Recession Means Big Problems for Little League

little league

Will America's pastime become a thing of the past for the next generation?

As families struggle to pay their mortgages and put food on the table, they are cutting back everywhere, including Little League -- a luxury many parents can no longer afford.

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Teams from Florida to Illinois to California have reported a decline in enrollment as parents must decide between putting gas in the car or letting junior play baseball. Some leagues have stepped up to the plate -- so to speak -- and provided more scholarships during this recession than ever before.

But even the leagues are suffering because the car dealerships, pizza joints and hardware stores that once sponsored teams no longer exist or are holding on for dear life themselves.

Registration was down almost 25 percent this year for the Lehigh Acres Little League in Florida. The area has been devastated by the housing crisis, and the league decided to cut its $85 registration fee by $20. But that wasn't enough, and officials there ended up waiving the fee for 60 kids, up from 20 in a typical year.

"They just don't have the money to even do it for one kid," said Troy Floyd, vice president of baseball for the league, which is located outside Fort Myers, Fla. "They don't even have the money to drive the kids to the park."

Last year, there were 43 teams in the league. This year, there are 32.

The league also dropped its fees for businesses that want to sponsor a team from $350 to $200. Sponsors get their name on team shirts, a banner on the fences at the field and a plaque with the team picture. But Floyd said businesses are still balking, as they just don't have the spare cash.

Finally, the league has been hurt by declining sales at its concession stand. During the Feb. 28 opening day games, Floyd said sales were down almost 30 percent.

Parents might be coming out to the games, but they aren't willing to shell out $2 for a hamburger, $1 for a hot dog or $1.50 for a soda.

"I'm seeing a lot of people bringing coolers," Floyd said.

Kelly Clapper is a single mom with three boys in the Lehigh Acres Little League. She is paying the registration fees bit by bit by bit.

"The worst thing is: As soon as you're done with Little League, you have Pop Warner [football] coming up," Clapper said. "I just got the letter in the mail for that. That's $125 per kid."

Clapper runs her own cleaning business but with the collapse of new home construction in Florida, she is struggling. She also had an adjustable-rate mortgage but couldn't refinance and ended up losing her home to foreclosure.

"You hate to take it away from the kids, but times are so tough right now," she said. "I couldn't tell you the last time I took my kids to the movies, roller skating. I haven't done anything activity-wise with my boys.

"The price of everything keeps going up," she continued, "and the economy is so horrible."

Little League Baseball Scholarships

In Illinois, it's a similar story.

The South Elgin Little League has roughly the same number of players as last year but had to give out four times as many scholarships.

Parents there have "been out of work for, some of them up to a year, year and a half. It's not just one parent. Sometimes it's both parents in the household," said league president Greg Tredup. "The last thing you should do is cut out something for the kids so we're just accepting them."

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