Baseball reigns supreme at Sports at the Beach

June 18, 2021

Midweek in June, a smattering of cars spread across the expansive parking lots of Pete Townsend’s 90-acre Sports at the Beach complex just east of Georgetown.

Pinging sounds and laughter coming out of the propped-open door of a metal building near the entrance of the compound are all that break the country quiet.

Pickleball. A couple dozen players inside.

By Friday, the scene will change dramatically. Pickleball will slide down the scale from top billing to little more than a sideshow.

That’s when young baseball players – most of whom have never heard of pickleball – begin arriving with their families. Cars and vans will fill the parking lots. Little brothers and sisters will head for the pool or the fishing ponds. Moms and dads will begin checking schedules. Two hundred games are set for this weekend. The players will take to 16 different fields, swinging bats, catching and throwing balls, hollering around to each other, trying their hardest to score more runs than the other side.

It’s a Cinderella story – fields that become glittering carriages for three days each week, and then return to quiet fields for the other four. And it’s a Field of Dreams story. “Build it and they will come.” 

Over the course of each weekend – Friday, Saturday and Sunday – from spring until fall, dozens of teams from Delaware and surrounding states play hundreds of games in tournament fashion. Before winter weather stops the action, thousands of teams will have played thousands of games.

Good for the families, good for the players, good for the motels and restaurants at the beach and surrounding areas, good for the Delaware economy.

“Delaware’s economic development people figure that we generate about $50 million per year when you take it all into consideration,” said Townsend. “But not last year.”

Virus took heavy toll

As with many businesses in Delaware’s Cape Region, the coronavirus pandemic took a heavy toll – particularly at Sports at the Beach.

“In 2020, we were off 70 percent from 2019,” said Townsend. “In a normal year we pay out almost $500,000 just for umpires. Last year almost nothing. Travel bans really got us. In the summer, most of the teams playing here come from New York and New Jersey. That was shut down in 2020. This spring has been a little slow but it’s picking up, and I think we should get back to where we were in 2019 – more of a normal year. The grants and the PPP [federal Paycheck Protection Plan] have been a help. Hopefully the mess is over.”

Townsend opened Sports at the Beach in 2003. With two sons, and as a player himself, he had been big into Little League baseball. But he took notice. “I was against the whole travel team concept, but then I realized that Little League was typically over in the middle of June, and there were still plenty of kids who wanted to play more baseball and families who wanted them to have the opportunity.”

His thinking changed. He saw a complex in Cooperstown, N.Y., that attracted travel baseball teams from all over the region. “I thought I could do the same for softball. But when I opened the fields, we were overwhelmed by baseball.” He went with the flow.

“I had to choose one or the other. Softball players like dirt fields; baseball players like grass. There was more demand for baseball.”

Just how big is travel ball? 

“There are about 100-plus teams within a 50-mile radius of us. The Bombers organization has about 20 teams; Delmarva Aces another 40 teams; Mid-Atlantic Shockers another 25. There were only one or two when we started.”

Townsend is all about sports, adaptability and opportunity. In addition to baseball, he’s added Halloween events, archery golf, walking trails and other facilities geared to activity at Sports at the Beach. The indoor training facility he built for baseball now doubles during the day as indoor pickleball courts. “That’s worked out nicely,” he said. “It’s a great game and well suited for retirees moving here.”

When the Sussex Pines golf complex became available, Pete took that on, rebranding it as Mulligan’s Pointe. “That’s doing well,” said Pete. “Golf all across the country really picked up during the pandemic. Every golf course I know about has improved over the last year. People’s interest in the game is growing; they have disposable income because they couldn’t do other things, and I think the work-at-home phenomenon plays into it too.”

Baseball, though, remains the big deal at Sports at the Beach. “It’s still popular and not that much has changed about the game,” said Pete. “There’s still the same old arguing with the umpires, and complaining that kids are not getting enough playing time.”



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