Image: Girls play softball in Elkhart, Indiana
Jim Seida  /  msnbc.com
Watching from behind a new wood fence, spectators cheer at a Little League softball game at Baugo Township Field in Elkhart, Ind. Rather than replace broken fences at the field, the league accepted a donation of plywood and posts. The plain is to get sponsor banners on the fence.
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updated 7/1/2009 5:31:18 PM ET 2009-07-01T21:31:18

On a recent Saturday morning at the Baugo Township Little League Complex just west of the Elkhart, Ind., city limits, nothing is going to stop the fields from being full of children playing baseball and softball.

Not the unseasonably cool 50-degree temperatures. Not the muddy fields, soaked from hard-raining thunderstorms that slowly churned through overnight. Not the intermittent light rain wetting the blankets mothers are sheathed in to shield themselves against the cold. And most certainly not the economic downturn you see in the quiet plants and for-sale signs as you make your way west on Mishawaka Road toward the five-diamond complex.

The people of Elkhart, and everywhere else, are giving up on a lot of niceties and necessities in this recession. But one of the last to go is activities for their kids.

“If you have to give up a pack of cigarettes or go from an expensive steak to a cheap steak, you do it,” said Matt Johnson, a lineman for a communications company, as he watched his 10-year-old daughter play softball at Baugo. “This is the last thing you give up. Children being active is the best thing that can happen.”

Johnson is standing alone along the fence that runs up the first-base line, past the bleachers and into right field, calling out to his daughter by his nickname for her: Tater Tot. Tater Tot isn’t just playing — she's providing about all the entertainment the Johnson family will get this spring and summer.

Even if Johnson’s wife hadn't hurt her back in a slip-and-fall, the family wouldn't be traveling anymore, owing to the slowdown in her business that picks up and pulls cargo trailers. The family would go all over the country with her as she picked up loads.

Johnson said he has been told his job won't exist in two years. Johnson said the family is cutting back wherever it can, especially in its grocery bill, eating a lot more deer meat shot by Johnson, an avid hunter.

“Anything to save money,” he said. “If you save $5, it's $5 you can spend on your child.”

Parents might be cutting back a bit when it comes to spending on sports for their kids, but for the most part they still see youth league participation as a “good buy,” said Dan Doyle, founder of the Rhode Island-based Institute for International Sport and the co-author of The Encyclopedia of Sports Parenting.

“In any time of economic duress ... everyone looks for affordable options," Doyle said. "The attractive thing about youth league participation is that it is, for the most part, pretty affordable. ... The other component is that parents look upon this youth sports experience as one with great benefits," such as learning teamwork and fair play, and getting exercise.

Jennifer Shephard  /  The Elkhart Truth file
Concord pitcher Josh Hudnall, left, applies a late tag as Mishawaka's Anthony Piraccini slides safely into third base during action at Baugo on June 12, 2008.
National youth sports participation figures are hard to come by, and they’re not always a true indicator. Little League participation has declined over the past few years, but it's not a sign of that parents are waving an economic white flag at youth sports. Several local leagues have gone independent of Little League or affiliated with the Pony or Cal Ripken organizations, and many kids have left Little League for travel teams.

Just like in previous years, about 400 kids are signed up for Baugo's teams, from 5-year-olds in T-ball to 17-year-olds in what's called Major League. Most baseball leagues in the Elkhart area are reporting participation equal or better than previous years. If parents can't come up with the $40-60 to sign up their child, the leagues are offering payment plans or waiving fees. Parents who have extra money are paying for those who are going through rough times. Grandparents are pitching in.

With Elkhart’s high unemployment rate, the league has struggled to get the sponsorship and fund-raising money necessary to keep kids on the field, especially the ones whose parents are going through hard times.

The closing of plants hit leagues' sponsor bases hard. Baugo's 17 board members made cold calls and went door-to-door in nearby industrial parks to drum up business, offering discounts or letting sponsors get their names on three teams for the price of two, said board member Lee Hanna. A lack of sponsorship was one reason Drew had planned to shut down one Titans baseball travel team this year.

Eric Brewer, who in January opened a pub in downtown Elkhart, spent $250 for a sponsorship in the Concord Township Little League after being approached by one of his son's former T-ball coaches. He hadn't planned on sponsoring a team, but “somebody sponsored my son’s team so he could play, and now I’m doing it in return.”

However, Concord president Steve Boyer said the league next year might have to raise its fee, now at $40, for the first time in five years because its fundraising is down from $34,000 in previous years to about $17,000 this year.

Meanwhile, the economy is hurting the Elkhart YMCA’s ability to help give struggling families a discount or no payment for sports. The reason, said senior program director Jim Sharp, is that it uses proceeds from gains in a foundation started with $30,000 by former NBA All-Star and Elkhart native Shawn Kemp, who as a kid snuck into the Y to play basketball after hours.

Elkhart hasn’t had to deal with a problem afflicting cities such as Anaheim, Calif., Gilbert, Ariz., Merrimack, N.H., — cutbacks or threatened cuts in publicly run youth sports programs because of falling tax proceeds, or rental fees for public fields hiked significantly because of the same.

Boarded-up homes
Still, there are signs in Elkhart of what happens if money gets to be too much trouble for parents, or if the community starts to break down due to the economic downturn.

One league suffering a decline in participation is the Elkhart Fraternal Order of Police Little League, located in the central part of the city, near neighborhoods pock-marked with for-rent signs and empty, boarded-up homes. Its participation has dropped from 250 in 2007, to 175 in 2008 (the year its fields were flooded out by the nearby Elkhart River) to 125 in 2009.

Amanda Knapp's son Josh is 4 years old, but already a three-sport athlete: basketball, swimming and soccer. The nurse's assistant isn't sure how long that can last. Her husband lost his factory job at an Elkhart pallet manufacturer at the beginning of the year, and now they have a baby due in January.

"He's so young ... but it costs so much," she said. "It's $60-70 to join, plus you have to take him to buy his cleats, and his own ball. He knows when he wants a certain toy that mommy doesn't have the money."

Still, parents and leagues hope that even as the unemployment rate refuses to fall in Elkhart, they can find a way to get kids on the field.

At Baugo, one upside of high unemployment is a lot more volunteers willing to come out and coach, maintain the fields, or do whatever is necessary to keep the league running. (It can also be a place to network. Boyer said one coach at Concord was able to hook up the father of one of his players with a job.)

Jennifer Shephard  /  The Elkhart Truth file
Concord center fielder Malcom Deshone attempts a diving catch on a fly ball at the Baugo Township Little League Complex on June 12, 2008.
The Baugo league itself has had to cut corners and take help where it can. Rather than replace some broken fences on its girls' softball field, it accepted a donation of plywood and posts — and the labor to put them up — worth $2,200, Hanna said. The plain is to get sponsor banners on there eventually, but for now they stand out next to the chain-link fences with yellow, plastic tubing that are present on the other fields.

Brian Magyar has four kids, three boys ages 16, 13 and 11, and a girl who is 8. On this mid-May morning at Baugo, he's talking through the dugout fence to give a little extra instruction to his 11-year-old. His economic situation is tenuous. He's taken a pay cut as a manager at a pontoon boat manufacturer, though the factory workers are worse off, now building boats only three days a week.

However, he has a hard time imagining himself and the parents at Baugo, which feeds into Jimtown High, a perennial Indiana small-school athletic power, pulling back from youth sports.

"As slow as [the economy] is, people are still getting their kids involved," Magyar said. After all, "it's not their fault."

Still, specialized and advanced programs seem to be thriving in many hard-hit towns.

Brett and Kristi Eldridge, the owners of The Elkhart Sports Center, an indoor complex that hosts indoor soccer and basketball, said business has been as good as it has been since its 2003 opening and that it might need to expand facilities related to sports instruction. The Elkhart YMCA soccer program and Elkhart Flames travel soccer, playing the same mid-May weekend as Baugo, reported they are not wanting for children.

Jose Martinez, who works in production for Forest River, an Elkhart recreational vehicle manufacturer, has two sons on two different Flames teams. Martinez, who played league soccer as a child in his native Honduras, said he gladly spent the $360 in travel team fees despite being sole breadwinner for a family of seven (including four kids and two grandsons) since his wife lost her job in April.

“I pay a lot of money, but it’s OK,” Martinez said. “This is good for the boys, fun for my boys. They can play soccer, baseball, basketball, or they can sit down in the house, watching TV. That is not good.”

More expensive travel teams are not wanting for kids, either. John Drew, who runs the Elkhart Titans travel baseball program, said he was going to drop his 15-year-old division because of a lack of players, going so far as to move his own 15-year-old son to the 17-year-old team so he could play. But then parents began rushing to sign up their kids, and the 15-year-old division was brought back.

Youth sports is moving from beyond the realm of looking recession-proof to being developed as an economic engine. Just as large cities trying to make a name for themselves built enormous stadiums to attract major-league teams, small towns and suburbs across the country are building or planning massive sports complexes to match the success of the National Sports Center in Blaine, Minn., opened in 1990.

Or they may try to follow the example of Columbus, Ind., a city of 40,000 that reported $16 million in economic impact for youth sports events in 2008. In the northern Indianapolis suburb of Westfield (population 24,000), Mayor Andy Cook has announced plans for a $1.5 billion development centered on a $60 million youth sports complex for baseball, soccer and other sports with the goal of making Westfield the self-proclaimed "Family Sports Capital of America."

Eleven miles northwest of Elkhart In Edwardsburg, Mich., population 1,147, ground is expected to break this summer for the first eight acres of what is planned as a 102-acre complex hosting soccer, football and baseball. A nonprofit group said it has raised $1.7 million of the $4 million it needs to complete the project, which it notes is twice the size of the region's major sports complex, Newton Park in Lakeville, population 567. However, Newton Park, 25 miles southwest of Elkhart, will continue to hold a local monopoly on youth auto racing, thanks to a track built by the park's benefactors, the owners of locally based racing tire maker Hoosier Tire.

Jennifer Shephard  /  The Elkhart Truth file
Edwardsburg's Mariah Murphy drinks water as she sits in the dugout with a wet towel on her head before the start of action at Osolo Wednesday, June 11, 2008.
Twenty-four local convention and visitors bureaus or sports authorities in Indiana have joined an effort called Sports Indiana, designed to promote the state for sports tourism, particularly attracting youth tournaments. The National Sports Center has never sat tight in the face of this competition, expanding sports and planning a “sports mall,” a retail center geared to all of the center's young visitors. The leading idea for what to do with the former Dodgertown, the Los Angeles Dodgers' spring training complex in Vero Beach, Fla., is to turn it into a youth sports complex attracting national teams.

“It’s almost like an arms race,” said Patrick Rishe, an associate professor of economics at Webster University who runs a company called Sportsimpact.net. It is hired by localities seeking to assess the economic impact of current and possible sporting events, particularly youth sports tournaments. “You make the weapons so you have them in case you need them. You make the case locally that we need to build or we will assure ourselves of not being able to attract those visitor dollars.”

Elkhart Truth: Cutting costs in Little League
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