by Jim Boyle
In its heyday, there were 96 teams playing in adult softball leagues in Elk River. The players kept the softball complex — what is now the Dave Anderson Athletic Complex — busy four nights a week and on Sundays.
In 2015 there were about half the teams.
And in 2019 there were only 21 teams.
Adult softball leagues are trending downward across the nation. In some other communities the leagues have vanished.
The question at the February meeting of the Elk River Parks and Recreation Commission was what would commissioners think if the city’s park and rec program didn’t offer any adult softball leagues in 2021.
Park and Recreation Director Michael Hecker said that was the conversation he had been having with staff, who were mixed on the matter.
The larger discussion, however, among staff in a department that was created in 1990 is the content of the latest draft of a recreation program plan, a 26-page draft document that provides the long-term framework for creating, planning, and implementing the programs that the people of Elk River demand. That document was addressed in the commissioners’ preceding agenda item.
The document includes appendixes on information from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association’s report on participation in fitness and recreation and trend data. It analyzes what’s hot, what’s up, what’s stagnating and what’s declining. It looks at it by category, too, noting differences between Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Z and millennials.
The plan would aim to provide a healthy mix of introductory programs that need approval of the director while keeping tabs on programs that are stagnating or slowing down.
“The assessment may identify whether those programs should continue in their current state, or be repositioned to further drive participation, or be canceled,” Hecker said during the Feb. 10 meeting. “A performance metric can be established of a program decline stage and any program staying in that stage for two years should be considered for repositioning or elimination in favor of new and/or growing programs.”
Programs considered for cancellation must be brought to the attention of the Parks and Recreation director, who works with a seven-member Parks and Recreation Commission, for final cancellation approval. The plan, once completed, could include a quarterly audit program.
The Parks and Recreation Department has opened registration for this season and is hoping to have two nights of adult softball a week, if weather permits, similar to recent years. There is a Monday night Men’s Softball Class C/D and Tuesday night’s Men’s Softball Class D/E being offered.
Commissioners put the decision about softball in the hands of the staff to decide whether to give the program one more year or move on.
Softball registration is taking place, and it started being promoted on the Park and Recreation
Department’s Facebook page this week.
“So far I only have interest in Tuesday night class D/E,” said Tonya Love, the department’s sole programmer. “I don’t know where the season is going to go and how many teams ... will register.”
The numbers for last year were not counted, as COVID-19 threw a wrench in everything. The Elk River Park and Rec Department was able to offer one season of softball in 2020, and 13 teams signed up.
It was mentioned the co-recreational league went away after there were only eight teams in 2016, Love said.
Elk River is not alone as adult softball leagues across the country have been declining.
Steve Benoit, a former Elk River Park and Recreation team member who now is the parks and rec director for Shoreview, reported to Hecker that that city used to have more than 150 teams.
“They now have zero,” Hecker said. “That’s where this is headed.”
Commissioner Andy Soltvedt asked at the Feb. 10 meeting if any of the 2019 teams had been contacted to see what their hopes and plans were, and was told they have not been. But there has been little to no interest expressed so far. Registration materials had not been prepared ahead of the Feb. 10 meeting, knowing that it would be a topic of the commission’s meeting.
“Normally our registration is already open and ready to go,” Love said that night. “For them not to reach out and ask is interesting.”
Soltvedt was understanding.
“It’s a challenge,” he said of running leagues. “It’s one of those fixtures, but even when I stopped running softball leagues eight years ago, it was hard to get teams. It was hard to get umpires. It was hard to lose the revenue that came with it.”
“I don’t think it makes sense to offer something that people don’t want to sign up for. I defer to staff’s best judgment.”
Hecker said the softball program breaks even but barely. Ideally, it would pull in 120% of what it costs to run the program, he said.
“Deep down I think Tonya would love to do it one more year to see where it goes.”
Commissioner Dave Anderson, who helped get the softball program going long before the Elk River Parks and Recreation Department existed and took it over, said, “Talk about a dagger to the heart.”
Anderson said the program grew out of a combination of fast pitch and slow pitch beer ball to a premier softball league and to where it is today.
“When I took over, the leagues we had, had 30 teams. We built it up to include a high-quality complex with lights to 80 teams Monday through Thursday plus 14 on Sundays. So that was 94 teams and we were turning teams away. It was an absolute seller’s market.”
Commissioners Anderson, Greg Loidolt, Mike Niziolek, Mark Rathbun and Chairman Dave Williams all agreed that it would be fine to go with whatever staff decides.
“We could go either way,” Hecker told the commissioners. “That’s where we’re at. I don’t want you to be surprised next month (if we cancel the program).”
Williams noted if people want a league bad enough, they can always set something up themselves. Anderson agreed, saying it would take a load off the city.
“If there’s enough passion, that’s a way to go,” he said.
Registration season will be a test that will help the city decide if adult softball is to remain a city-run activity.