NEW YORK -- Baseball and softball had nearly 25 million combined participants last year, more than any team sport in the United States, Major League Baseball announced during its quarterly Owners Meetings on Thursday.
The finding came from an annual report produced by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), which also showed a notable increase in participation for youth baseball and softball.
"Those numbers are really good news for us," Commissioner Rob Manfred said after the meetings adjourned. "We feel they're related to the investment baseball has been making through the Play Ball initiative. And, in fairness, even before that, in terms of the Major League Academies and the RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities) that began under Commissioner Bud Selig, improvements in youth participation in baseball are unique among team sports.
"It's not a trend that we're seeing with other team sports."
Results of the Topline Participation Report presented to the owners included:
• Overall baseball participation increased by 7.7 percent and slow-pitch softball participation increased by 8.1 percent in 2016, with casual participation in both baseball and slow-pitch softball showing the highest growth.
• Casual participation in baseball rose by 18.1 percent in 2016 and slow-pitch softball increased by 12.4 percent.
• Casual participation in baseball and slow-pitch softball is up 34 percent over the past five years.
• Baseball and fast- and slow-pitch softball have 10.25 million casual participants (not including those who play in organized leagues), more than any other team sport.
Play Ball, launched in 2015, is the sport's largest collective effort to encourage young people to participate in baseball- or softball-related activities, including formal leagues, special events and casual forms of play. These events have become MLB's signature youth-engagement activity. The initiative highlights the fun and community-focused natures of the game at the Major League, professional, amateur and youth levels.
• Play Ball
"While this progress is encouraging, we remain steadfast in furthering the many sport development initiatives that have helped to make this growth possible," said Paul Seiler, executive director/CEO of USA Baseball. "The collective effort being led by MLB, its 30 clubs, USA Baseball and USA Softball, as well as the support of the many national amateur organizations around the country, is having a discernible impact on families and communities in the United States."
The increase in youth participation speaks to a few factors, including the effectiveness of Play Ball, which is spearheaded by Tony Reagins, the Senior Vice President, Youth Programs, who oversees all of MLB's youth outreach. What should also not be overlooked is the exciting crop of 25-and-under MLB stars -- such as Michael Trout , Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, Aaron Judge and Carlos Correa -- who have energized young fans around the world.
"The growth in baseball and softball participation is significant as traditional team sports do not usually see these kind of double-digit increases," SFIA president and CEO Tom Cove said. "These numbers suggest something special is happening with baseball and softball. We believe basic efforts to put a ball, bat and glove in more young people's hands really connect with the joy of the game. The biggest increases are in casual participation, and this uptick represents a huge opportunity for the baseball and softball community to build ongoing and deeper player engagement with the game in the future."
More than 200 mayors will participate in Play Ball this summer to help encourage children to lead healthy and active lifestyles. "The numbers being released today on the growth of baseball and softball in our cities by young people shows that our efforts are working," Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said.
MLB adding Friday-night Facebook game
Manfred announced an agreement that will allow Facebook to carry a national game on Friday nights without blackouts.
"We're really excited about this," he said. "It's really important to us in terms of experimenting with a new partner in this area. The first game will be Friday, featuring the Reds and Rockies. The Twitter games that have previously been on Friday have been moved to Tuesday.
International Committee delivers report
In other developments announced Thursday, the International Committee reviewed the success of last year's World Baseball Classic and there was an update on the grassroots initiatives that are taking place in an attempt to increase baseball's footprint in Europe. The hope is to play games in Europe as early as 2019.
"It's something we'd really like to do," Manfred said. "We do think it's time, whether it's 2019 or shortly thereafter, that we play in Europe."
Manfred also addressed a common concern, that players who participate in the Classic are prone to injuries that impact their teams during the regular season.
"We actually reviewed injury data with the owners," he said. "Over time, including this year, there is no statistical difference between injury rates for players who participate in the WBC and those who don't."
"Process moving forward" on Marlins sale
Manfred disputed a report that Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria is having difficulty finding buyers for the team because his asking price is too high.
"I don't comment on sales processes while they're in the works," Manfred said. "[But] there are at least two bidders for the franchise. They are in relatively the same place in terms of price and they are in fact in the price range that Mr. Loria is looking for. Those are the facts. The process is moving forward."