Adult slow-pitch softball is in a slump across Minnesota.
With parents chasing their kids' teams, adults tied to work and some baby boomers aging out of competition, rec league officials say, teams are struggling to find enough players to fill their rosters.
In Minneapolis, the number of adult teams has sunk from more than 800 in 2013 to 577 last year. St. Paul, which registered 539 teams as recently as 2010, now is under 400. Hutchinson has lost one-third of its men's teams in the last 10 years. And more teams drop out each year.
"One of the things I hear from teams that are not going to be playing is that they can't find enough players to commit," said Lacelle Cordes, a Rosemount recreation supervisor.
That's why adult softball captains scrambling to fill rosters have a new option in Minneapolis parks this spring: five-player teams.
The format, known as five-on-five-on-five softball, has been tried in other states, in an attempt to offset the impact of changing lifestyles on softball participation. But it's only now reaching Minnesota. Rosemount plans a small-team tournament next fall.
The new small-ball option will rotate three teams of five through batting, the outfield and infield each inning. Players on the infield and outfield teams serve as pitcher and catcher. Each team still gets three outs at bat in an inning, and the four-inning games last about an hour.
"The X generation and the millennials, they're out doing other things," said John Miller, membership director for the Oklahoma City-based American Softball Association (ASA). "The five-on-five is something that's kind of perked everybody's ears up."
The Minneapolis season for men's and coed teams starts in late April and offers six- or 12-week options. A fall season is also planned.
Minneapolis recreation workers attribute the falling numbers to parents attending or coaching the games of busy youths and the requirements of demanding jobs.
State softball leaders are concerned enough about the falloff that they're surveying high school athletic directors to find out why. "A lot of them, the reason they gave was lack of time," said Cordes, who is on a task force formed to recruit and retain players in Minnesota.
And organizing a traditional slow-pitch team roster that typically numbers more than a dozen players can be time consuming. "Nobody wants to be in charge," Cordes said.
Hutchinson recreation supervisor John McRaith said parents seem more involved in their children's sports, coaching themselves or following teams to away games, rather than dropping them off for practices or forming carpools for away games as they did years ago.
Plus, many baby boomers are aging out of the game, despite senior leagues, and the succeeding generation is smaller.
McRaith, a longtime player who dropped out two years ago at age 56, stopped playing, in part, because of changes in the game itself.
"As sports become popular, the upper-ability players make the rules, and they tend to make the rules to make it more challenging for themselves," he said.
In softball, he said, that has meant a harder ball now zipping off an expensive composite bat that can cost several hundred dollars.
"You can't play today's game with slow reactions, or you might get hurt," McRaith said.
Hutchinson had 16 women's slow-pitch teams in the 1980s but none now. But women players from those teams have helped keep the number of coed teams steady.
The new five-player format is aimed at players who have wandered away from the game.
"What we're trying to do is get those players back playing again," said Troy Mickelson, Minnesota slow-pitch director for the U.S. Specialty Sports Association. His organization last year registered about 4,300 youth and adult slow-pitch teams, compared with more than 5,000 five years ago.
Ben Hickerson, a Penn State professor in recreation, park and tourism management, sees several advantages to small-team softball. One is that small teams can minimize the differences in abilities of team members that can result from having to fill a larger roster. Another is that small teams minimize time spent on the bench. Not only does that promote greater fitness, but "you're always involved and that creates a greater sense of accomplishment about the activity," he said.
The adaptation of traditional softball is just one of the changes underway to meet the needs of new generations, according to Connie Magnuson, director of park, recreation and leisure studies at the University of Minnesota. "We need to reach them at what's appealing to them and what's realistic to them, their fitness level, their capabilities," she said.
Other sports have been making or considering adjustments to changing lifestyles as well. One example is golf; the university is considering whether its Les Bolstad Golf Course should be reconfigured with options that would allow a golfer to play three or six holes. "Not everyone wants to go out and do an 18-hole course," Magnuson said.
Cities have tried other things to lure more softball players — starting the season later to attract high school and college students, even instituting free-agent pools so players can fill in as needed. But rec league officials hope the small-team softball format offers more flexibility.
"It's easier to get five people together to play than 10," said Dan Pfeffer, Minnesota commissioner for the American Softball Association.
With the new five-on-five-on-five format, Scott Gagnon, a Park Board employee who serves as softball commissioner, expects to register 15 coed teams and 12 men's teams per six-week session. And registration comes with a price cut from the regular leagues: $75 for six weeks instead of $485 for a full-team 12-week season.