Knowing how sports fans from outside the New York metropolitan area feel about the city’s sports franchises (“Evil Empire” anyone?), people from around the U.S. must get a little joy in watching the Big Apple squirm just a bit as it looks to soon be home to five big-time sports venues—and no realistic plans to fill all of the seats on a regular basis. Even Yankee fans (myself included) were happy when owners were forced to drop prices after certain tickets at the new stadium weren’t selling at the absurd original asking price north of $2,500. No one can really feel bad for major league sports owners, or the amazing but overpaid athletes they employ. But when hard times hit America’s pastime at the Little League level, that’s a different situation.
When the recession hit and jobs dried up in Greenfield, Ohio, the town lost most of its sponsors of youth baseball. The town was planning on playing with old baseballs and fewer (or no) umpires, and they would save money by not using lights or electronic scoreboards. Volunteers held raffles and pancake fundraisers, but there still was not enough money to last the season. Then news broke over the town’s dire straits. Donations poured in from around the country, with checks and boxes of new balls and gear arriving regularly.
ESPN recently started broadcasting a “Coping with the Economy” series, which is all about the recession’s impact on sports in America. The features cover stories about declining attendance at arenas, how professional salaries are impacted, how college sports teams are saving money by taking buses rather than flying, and so on. But perhaps most interesting are the segments on sports at the grass-roots level.
A few of the features focus on a region in Wisconsin, where the jobless rate in one sample town has jumped from 7.2 percent to 17.4 percent. Unions used to be major sponsors for youth sports, but that money has disappeared, largely due to the fallout after GM’s bankruptcy.
But these stories have a silver lining. Communities are banding together and doing the best they can. They’re getting creative with ways to bring costs down and make sure every kid who wants to play can play. Teams are traveling less. Moms with good cameras are taking photos of Little League teams rather than paying a pro to do the official team shots. Payment plans, in which families dole out a few dollars here and there to cover league fees, have become popular. There’s a renewed focus on using and swapping hand-me-down jerseys, clothing, and gear.
After all, kids don’t care if the ball they’re hitting over the fence is brand new or five years old. All they care about is that they just hit a home run.