Fans look for answers as softball activity decreases

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Marcia Nelesen
Friday, February 22, 2013

— Where have all the softball teams gone?

And why?

Those are questions Janesville city officials and softball enthusiasts are asking as the number of teams playing at Dawson Ball Fields declines.

About 166 teams played at Dawson in 2002 compared to 112 in 2012, a drop of more than 30 percent.

Some say the city is missing out on needed revenue because it doesn’t sponsor tournaments.

“It’s a sad commentary when you see Dawson empty on a Saturday,” said Steve Knox, chairman of the Janesville Leisure Services Committee.

Since 2008, revenue from Dawson has been flat, but expenses have grown.

In 2008, revenue was $63,344, and expenses were $88,553 for a recovery rate of 77 percent.

In 2012, revenue was $64,191, but expenses were $103,269 for a recovery rate was 62 percent.

Concession stand income is not included in the numbers.

Shelley Slapak, recreation director, said the 2012 numbers include repairs to equipment.

Players and others point to a variety of factors for Dawson’s dwindling teams, including rising fees, the economy, a reduction in umpires, facility condition and an ordinance that banned beer sales.

Last year the city council reduced money staff had requested for repairs at Dawson.

After residents complained about the condition of the fields, city council members in January asked recreation staff to estimate the cost to get the facility into top shape. That estimate has not yet been calculated.

Staff and softball players hope a recent council choice to allow beer sales during regular leagues games will bring teams back to Dawson, even as another one-time popular venue, Back O’ the Yards, reopens its softball fields this summer.

In an effort to attract more teams, the recreation department this year lowered fees from $550 to $500 a team. It also will take over the concession stand to raise more revenue.

“Looking at our softball program, we need to make changes,” Slapak told the council.

She attributes some of the decrease in participants to teams that used to play several nights a week but now play one night a week.

‘A home run’

One resident, Josh Golberg, told council members he likes Dawson and switched a tournament he organized from Milton to

Dawson after the council last year allowed beer sales at Dawson tournaments.

The tournament attracted 40 teams from around the state and raised $5,000 for American Legion Baseball. Golberg is organizing the same tournament at Dawson this year.

Participants stayed in city motels, ate in city restaurants and drank at city bars, Golberg said.

Golberg has played softball at Dawson since he was 14 and is passionate about the sport and the venue.

Golberg called Dawson “first class.” It has four fields at the same complex, two more than any other city in the area. He said the city should capitalize on the facility and host tournaments to bring in revenue.

“They don’t know what they have,” Golberg said. “The fact that they don’t run tournaments down there is an enormous waste of a great resource.

“I think they really hit a home run (when the council allowed) beer for tournaments,” he said. “I think they are on the right track. They have to keep that momentum.”

The city needs to make a few changes, such as improving the playing surfaces, to host statewide tournaments, Golberg said.

Now, players find rocks in the infield large enough to bounce a groundball into a fielder’s teeth, he said. Players are hesitant to slide because of the rocks.

The warning track needs replacement, too, he said.

That contrasts with Milton’s field, where playing surfaces are “phenomenal,” Golberg said.

“I just see how popular the sport is getting,” Golberg said. “It’s becoming big business with tournaments nationwide and statewide. When you get to the local level at Janesville, I’ve seen nothing but a decline, and yet you have places (like) Milton who have a waiting list.

“Dawson, when I started, no matter when you played, all four fields were full. They were rocking,” he said.

“My question is, ‘Where did all the teams go?’”

The decline in numbers would be devastating this year if the council hadn’t approved beer sales now that Back O’ the Yards is opening, he predicted.

“If they hadn’t done that, I’d be hard-pressed to see anybody else (at Dawson) but the church league,” Golberg said.

New competition

Dennis Muth is manager at Back O’ the Yards Sports Complex. He will run two fields every night and charge each team $450—with a $50 break for teams playing more than one night—for 14 games and a league tournament.

He expects to have 70 teams playing in three years, the same number he had when play at the yards stopped 16 years ago.

Muth said beer at Dawson should help the city draw teams, but he said the cost at Dawson should get most of the blame for the decline in team numbers at the city facility.

“I think Janesville priced itself out,” Muth said.

Janesville also charged extra for players who lived outside the city.

“That really gave a lot of people a bad taste in their mouths, and they left,” Muth said.

“Over the years, they’re playing in Clinton, Milton … they’re playing at Turtle Tap, they’re playing in Beloit and as far away as Rockford,” he said. “When they leave, it takes a long time to get them back.”

Dawson, in its day, was a top facility and could be once again, Muth said. It has four fields, adequate parking and a central concession stand. But the warning track is soft, and the infields are rough, he said.

“Softball needs to really get back in the city of Janesville … to create revenue for everyone,” he said.

Knox agreed.

Softball in general has resurged in the last five to 10 years, Knox said, but Janesville has seen a decline.

“Is it just because of the alcohol?” he asked rhetorically. “No, probably not. The full spectrum is something we have to look at.”

Some of the lower numbers can be attributed to the loss of the Industrial League when Parker Pen and General Motors closed.

The recreation department recently made improvements at Dawson, such as installing safety nets above the bleachers and upgrading the concession stands, which Knox said were “sparse” last year. It will also replace worn batting boxes and spruce up the bathrooms this summer.

But the department needs a groundskeeper who understands field maintenance, Knox said.

There is no reason Dawson couldn’t host tournaments and make money for the city, Knox said.

“It needs to be full. I think it’s going to be full in the next few years. I really do.”

Slapak said playing softball is more expensive in Janesville because the facility is larger and the upkeep greater than in other cities.

The city charges $500 for 12 weeks and holds playoffs for the top four teams.

Slapak stressed that Dawson hosts 112 teams, and no other area venue hosts as many.

The non-profit and non-paid Milton Softball Association runs softball in Milton. As many as 40 teams play over four nights on one field. Leagues are full and officiated by two umpires.

Costs range from $475 to $575 for 14 to 18 weeks of play.

Residents can bring their own coolers to games.

The Milton league saw a jump five years ago, and numbers have been holding steady, said Stephen Schantz, association vice president.

Beloit runs its programs on two fields in different parts of the city, said Sonya Baden, recreation coordinator. Play runs 14 weeks with a single elimination tournament. Early bird registration is $455.

Beloit had 40 teams in 2012 and about 50 the year before.

“It’s an expensive sport to play,” Baden said.

She believes the economy has impacted numbers. Businesses that sponsored four or five teams now are sponsoring one or two. At the same time, residents who played four and five times a week aren’t playing as much.

Beloit does not allow beer sales at games, and that’s another hurdle the program faces, she said.

“Our big push is quality,” she said.

Dawson improvements

Janesville Councilman Jim Farrell asked for a report on Dawson field conditions and the cost to improve them, noting the city just spent “significant” money on its golf courses.

“I’d like to get an idea: What would it take to make that facility a first-class facility?” he asked.

“I appreciate that you’re going to do some minor repairs,” he said. “It sounds to me you need to do a lot more on that.”

Said Councilman Russ Steeber: “If the fields are lousy, you’re not going to attract anybody.”

Slapak said she hopes to host volunteer work days to spruce up the facility.

She also is hiring a recreation programmer, and she will use the extra staff time to sponsor a tournament this summer as an experiment.

“If you have the right staff person and they have the time, they would be successful,” Slapak said.

Last updated: 8:08 am Monday, April 29, 2013

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