Little League says baseball, softball participation on rise this season after pandemic

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- Little League International says participation in its baseball and softball leagues was up this season, and team managers are optimistic about another bump next year coming off the first full-scale Little League World Series since the pandemic.

After the number of participating teams dropped 7% from 2020 to 2021, mostly because of COVID-19, the organization saw a 17% rebound this season, Little League spokesman Kevin Fountain told The Associated Press on Thursday.

Little League's baseball and softball programs now reach approximately 2 million children in 80 countries, he said. The growth comes amid a push by Major League Baseball to reach young fans by encouraging bat flips and engaging them on TikTok, among other initiatives.

This year's Little League World Series is the first since 2019 to include international teams. The 2020 tournament was canceled due to COVID-19, and only American teams competed last year.

Australia's representative in the Williamsport area this week was the first LLWS team to come from Brisbane North Little League in Queensland. They were eliminated after two games but still hope to have made an impact Down Under.

"Hopefully what we've done here will encourage more and more boys and girls to play," Australia manager Keith Land said. "Back home, we've already had our sign-ons for the next season, and numbers in our region have just blown up. Everyone wants to play again because they've read this story."

Youth baseball participation in the U.S. was steadily increasing pre-pandemic, according to annual surveys from 2013 to 2018 by the Sports Fitness & Industry Association. The Aspen Institute also reported a 3% increase in participation among 6-to-12 year olds between 2015 and 2018.

The surge appears to have resumed, and not just in the U.S.

"I'm sure we'll see a spike in registrations," Canada manager Ulysses Yan said. "From what I hear back home, it's all over the news, and people are following and loving it across the country. Just want to hopefully promote baseball in Canada."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, even a local American team making a trip to South Williamsport can boost interest.

Hollidaysburg, a town of about 6,000 just 124 miles away from the Little League World Series complex, represented the Mid-Atlantic Region this year. It's the first team from Hollidaysburg in LLWS history, and it won three games before getting knocked out by Texas.

"We're talking to a lot of different people that have younger kids and kids that are 1 and 2 years old. Boys, girls - all sorts of different people that are excited to come and be a part of this and see that the dream is possible," Hollidaysburg manager Jim McGough said. "We're excited to get home when everything's finished and help the next group to be able to have this dream as well."