EVERETT — Little League has been one of Bob Harns’ passions since he first volunteered as an umpire in 1986 with the North Everett charter.
That passion landed him in different roles over the years: as a proud parent watching sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters; as a league president from 2012 to 2017; and as one of the people who helped guide the North and South Everett charters through a merger in 2015.
He’s also witnessed a significant decline in participation over the past two decades.
According to Little League International director of media relations Kevin Fountain, participation in Little League baseball and softball worldwide has dropped 1.5 to 3 percent annually from its peak participation levels in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
In Snohomish County, there’s been a similar decline.
According to numbers provided by Everett Little League, participation from tee-ball to majors (ages 4-12) in baseball and softball fell from 530 players in 2015 to 405 this year, a drop of 24 percent.
Harns estimated that 15 years ago, before the merger, North Everett Little League alone drew about 700 players.
District 1, the governing body for all Little League charters in Snohomish County, doesn’t track participation numbers from year to year, district president Ed Lundberg said. Still, he said numbers clearly have dipped since Little League’s peak years, though some local leagues have plateaued of late.
“I don’t really see Little League losing a ton of numbers,” Lundberg said. “There’s sort of ebbs and flows with families and communities. We have some leagues that are dropping down a bit and we have some leagues with younger kids that are growing quite a bit. It’s really hard to say Little League or baseball or softball is losing interest.”
Marysville Little League has had its numbers hover around 500 since it combined its North and South charters five years ago, league president Brandy Hurley said.
Mukilteo Little League has hovered around 600 registered players and saw a tick up in tee-ball numbers this season, with the charter fielding 18 tee-ball teams when it typically fills 10 to 12, league president Ed Hansen said.
In Granite Falls, participation has plummeted over the past decade, though it recently took an upturn. A total of 159 players registered this year compared to 139 in 2018, league president Tom FitzGerald said.
In most areas, registration tends to be strongest among the younger age groups. “You definitely see attrition as you go through the age groups,” Hansen said.
In the heyday of the early 2000s, some local charters drew more than 1,000 kids per year.
The steady decline is a product of several factors, local officials said.
Josh Veals, the president of Everett Little League, offers a simple explanation: “There’s certainly a dip in the interest of baseball.”
The numbers bear that out.
Nationally, participation in baseball among youths ages 6 to 12 fell from 16.5 percent to 12.4 percent from 2008 to 2016, according to a report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association and the Aspen Institute.
The decline is not limited to baseball. The other “big four” youth sports in the United States — soccer, football (tackle and flag) and basketball — have fallen at least 2 percent in the same eight years, according to the same study.
Sport specialization is one reason suggested for the decline, but there are also more youth sports options than ever before, with sports such as lacrosse and hockey gaining popularity in Snohomish County in recent years. There also are more extracurricular activities, such as E-sports and STEM-type programs.
The proliferation of select — or travel — teams also has drawn players away from Little League.
“Fifteen years ago, there was no select baseball around here,” Harns said. “Some of the select coaches were (Little League coaches) that weren’t happy with Little League rules and they went and started their own team.”
Some players play both select and Little League, but time conflicts with tournaments and key Little League events make that difficult, if not impossible.
Little League baseball’s crown jewel is the Little League World Series in August in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, which is broadcast on the ESPN networks. But the popularity of the event has led to some negative consequences, Hansen said.
For example, the qualifying process for the tournament has been extended, with “All-Star” tournaments throughout the summer. That pushed up and condensed the regular season, forcing some leagues to start in February and end around Memorial Day, which Hansen said de-emphasizes the overall spirit of Little League.
“It’s so geared to All-Stars now that they’re getting away from that message that it’s about what is best for the kids,” Hansen said. “It’s geared toward the best kids and not about what’s best for everyone.”
It also makes it difficult to play games and practices during the turbulent weather in the early part of the season in the Puget Sound area.
With sign-ups occurring earlier in the year, it’s become more difficult to disseminate information to potential players, with many kids and families still fixated on winter sports.
With more and more variables impeding Little League in the modern era, officials are looking for ways to make the product more attractive.
The Challenger program, which was started in 1989 by Little League International to “enable boys and girls with physical and mental challenges … to enjoy the game of baseball along with millions of other children,” has been a success story for District 1 in recent years.
District 1 started its own Challenger program in 2015 with three teams. It’s doubled in size since then, according to Doug Sheldon, who spearheads the District’s Challenger’s program.
Many of Everett Little League’s coaches are enrolled in coaching clinics at BASE by Pros in Lynnwood, a baseball and softball training facility founded by former Lake Stevens and Oregon State player Mitch Canham — currently the manager of Class AA Arkansas in the Mariners’ minor-league system — and former Jackson High School, University of Washington and major-league player Brent Lillibridge.
The result: better and more personalized coaching.
“With less kids, we actually have some more opportunities to make it a better experience, because we don’t have 500 kids we’re trying to work with,” Harns said.
One area where Little League remains strong is in the dedication of its myriad volunteers.
Take Harns, for example. His children are adults and his grandchildren aren’t playing anymore — they’ve moved on to other activities. He has no dog in the fight.
But he still maintains a position on Everett Little League’s board of directors. Why? Because, he said, over the years he’s witnessed the impact Little League has on youngsters.
It’s the 8-year-old, in his first year playing baseball, receiving a round of applause for the first time in his life after making a catch in right field. It’s the stoic, awkward teenager, whose family can’t afford cleats or shoes, pinging his first hit and sporting a wide smile while standing on first base.
It’s why Little League is a worthwhile endeavor for Harns and others like him.
“That kid has got a memory for the rest of his life,” Harns said. “A lot of adults, we can’t remember last week. Adults that played ball, they remember those memories as a kid playing Little League. I always try and stress to our coaches that we’re more than just teaching baseball. We’re teaching them a lot of things about life.
“There’s just so many of those little things that happen that make it special.”