play.”

The Grady Sports Bureau is part of the sports media program at the University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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