Growth and decline in local Little Leagues

Myriad factors have contributed to fluctuating participation rates around the area.

  • By
  • | 12:47 p.m. March 10, 2016
  • Sports
  • Share

WEST ORANGE COUNTY  Most Americans remember a time when Little League was one of a select few major children’s athletic programs in the U.S., with widespread high participation numbers.

But in recent years, a growing number of youth athletic options and the descent of baseball from atop America’s collective athletic consciousness have contributed to a general decline in Little League popularity.

In West Orange County, results have been polar, from dwindling or even defunct leagues to growing leagues that might produce a new one.

While shifts in culture have caused declines in Little Leagues closer to north Orlando, the development boom in Horizon West has led to increased participation in Winter Garden and Windermere — to the point some wonder whether a Horizon West Little League will emerge.

“That just depends on the individual people within that area,” said Debbie Dobbs, District 14 district administrator overseeing Dr. Phillips, Ocoee, South Lake, Windermere and Winter Garden Little Leagues. “It's all about volunteers and people to start those programs. Winter Garden will be fine with keeping the growth as long as they have places to play, but … they’ll go to a division format at some point, just like Windermere.”

Windermere currently has the largest Little League in District 14. It had to be split into two divisions based on the number of players or teams in its Majors Division (11- and 12-year-olds), and officials at Little League headquarters in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, will determine when Winter Garden is at that point, Dobbs said. 

Matt Eidelmann, president of Winter Garden Little League, said 3- to 8-year-olds have represented the biggest spike in participation. The increase in players by almost 70 this spring tops the district by far, and it should cause that divisional split next summer, he said.

The starkest contrast to this is eastern neighbor Ocoee, which president Gary Hood said has consistently had 200 to 250 players, based on league lines he would like to see readjusted but that Dobbs said Williamsport officials froze in 2007.

“At one time, District 14 went all the way out to Eustis … and then reduced us down to our current five, plus Rolling Hills and Pine Hills,” Hood said. “In Rolling Hills and Pine Hills, you have other sports that have picked up in the area … Basketball goes year-round; soccer goes year-round … so you have kids that have more choices of athletics … not to mention, too, travel ball in the last several years has come on strong.”

Those Pine Hills and Rolling Hills leagues died in part because of children seeking other sports and sedentary activities, Dobbs said. Although MLB has invested in its Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program and seen some results, urban communities have overwhelmingly transitioned from 1980s peaks in youth baseball participation to football and basketball — which are also declining.

But Dr. Phillips, a more suburban area on the city’s edge, has not followed that trend. Todd Hockenberry, Dr. Phillips Little League president, said his league has grown from 225 children in fall 2013 and 353 players in spring 2013 to 390 participants in fall 2015 and 413 registrants so far for this spring. He said expanding programs and facilities has helped to meet a growing demand in his area.

“Our trend in the last three years has been pretty significantly moving up, and … our neighborhoods are not as new as, say, Winter Garden’s area,” Hockenberry said. “We have some new areas over on the south end of (County Road) 535 … but DP is not really building a lot of new homes, so we've been really marketing hard to try to reach other families and more kids, and frankly try to compete to put a better product on the field.”

From Dobbs’ perspective, leagues thrive or wither based primarily on volunteer support, citing MetroWest as another locale where numbers dwindled. Parents are less willing to volunteer in general today, which has led to a shortage even at her district level, she said.

“I wish they understood how important it is, because people say they're too busy, but I can recall being a single parent and being (heavily involved) and this job and worked, too, full-time,” she said. “I have a staff of 11, and a lot of them are past presidents and have been with me for a long time. But at some point, I'm going to retire from doing that, and I can't find anyone to take it over for me.”

Ed Simonetta, Windermere Little League president, attested to volunteers keeping that league so populated despite having the smallest area in the district.

“We like having the kids playing to keep an interest in baseball with other sports,” Simonetta said. “We know we have a great program that’ll continue to get kids to play with … great support from the communities around it and the businesses.”


Contact Zak Kerr at [email protected]


Related Articles