A slowdown in slowpitch softball sponsorships in Maryland

The Daily Record (Baltimore, MD) September 2, 2010
 By Liz Farmer
Daily Record Business Writer
It's a rare night during the early summer if the outdoor patio at Clyte Franklin Jr. 's Angle Inn restaurant and bar isn't jammed with men and women wearing dirty softball jerseys and recapping the latest game-changing plays and close calls.

Softball is practically a way of life at the 50-year-old Dundalk establishment. Inside, towering trophies glint in the low-lit bar, and display cases packed with photos and team memorabilia recall dozens of memories. The collection is a mere sampling from the many teams Franklin's business has sponsored over the last four decades, a business expense he simply calls his "sports program. "

Angle Inn sponsors 14 softball teams spanning all levels of play, from a senior's league team to highly competitive men's slowpitch teams. Although he doesn't like to say so, each year Franklin spends between $75,000 and $100,000 sponsoring the softball teams, a kickball league team and a bowling league.

"That sounds like bragging," Franklin, 66, said. "It doesn't suit me well. " 

But today, sponsors like Franklin are fast becoming a rare breed. The number of teams able to find enough financial backing for their travel budgets is dwindling - especially in the more elite levels of play where travel expenses can total between $50,000 and $100,000 for a season.

Even in the more traditional company softball leagues, the number of teams is shrinking thanks to lack of interest and cutbacks on what are deemed frivolous expenses.

With companies still smarting from the Recession of 2008, these days a good softball sponsor is hard to find.

Maryland has several thousand youth and adult softball teams in all levels of play. On one end are the leisure leagues where adults get together with friends and fork over roughly $100 each to their local recreation department to pay for umpires and field space. On the other end are competitive leagues where sponsors pay for tournament travel and coaches recruit new talent to give their teams the edge they need to make it to the national championship.

"People can treat it like pro baseball," said Dale Zwack, 28, a player on the Class C team RPM/Junk Yard Dogs.

Men's slowpitch softball teams registered with the country's top two softball governing bodies, the Amateur Softball Association of America and the United States Specialty Sports Association, are divided into classes based on the level of play. Teams are more plentiful in the lowest classes, which can have travel budgets of about $10,000. More than 100 Class D teams and 220 Class E teams are registered with the USSSA, which is more popular with slowpitch softball, in Maryland.

But after that, participation drops as costs go up - there are eight Class C teams registered with the USSSA in the state with travel budgets ranging from $10,000 to $25,000. This year, Maryland is down to just one Class B team: Bestrans, named for its sole sponsor, a waste transportation company in North East. Bestrans' coach, Ron Lynam, estimates owner Brian Simmons will spend close to $50,000 this year for the team's travel budget.

The highest rank is the "Major" Class, and just seven teams across the country fall into that category. According to Zwack, those teams can have travel budgets upwards of $250,000. Major teams are typically larger (16 to 19 players), and the men and the elite tournaments they play in are scattered across the country. With most players getting on a plane every other weekend to participate, travel budgets skyrocket.

Maryland's men's slowpitch competitive softball players aren't paid for the average of two weekends per month they spend playing in tournaments up and down the East Coast from March through October. Most are former athletes who grew up playing baseball. Many have wives or significant others. Some have kids.

"My wife has been awesome all the years that I've played. I've felt blessed," said Lynam, 40. A manager at a claims review processing facility in Wilmington, Del., Lynam has played in competitive softball leagues since college.

When asked if he's ever missed a tournament, he easily recalls the last time - six years ago, Lynam's twin daughters were born prematurely and spent a week in the hospital.

"Other than that ... I've been pretty good at not missing stuff," he said.

A team like Bestrans is unusual these days for having a sponsor willing to finance its hefty travel budget.

"Sponsors are few and far between, and you're losing more and more people who can do that just because of the economy," said Lynam.

In addition to the eight tournaments in the Maryland/Delaware/Pennsylvania area, Bestrans' travel schedule has taken it to Ohio, Connecticut and North Carolina. This month, the team's 14 players and coaches will go to Florida for two tournaments, including their "World Series," the USSSA Men's Class B World Tournament in Orlando.

Simmons, Bestrans' owner, denied multiple requests to be interviewed for this story, deferring all questions to Lynam. Unlike Franklin and other sponsors who have businesses in the service industry or the sports industry and could benefit from the advertising, Simmons' trucking company isn't gaining clients from the exposure.

Instead, Lynam said Simmons falls under the category of sponsors who do it for personal reasons. The most extreme example of that is Travis Resmondo, a Florida-based multimillionaire whose team of recruited players is ranked No. 1 in amateur softball's highest division in the country.

"He loves the game of softball and has continued to step up every year with whatever we need" for travel, Lynam said of Simmons. "There's not many around like him. ... A few people on the team he's known for a while, myself included, and after softball's said and done, that friendship's still going to be there. "

For businesses in the service industry, the benefit is a little more tangible.

"I do it because it brings in people and they bring in other people," said Angle Inn's Franklin, although he added that his return on investment "is probably a wash. "

But having a loyal sponsor doesn't mean the coast is clear. With fewer teams able to afford many long-distance trips, the number of teams in tournaments in the region this year has fallen off. Several tournaments have been canceled because not enough teams registered.

Last weekend, the USSSA Class C Adult Slow Pitch National Tournament scheduled in Salem, Va., was canceled because just seven teams were registered, said Rick Lilly, who has played slowpitch since 1983.

"That tournament used to be 45 teams," Lilly, 44, said. "Just getting to the location anymore is becoming a hard thing to do. Teams from Virginia and Maryland were going, but for the teams coming from Massachusetts and Connecticut, they couldn't make it work. "

Lilly's team, Class B Angle Inn/Easton, disbanded this season after it couldn't find enough sponsor funding. Angle Inn was putting up enough for about half the team's travel budget of roughly $47,000, Lilly said, but its silent sponsors from last year dropped out.

"When we play B level and there's no B tournaments in the state of Maryland, you have to travel everywhere to play," Lilly said. "It's just this year was pretty tight. "

Tell that to Team Bestrans. Even when the tournament is open to all levels, like the USSSA Men's Open State Tournament scheduled for Aug. 22 in Upper Marlboro, it can be hard fielding enough teams.

"They even go so far as to change the name of tournaments and change them to 'open,' but once Bestrans enters, the other teams are like 'no thank you,'" Lilly said.

That tournament, with less than half a dozen teams registered, was cancelled.

"Because of the state softball is in, there's not a lot of tournaments to play [in] for a team of our classification," said Lynam.

And with the cost to send more than a dozen players away to a two- or three-day tournament, the level of competition - and the chance to boost a team's ranking - has to be worth it.

"Obviously if you want to put money up to fly a team out, you don't want to do it for a 14-team tournament. But you will for a 30-team tournament," he said.

Even in the more traditional recreation leagues, where companies battle each other just as much for bragging rights as they do for a trophy, the field of play is shrinking.

The Metropolitan Media Softball League, founded in 1992, used to boast more than 20 teams. This year, 14 teams fill out the MMSL schedule.

Mark Hayes, a reporter for USA Today, said the recession has been hard on media organizations, particularly newspapers. Ad revenue has plummeted over the past few years, so even the roughly $600 expense to field a Washington-area softball team has been too much in the midst of layoffs and downsizing, he said.

USA Today's softball rival used to be the Washington Times. Then they stopped paying for a team after 2008.

"Then it was AOL," Hayes said. "They dropped out after last year. Lately it's been Channel 4 [WRC] just because between us, we've won the last five championships ... You see all the newspapers dying off, and they want to put their money somewhere else. "

Matt Sampson, a program director and AOL's former coach, said the Sterling, Va.-based company may bring back a team in 2011. This year, the interest just wasn't there.

"When the team started up there were certainly more younger people working at AOL and living in the Metro area," he said. "And as those people got older and moved closer to the office, to ask someone to trek all the way up to [Montgomery County], and it's 45 minutes away, people have kids now and it's just not worth it. "

Other media organizations still participating include the Washington Post, CBS and ABC news networks, the Associated Press, Comcast SportsNet and the Discovery Channel.

Jack Mowatt, ASA commissioner for the Maryland/D.C. region, said interest in slowpitch softball in general is down in this area. About 2,500 teams are registered here with the ASA, down from a high of about 3,000, he said. And the seniors league program is the association's most popular.

It's happening nationwide too - just 11.8 million Americans participated in softball last year, a sharp decline from 14.7 million a decade earlier, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.

Mowatt said he thinks the trend downward is a combination of the poor economy and lack of interest in younger people who now might have less free time than their counterparts a decade earlier. Playing on a travel team means taking time off work to play - a commitment someone trying to keep their job and support their family in a shaky economy likely can't make.

The RPM/Junk Yard Dogs' Zwack can attest to that. His former team, Sports55 Factory Team, disbanded this year after two players retired and it was too difficult to find replacements.

Even the weekday leagues don't draw what they used to.

"At one time, [the five fields at] Watkins Park in Prince George's County were all lit up and they were out there playing from 6 to 11 o'clock every night," said Mowatt. "Now I drive by and you're lucky if you have one lit. "

Mowatt, who has been a commissioner since 1982, said he's seen dips like this before where player interest was down and sponsors were tougher to find.

"But not like it is now - this is the worst I've seen in a long time," he said. "I wish I knew what the answer was. "