GIRLS' SPORTS OVERVIEW: SOFTBALL

Fast Pitching In

The growth of girls’ softball across America has been a real team effort.

Go ahead, name the 10 most influential people in women’s fast-pitch softball in the U.S. When Team Insight posed that question to USA Softball CEO Craig Cress, he was left somewhat speechless.

“It’s difficult to narrow a list to the most influential people in women’s fast-pitch since so many individuals have contributed to the game at all levels,” he says. “From those around in the beginning to those today who play, umpire, coach and organize, it truly has been a team effort.”

That’s probably why fast-pitch is such an ideal example of a true team sport and why team dealers enjoy selling it. It has taken far more than one person to put the sport on the map and to expand the its footprint across the country.

For many team dealers, selling softball to girls is almost as big as selling baseball to boys.  It has become a prime-time spring thing and, with playing opportunities exploding in college and now, once again, to the Summer Olympics, fast-pitch is on the rise.

Fast Sales in Delaware, New Jersey

“We have a strong softball business,” says Bob Hart, owner of Al’s Sporting Goods, Wilmington, DE. “All girls’ fast-pitch softball teams are buying cleats, gloves, bats, catching gear, uniforms, helmets and facemasks from us.”

While Hart laments that the online competition negatively affects his sales, his softball business is still strong. “It hurts that some people like to do their shopping with their fingers,” he admits. “But, thank goodness, there are still more people that like to walk into the shop, get to know the ordering process and then spend locally.”

Heading north to New Jersey, softball sales are a major income producer for Darrow’s Sporting Edge, Whitehouse Station, NJ, which sells fast-pitch bats, fast-pitch softball-specific gloves, helmets with masks, pants, bat bags, uniforms, socks, belts, fielders’ masks and screenprinted T-shirts for youth leagues, according to Nicole Nittel, manager of team sales. And, somewhat surprisingly, its cleat business is strong with brands such as Adidas, Under Armour and Mizuno leading the way.  

Darrow’s Sporting Edge does have one significant edge over the competition: U.S. Olympic softball legend Jennie Finch is involved in a big softball training facility called Diamond Nation, located in nearby Flemington.

“Diamond Nation is only about six miles from us and we get lots of walk-in traffic from there,” says Nittel.

Cleats are also strong sellers at Dave’s Sporting Goods in Vero Beach, FL, which also sells lots of uniforms, softball bats, hats, gloves, practice pants, cleats, socks and belts, says co-owner Becky Whipp. “We have the room to inventory cleats and we have a great cleat business.”

Another strong category is face guards. “Some local leagues are requiring face guards to be worn by all infielders in softball, Whipp says, “so our face guard business is strong.”

To encourage more sales, while offering convenience, Whipp and her associates bring the product to the people at special times of the year.

“For our local youth leagues, we’ll set up a tent on Opening Day where we will sell additional items,” says Whipp. “We will sell whatever I can put in my van.”

But while the softball business is strong in Florida, her baseball business remains larger. “There are simply more boys playing baseball than girls playing softball, but fast-pitch softball participation is strong in our area,” Whipp says.

In the south Florida community of Wellington, the softball business is not nearly as strong now as it was even just a few years ago.

“My travel and rec league softball business used to be huge as we had a number of fast-pitch softball teams in our area,” says Jerry Steurer, owner of Scotty’s Sport Shop in Wellington.  “Now, the rec program is down to four teams and there’s just one travel team in town. I used to sell many custom jerseys, pants, socks and belts.”

One reason for the decline in participation is that the travel players were being forced to also play in the rec leagues in order to keep them afloat and it became too much of an obligation for the players. “It was too much work for the girls,” says Steurer.

Snow Problem in Wisconsin

When the snow melts in Wisconsin, softball teams start going outside to play with the gear that they ordered before Christmas.

“Softball teams are buying softballs, bats, uniforms, gloves, helmets and face guards,” reports Randy Burt, a salesman at Chippewa Valley Sporting Goods, Eau Claire, WI. “The one category we don’t sell is cleats because it requires us to carry too much inventory.”

According to Burt, there is a significant difference between selling to travel teams rather than to school teams. “Travel teams have bigger budgets and they spend more,” he says.

Meanwhile, dep in the heart of Texas, fast-pitch softball has never been more popular.

“We sell to softball teams in Texas and up in Oklahoma,” says Jim Davis, owner of Williams Sporting Goods, Paris, TX, primarily to schools and small junior colleges, as well as some travel teams.

Davis will sell everything from uniforms, belts and socks to bats, balls, helmets, softballs, pitching plates, field chalk and even clay for the pitcher’s mound. But they don’t focus on gloves. “We don’t have a big inventory on gloves,” adds Davis.

In the desert southwest of Mesa, AZ, the weather allows for year-round practice and play for fast-pitch softball. That’s good for business for East Valley Sporting Goods.

“Fast-pitch softball is a real strong category for us,” says owner Dennis Callison. “While hard goods remain a tough sell because of the online market, soft goods sales are strong. I have strong custom uniform sales with lots of sublimation.”

The main clients for East Valley Sporting Goods are club/travel teams, high schools and local recreation leagues.

Among Callison’s big concerns are the many all-school deals that are being signed by companies by schools and school districts with companies such as BSN Sports. That’s because, unlike in the past when a few different local team dealers would supply uniforms and equipment for all schools, now an all-school deal gives all the business to just one company, usually BSN Sports. That leaves local team dealers on the outside looking in, so to speak.

Sun Shines on Diamonds in Montana

Out west in Montana, girls’ softball is thriving when the sun is shining.

“Out here, girls start playing softball at age four,” says Lara Crighton, owner of Squad Sports, Glendive, MT. A national junior college team and a strong high school program in its area certainly doesn’t hurt the effort.

When softball teams order they can get virtually everything they need from Jock Stop – softballs, softball bats, helmets, uniforms, practice pants, belts, socks, pitching machine balls, face masks and field chalk –  with the exception of cleats.

When comparing the sales process of selling baseball to boys versus softball to girls, Crighton sees a big difference, particularly in how they look. Boys are happy just to get a uniform, but “girls are always more particular with their uniforms when it comes to style and fit,” she says.

In nearby Minnesota, softball is a tough sell for one team dealer.

“Our softball business is not very big and it’s not growing,” reports John Klinnert, owner of JK Sports, Fergus Falls, MN. “The competition from the online sales outlets has driven away my softball business.”

In New England, fast-pitch is alive and well, especially in Holyoke, MA, according to Betsy Frey, owner of Holyoke Sporting Goods, with the local high school and recreational fast-pitch business thriving.

“We sell fast-pitch items such as softballs, practice balls, bats, batting helmets, socks, belts, gloves, cleats, catchers’ gear and uniforms,” she says.

In Holyoke travel softball is not as prevalent for a host of reasons, so that business doesn’t drive the bottom line. “You have to have money, a strong desire to play and parents who are willing to drive you from tournament to tournament during the season,” Frey explains.

Frey, too, sees a significant difference when dealing with girls’ fast-pitch softball teams and boys baseball teams. “Girls like a little color and feminine accent,” she says. “It’s nice that a girl can now be a homecoming queen and still be a competitive athlete.”

The High School Game

Along with travel ball and some recreation leagues, high school form the core of the fast-pitch community in America and the game is thriving at that level, according to Sandy Searcy, of NFHS.  

“The future of high school softball is very promising,” says Searcy, NFHS Softball Rules Committee liaison. “It is encouraging with the number of young people who want to play for their high schools and communities. Participation in high school softball continues to grow each year, with almost 16,000 programs and over 360,000 student athletes playing fast-pitch softball in the 2018-19 school year.”

Better yet, according to Searcy, every aspect of softball is trending in the right direction.

“The sport of softball, in general, continues to increase in status,” adds Searcy.  “Softball’s return to the Olympics is evidence of its popularity and the increase in media coverage presents the opportunity to strive for the ultimate honor of representing your country on the softball field. It also increases the reach of softball at the grass-roots level.  

“Likewise,” Searcy adds, the increased coverage of the NCAA Women’s College World Series over the last several years has extended the fan base of this great game.”

One of the responsibilities of the NFHS Softball Rules Committee is to monitor all changes and the NFHS Softball Rules Committee plays close attention to the equipment details, which should also be of particular interest to team dealers.

This year the committee discussed the differentiation of damaged and illegal bats, and defining the penalties for such, Searcy says. “NFHS softball rules now reflect the use of the new USA Softball Certification Mark, which will be used moving forward.”

Of note, a 2020 NFHS Point of Emphasis requires that bats used in high school competition must bear either the ASA 2000, 2004 or the USA Softball All-Games Certification Mark. Additionally, any bat with one of these certification marks must not appear on the list of the USA Softball Non-Approved Bats with Certification Marks.

INSIDE THE NUMBERS

1. The Big Picture.
Between 2013 and 2019, overall participation in fast-pitch softball in the U.S. has remained fairly steady — ranging from 2.2 to 2.4 million players per year, according to figures from SFIA.

2. Avid Participants.
Just more than half of all fast-pitch softball players are classified as core participants, meaning they play the game at least 26 days per year.

3. Diamond Dandies.
Of the 3.4 million female high
school student-athletes in the 2018-19 school year, 362,038 of them played fast-pitch softball.

4. Olympic Success.
The U.S. National team earned a medal at each of the Olympic Games in 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008 — gold medals in 1996, 2000 and 2004 and a silver in 2008.

5. Role Reversal.
While 65 percent of casual
fast-pitch softball participants are male, 75 percent of core fast-pitch softball participants are female.

6. Cross-Over Sensation.
When they are not playing fast-pitch softball, the three most popular
ports for those girls are basketball,
bowling and baseball.

7. Youth Movement.
Just more than 61 percent of female softball players are between the ages
of six and 17.  

8. Pre-Teen, Teen Domain.
Almost 60 percent of female softball players are between the ages of six and 17.

9. No Diploma Necessary.
Of all the girls that play fast-pitch softball, 43 percent have yet to enter high school.

10. Geographic Hot Beds.
The two most popular geographic regions for girls who are core fast-pitch softball players are the Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic regions.

View the full print issue here.