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Report: Kids still flocking to baseball, softball diamonds

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Danniella Lee has grown up watching her parents play softball. Now, at age 12, she is playing year-round and is on travel teams that compete throughout the region.

She loves the game, the physical activity and the interaction with her dad, David Lee, who has coached her for years.

The young Santa Rosa athlete is part of a surprising trend of increased participation in baseball and softball in the U.S., according to a new report.

For the past several years, the drumbeat has been that participation in baseball and football are declining while more kids are playing soccer or not participating in sports at all.

But a report released Thursday at Major League Baseball’s quarterly owners meetings in New York said baseball and softball had nearly 25 million combined participants last year, more than any team sport in the country.

The findings, in an annual report produced by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, show an increase of 7.7 in participation in competitive youth baseball and 8.1 percent in softball last year.

In addition, casual participation, not in competitive leagues, in baseball rose by 18.1 percent in 2016 and slow-pitch softball increased by 12.4 percent. Overall in the past five years, casual participation in baseball and slow-pitch softball is up 34 percent, the report found.

Casual participation in both baseball and slow-pitch softball showed the highest growth of any sport, the report found.

Danniella, a sixth-grader at Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts, started playing softball six years ago, at age 6. She’d been playing soccer for two years already.

“She loves both,” said her mother, Aurora Loya-Lee, who also plays softball and soccer. “Soccer was easy to get her into when she was young. When she was old enough, she started playing softball. She always saw us play.”

The report showed, importantly from professional baseball’s point of view, that growth in both casual and competitive play in one-, three- and five-year periods comes at a time when trends in other team sports are less positive, said Tom Cove, president and CEO of SFIA, which compiled the report.

Casa Grande boys baseball coach Paul Maytorena said over his 23 years coaching, he’s seen participation ebb and flow.

But, “Petaluma is a baseball town,” he said.

There were a couple of years recently when lacrosse was becoming more popular that baseball numbers went down, he said. But nearly three dozen boys tried out for the freshman team alone this year. That’s about 10 more than last season.

Casa is one of 10 schools in the North Bay League and Sonoma County League that has varsity, junior varsity and freshman teams. The five Santa Rosa schools carry two teams only.

Sonoma Academy baseball coach Dave Cox said he’s had trouble getting enough kids to field varsity and JV teams, as have some other, larger schools.

He suspects part of that is the relatively new interest in lacrosse, which has becoming an official sport at some schools.

The report, only available for purchase online, showed a mix of growth and decline among the 120 sports it examined.

Sports including baseball, cheerleading, indoor soccer and team swimming and fitness activities including cross training, aquatic exercise, rowing and stair climbing all experienced significant growth, the research found.

In many activities, casual participation rates rose faster than that of competitive rates, suggesting Americans may be sampling more sports while reducing single-minded devotion to any one activity. In some cases, increases in casual participation may be the direct result of sport governing bodies and organizations dedicating efforts to “grow their game” through outreach and hands-on opportunities.

Some sports bucked the casual/competitive trend. In tackle football, for example, core youth participation remained stable while overall participation dropped.

As SFIA noted in past Olympic years, sports prominently featured at the 2016 Rio Olympics seem to inspire Americans to get active. Gymnastics (17 percent), beach/sand volleyball (19 percent), rugby (18 percent) and swimming on a team (27 percent) reflected an Olympic bounce.

Major League Baseball credits the participation increase to its Play Ball initiative, which the sport launched in 2015 in conjunction with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, USA Baseball and USA Softball. The goal of the initiative was to “inspire young people to play the game, even if just in a casual form.”

The SFIA report is based on the findings from 25,000 interviews, half with individuals, half with households, about participation in 118 different physical activities, ages 6 and up.

Maytorena said the Petaluma National Little League team that went to the Little League World Series in 2012 spurred renewed interest in baseball with elementary school kids and younger, and he said he sees softball participation locally on the rise as well.

Across town, Petaluma High coach Jim Selvitella said his squads are full too. He also credits Little League.

“The Little League system has improved so much over the years that more and more kids are drawn to it. I really see the numbers up,” he said. “What it’s created at the high school level is a lot more competition. Parents are finding more and more that little Johnny isn’t playing all the time — because little Joey is better.”

Having women’s college softball on TV has helped, too, coaches said.

As does a successful program.

Analy softball coach Nick Houtz carries about 17 girls on his varsity and the same on junior varsity squads. The Tigers won the SCL at 11-1 this year.

“We have a good program, so we have a lot of kids come out,” he said. “But it runs in cycles. I haven’t really figured out what causes the cycles. But I think now especially, girls have choices. Before, all girls sports was just to give the girls something to do. That’s changed drastically.

“Now, you’re starting to see fast-pitch softball on TV. Now these girls have people like (University of Arizona national champion and Olympic gold medal winning pitcher) Jennie Finch to look up to.”

In clinics, Houtz said, young girls look up to his high school players.

That’s true for players like Danniella Lee. She recently ran into some Santa Rosa Junior College players at a local restaurant and proudly posed for pictures with them.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

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