The National Softball Association is feeling the effects of the slowing economy and soaring gas prices.
The NSA Class B Girls Fastpitch World Series is being played in Rock Hill and Charlotte starting Monday, and the money pinch being felt nationwide has taken its toll. There are 106 teams signed up, way down from the 450 that came for the Class A World Series in 2005 and last year's event, which drew more than 300 teams and brought in an estimated 21,000 visitors.
The Class B World Series was last played in the area in 2001, with more than 300 teams competing.
Because numbers are down, the championship games in all but the 8-and-under bracket will be played Thursday instead of Saturday, as announced by NSA, at Cherry Park. The four teams in 8-and-under finish Tuesday at North Mecklenburg Park in Huntersville, N.C.
"This tournament should have at least 180 teams," said Charlotte's David Butler, the tournament director and the NSA's vice president.
"We feel like the economy is affecting vacation travel. A lot of families are rethinking their summer, not taking vacation time for softball. It's a national trend, not only for us but for other softball and baseball organizations."
The 106 teams registered on the organization's Web page -- playnsa.com -- illustrate Butler's views.
Of those teams, a little more than half are from the Carolinas, 46 from North Carolina and eight from South Carolina.
In good years, the World Series draws heavily from Florida, Tennessee, Louisiana and Georgia. Those states entered eight teams this year: six from Florida, one each from Tennessee and Louisiana and none from Georgia. So don't expect to see red and black T-shirts of past years with "Who Let The Dogs Out" printed on the back.
There are 20 teams from Virginia, but after South Carolina's eight, the list drops to seven from Ohio.
The NSA went to a new format last year at the urging of college softball coaches. The request was to move the 18-and-under age group to another location so coaches wouldn't be moving from field to field to see players they wanted to recruit.
Butler said the move would likely stay in place in coming years. He said both tournaments are being played this week, with Class B in Birmingham Ala., and Class A in Columbus, Ohio, with a 284-team field.
Regardless of the dwindling numbers, the teams coming to town this week will offer some good softball, and anyone who wishes to come see the games can do so free of charge.
Games begin Monday at five fields: Cherry Park (12U) and Hargett Park (12U, 16U) in Rock Hill; Hornets Nest Park (14U) and Nevin Park (14U) in Charlotte; and North Mecklenburg Park (8U, 10U) in Huntersville.
Hosting back-to-back NSA World Series is a feather in the cap for the recreation departments from Rock Hill and Charlotte. Seldom does an area get awarded a big NSA event two straight years.
"The people in Rock Hill know how to run a tournament," Butler said. "They are probably the most experienced tournament promoters NSA deals with."
Jim Armour of the Rock Hill Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department agreed with Butler that the souring economy has had its toll. But he is enthusiastic about the World Series being back in town and expects the softball in Rock Hill to be as much as local fans could ask for.
"We cut out three complexes because of the low numbers, but Hargett will be full through Wednesday and teams move to Cherry Park with the other age groups for Thursday's championships," he said. "We feel fortunate to be a host again and believe it's because of our reputation."
The World Series gets its official kickoff today at the Carowinds Paladium, when the teams will meet at 9:30 a.m. for the opening ceremonies. Included in the program will be the crowning of Miss NSA in each of the age groups.
On Monday, teams will exchange gifts with the other team in their opening-round games.
On Tuesday, the teams will travel to Knights Stadium for Pin Swap Night from 6-9 p.m. Travis D from eXtreme DJ Entertainment will MC the event.
It will also include the Parade of Teams Competition, where teams will be rated in three categories: Banner (design), Spirit (cheers ad singing) and Dress (costume/uniform).