NEW BRITAIN - Despite long being a staple of summertime youth athletics, American Legion baseball in this state is beginning to struggle for survival.
The New Britain PAL Legion baseball team announced last week it was cancelling the rest of its season due to a lack of participation from its players.
After starting the season with 14 players on its roster, New Britain was down to just seven before ending its season.
New Britain is just the latest in a growing trend in Connecticut American Legion baseball. With its exit, the state now has just 64 active 19U teams, down from 72 last season.
But the problem goes beyond this state. American Legion State Chairman Dave Greenleaf, a Bristol resident, said states around the country are seeing the same trend.
“We are concerned nationally as well,” Greenleaf said. “We have lost two states since the season started, but there are some states that don’t even have teams anymore.”
Greenleaf believes the growing popularity of AAU ball has had a coorelation to the decreasing interest in Legion.
“I think there is this perception about AAU that, if kids want to have success in college, they have to join AAU,” Greenleaf said. “The cost to play AAU is more as well. So it’s like a ‘if I pay more, I get more’ belief, which I don’t necessarily agree with.”
Paul LaFleur, the general manager for the Bristol Legion team, also serves as a state committee member. He said the state is aware of the waning teams and thinks there are a variety of issues causing the problem, based upon his conversations with coaches around the state.
“In talking amongst various programs, it has become a … problem financially,” LaFleur said. “Some programs have to seek out their own fund-raising and it’s difficult to raise enough to fund an entire team.”
New Britain head coach Mark Bernacki believes the diminishing interest in Legion baseball could be due to kids simply having other things to do, along with the growing popularity of other sports.
“I think there are a lot of competing options for the youths’ time these days,” Bernack said. “Video games and esports are huge right now. Baseball has waned nationally in terms of popularity, with growing leagues like the NBA and NFL. The game becomes less appealing.”
For perspective, the viewership for the MLB regular season has dropped in each of the past five years. On the other hand, in 2018, the NBA had its highest-rated regular season in the last four seasons.
LaFleur echoed Bernacki’s thoughts on the competition during the summer, suggesting that players are busy with other tasks than playing another season of baseball.
“I think now there is just so much going on in summer, more so than in the past,” LaFleur said. “Kids are choosing to do other things, like working jobs or extra schooling or playing some other sport.”
Gary Van Etten, Berlin’s head coach, said he has noticed the trend as well, but is not entirely sure why it’s happening.
“I think everybody can speculate, but I can’t really think of a specific reason, which is unfortunate,” Van Etten said. “What we try, is to keep the kids interested and keep the costs down. We try to keep in touch with the kids year round. We just try to keep focused on our own team.”
Van Etten also expressed disappointment with the fate of New Britain’s program. He commended Bernacki and general manager Barry Hertzler on the job they did this year. Van Etten also admitted that he is relieved his program has remained strong, despite it being a smaller size.
“We’re only drawing kids from one school [Berlin High School], but we’ve been pretty consistent with what we do,” Van Etten said. “I’m very happy with our program, where we are going and what we are doing.”
LaFleur is part of a Bristol program that also has yet to see the effects of this trend. He highlighted the history of its 90-year program and being the state’s winningest team as a key factor.
“We think we have a history that supports our program each year with new recruits,” LaFleur said. “We had 53 players try out this year. More players try out than we can accept. Sometimes we have to waive players to other programs, which we had to do this year.”
The State Committee is currently discussing a variety of repsonses to help combat the trend. It developed a video that features college coaches saying they wanted to see high school kids playing Legion ball, but the video was nixed by the national chapter.
Other changes include a Futures Showcase for the players to attend, allowing players to participate in other college showcases and re-zoning the league next year, decreasing the number of zones from eight to six.
Connecticut remains a prominent home for competitive baseball at a high school level, but there is no denying that the landscape of American Legion is changing.
“We are still the sixth biggest state, in terms of the numbers of teams,” Greenleaf said. “But there is still concern. I think Legion baseball used to be about playing for your hometown and playing with your friends. But now I think there is more of a concern over how the players can better themselves.”
Tyler Roaix can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org