Play Ball! returns to boost British baseball

The Play Ball! community youth leagues are set to return this summer as part of a pilot programme run by BaseballSoftballUK (BSUK) and Major League Baseball.

Three of the locations have already been announced – Hull (Hull Scorpions Baseball Club), Halton (Halton Baseball and Softball Club) and Leicester (Leicester Blue Sox Baseball and Softball Club) – with a fourth pilot area to be determined shortly.

Following the conclusion of last year’s Youth Baseball Review, BSUK and the BBF looked together at how youth baseball is organised in the UK, noting that in order for numbers to grow, it must be played at the local level. In discussions with current and former clubs up and down the country, it was highlighted that in terms of getting more children and young people playing baseball and softball, the travel between fixtures was the stumbling block for participation.

It was determined that local league play is the way forward, with a vision that every boy and girl in the country will eventually be able to play baseball or softball within 20 minutes of where they live. BSUK’s wider vision of our sports as “Played in Every Park”, set growth targets of getting 50,000 playing by 2021, and such programmes as Play Ball! could help realistically achieve this number.

Hull Scorpions General Manager and Junior Coach Kevin Macadam said: “We are delighted to have been chosen as one of the pilot areas for the Play Ball!! programme. We look forward to teaching boys and girls in the area how to play baseball and enjoying the fun that playing the sport entails.”

Matt Crawshaw from the Leicester Blue Sox said: “Sustaining and growing existing junior programmes can be even more challenging than setting them up in the first place. There is such a reliance on new kids and families joining year on year to keep things going, which is often only possible with regular development initiatives such as this. We are looking forward to lots of new faces trying out baseball and softball for the first time at their schools, leading to an end-of-school-year Play Ball! tournament finale at our baseball field in June.”

Play Ball! was developed in partnership with Major League Baseball as a local community-centred baseball/softball “league in a box”, aimed at 10-12-year-old boys and girls. The primary goal of the programme is to establish self-sufficient and sustainable youth baseball and softball leagues where children and young people can access the sports on a regular basis with a minimum of travel.

The secondary goal of the programme is to create a transition between primary and secondary education. The age range of 10-12 for Play Ball! means that clubs running a local league can attract children and young people from both local secondary schools and the primary schools that feed into them.

It is hoped that it will be the link between school-based baseball/softball and the community. A Play Ball! league would ideally be run on one evening or weekend day each week during the season at the local club, or at a school site as part of a satellite programme.

MLB and BSUK will jointly support the Play Ball! Programme, over a three-year commitment, and hope that over that time successful leagues are self-sufficient and sustainable beyond the initial support provided. Funding will be reduced year-on-year, so that from Year Four, this aim will be met, however, standard club and league development support will still be available through BSUK’s Point Person system.

The type of support available during the first three years of each programme will include an equipment bag, paid coaching support, coach bursaries, volunteer training and coach mentoring.

Between 1998 and 2009, over 20 new youth baseball and softball leagues were started through Play Ball!, but in recent years a decline in support has seen a drop-off in numbers.

The main difference between this re-launch of Play Ball! and the previous programme is the emphasis on developing self-sufficient and sustainable leagues. The core funding and development support will be channelled into the development of coaches and volunteers, ensuring they have the tools and skills necessary to start, run and sustain local youth baseball and softball leagues.

Jason Holowaty, Major League Baseball’s director of market development for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said: “2014 is the right time for Play Ball! to make a comeback here in the UK. BSUK has an excellent team in place right now, and with their expertise we feel that Play Ball! will rejuvenate youth baseball and softball here in the UK.”

Play BallPlay Ball! is a programme for both boys and girls. As such, it is hoped that one of outputs of the programme will be to develop a model whereby girls can be recruited and retained in a local fastpitch league.

BSUK and Major League Baseball are particularly keen to see how softball clubs/leagues and baseball clubs are able to utilise Play Ball! as a pathway from school-based taster sessions to establishing community-based leagues for baseball and fastpitch softball.

After the 2014 season, the Play Ball! programme will be evaluated and the scale of a wider roll-out in 2015 will be considered. Applications to run new Play Ball! programmes in 2015 will be accepted during the 2014/15 off-season.

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