Youth baseball participation down as sports options multiply

GILFORD — Baseball may be the American pastime, but its appeal among young people seems to be diminishing.
That's the view of Rick Muthersbaugh, vice president of Gilford Cal Ripken Baseball, who says that he's seeing a decline in the number of players showing up in recent years.
''We used to get 225 to 230 kids. But we're down to 125 to 130 kids now and the number of teams is down. We used to have four major league teams and now we're down to three and the number of minor league teams and T-ball teams is also down,'' says Muthersbaugh, a member of Belmont High School's 1988 championship baseball team who has been active in youth sports in the Lakes Region for over two decades.
''We're losing kids to lacrosse and AAU basketball and other sports,'' says Muthersbaugh, who sees the proliferation of youth sports opportunities as one of the major reasons for the decline.
The Laconia Little League, which usually has between 200 and 250 players. dropped its Little League girls softball division a couple of years ago because of declining participation according to Eric Petell, league president.
He said that this year there are about 200 players registered and that most teams will have only 11 players, a decline in numbers he attributes in part to the growth of interest in other sports.
This year, in order to broaden participation, the league sought and received permission from national Little League headquarters to expand its league boundaries to include Gilmanton and Meredith.
''Players from Belmont and Gilford have been able to play in the Laconia Little League for years,'' says Petell, who says that part of the reason for the expansion were inquiries from parents in those towns. which have been added.
''They like what Laconia has in terms of playing fields and the popularity of the Little League World Series on television makes it quite a draw,'' says Petell.
There is only one other official Little League in the area, the Tilton-Northfield Little League, which, like Laconia is part of New Hampshire's District II Little League. The T-N league draws players from those two towns, as well as Franklin, Sanbornton, Hill and Canterbury.
Most of the other towns in the Lakes Region are affiliated with Cal Ripken Baseball, which, since it came on the scene in 2001, has expanded rapidly around the state.
An affiliate of the Babe Ruth League, Cal Ripken Baseball now has 52 leagues, over 1,450 teams and 21,750 players in the state and had been growing by leaps and bounds according to its New Hampshire web site.
Muthersbaugh says that in the greater Lakes Region area there are now Cal Ripken leagues in Franklin, Winnisquam, Newfound and Meredith as well as Merrimack Valley and that a new Lakes Region District which was recently formed makes tournament play much easier.
''We used to be in the same district as Mount Washington Valley and would have to go all the way to Conway to play in tournament games. This is a lot easier for us now.''
He says that some Cal Ripken League innovations, 70 foot base paths and a pitching mound 50 feet from home plate and base stealing with leads allowed hasn't yet come to the area due to a lack of playing fields with those dimensions. Little League base paths for 13 and under are 60 feet with base stealing allowed but no leads and pitching mounds less than 46 feet from home plate.
Laconia Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Dunleavy says that he agrees with Muthersbaugh that there are many more youth sports options available than there were as recently as 10 years ago and says the city is fortunate to have so many recreational field options for team sports.
''It's a little more difficult to fit everything in this year because we lost Bobotas Field and the high school football field due to the high school project,'' says Dunleavy.
He says that after Laconia Little League dropped its girls softball league a new league was formed, the Lakes Region Girls Softball League, which takes players from Laconia, Belmont and Canterbury and plays its games both in Laconia and Belmont.
He says that the Laconia Parks Department charges a fee for out-of-town players of $10 per child per season on teams using Laconia facilities.
''There's additional wear and tear on the fields and we want to recoup some of the costs of maintaining em,'' says Dunleavy, who adds that out-of-town players on adult teams are charged $20 per player per season.
Gilford Parks and Recreation Director Herb Greene says that he has seen an expansion of youth sports offerings in his community which may account in part for the decline in baseball participation.
''There's AAU basketball, youth soccer and youth football as well as traveling soccer. With so many options and schedule conflicts it's difficult for some young people to play multiple sports.'' says Greene.