Will travel ball put local leagues out of business?

jonbuzby@hotmail.comApril 29, 2012 

The other night, I had a discussion with a former coaching colleague about whether the overwhelming popularity of travel baseball will someday replace Little League and other community sports leagues.

Little League baseball, perhaps the oldest and most tradition-rich youth sports league in the world, even changed its postseason rules to accommodate travel baseball players, fearing that if it didn't, even more would migrate permanently to the organization's newest competitor.

Over the years, Little League baseball has often been imitated, but never equaled. There is only one Little League, one Williamsport, and one magical summer weekend when even the non-sports fan can't help but tune in to watch boys play their favorite game on national television.

But with the ever-increasing popularity of travel sports, can local community leagues such as Little League survive?

It used to be that only the best athletes played travel sports. Today, as long as a parent is willing to commit the money and time, a travel team can be found for a player of any skill level.

There are definitely advantages to playing on a travel team: Playing as many games in one weekend tournament as a traditional league does in an entire month; playing against top competition; not having to line the base paths, umpire a game or work in the concession stand; and traveling to new and sometimes exciting places.

And yet I would argue that there are several aspects of community sports leagues that can't be found in travel baseball, and none of them involve hitting home runs or scoring a lot of goals.

Community leagues give parents and players just that -- a sense of community. They can take pride in their home field and stadium. And there's always that feeling of being at home at the ballpark, even if your team is wearing the away jerseys.

Playing in a community-based league is about playing with and against your friends. It's about a parent sitting on a lawn chair in the outfield cheering for a neighbor, who happens to be playing for the opposing team.

Not once during my 10-plus trips to a travel tournament at a baseball complex two hours from my house did I ever feel at home, despite spending more hours there over two summers than I ever did during my son's eight years of Little League baseball.

I don't write this column to diminish the value of travel sports or to suggest they should or will ever go away.

I just hope I never have to write a column titled, "Whatever happened to Little League?"

Reach Jon Buzby at jonbuzby@hotmail.com and follow him @JonBuzby on Twitter.

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