Stats and chats: Web meets amateur sports

Technology: The Internet has brought an unprecedented amount of useful information -- quickly -- to parents and youths involved in leagues.

March 12, 2000|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

From registrations to rainouts, with stats and chats in between, adults and children alike in hot-wired Howard County are quickly learning how personal computers can improve amateur sports.

An array of Web sites -- several professionally done, others put together by parents with a dose of teen-ager involvement -- that have popped up in the last two years offer fascinating, sometimes frustrating, but ever-increasing insights into county teams, groups and leagues.

Example: For teams operating through Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks, updated results and standings are available, sometimes by the end of game day, or, at worst, the following day. Not long ago, getting that information out on paper took the better part of a week, not infrequently arriving after the completion of a subsequent game.

Example: Parents chat with one another, or no one in particular, about the various youth organizations.

"My son had a terrible experience with [one baseball group] last season, and I'd strongly advise you to stay away," one disgruntled parent wrote on a baseball bulletin board a few weeks ago. No details, just an indictment.

Such subjective grousing, of course, is simply an "e-variant" of the telephone and grocery-store exchanges parents started swapping about two weeks after youth leagues were invented. But on the Internet, it's widely available.

Example: Teen-age players in Bethesda -- where travel teams have recruited some of Howard County's better players -- and Columbia exchanged digs not long ago over the decline, both in success and number, of the Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County teams for high school girls in the highly competitive Washington Area Girls Soccer league.

Bulletin board trash-talk aside, that's a priority fix for SAC/HC this year. So say the minutes from its annual meeting in December -- posted on the group's Web site.

Example: Since last fall, officials in the Columbia Soccer Referees' Association have been able to check via the Internet on unassigned games before calling their scheduler for weekend jobs. On the same site: directions to any field you can think of.

Donn Lewis, the scheduler and a retired high-technology worker, wrote the program to simplify matching about 150 officials with an estimated 1,200 games in four leagues this spring. "It's faster, our billing's more accurate and it's just a better way to communicate," he said.

Janell Coffman, who designed and manages the county rec department's year-old location for leagues and teams, marvels at the response to it. "People love it," said Coffman, a self-taught Web master never far from a thick HTML-programming text.

Players and coaches not only check for results and standings, they send their material by e-mail. Rain-outs, she said, produce a quick kick-up in "hits" from those seeking revised schedules -- and fewer phone calls.

Jean Jaecksch, the department's registration/marketing coordinator, tracks the agency's second site, which contains its catalog. Two years ago, Jaecksch said, when the agency felt confident enough to advertise online registration, a mere 297 people replied. Last year, more than 4,000 did. On March 2, the department posted its new Spring-Summer catalog, and in the first five days received 995 online forms with payment by credit card -- nearly one-fourth of all registrations.

Growing pains are inevitable as technology improves and more people try computers. The sizable Howard County Youth Program is recovering from a spat brought about by replacing its site designer. But Howard Carolan, HCYP's president, said the computer definitely is here to stay in youth sports, although he thinks the heaviest use at the moment comes from a limited number of parents who are into cyber-anything.

Tom Bushong, president of the Savage Boys and Girls Club, which accepts registrations online, said one youth basketball coach discovered that all but one of his players had an e-mail address.

The Web contains a huge number of sites concerned with every sport, complete with coaching tips, information about related organizations, illustrated and animated pages on fundamentals -- and that's just at the youth level.

Two county youth groups use a free service started on a shoestring two years ago by Ed Carmon, a T-ball dad in Belle Mead, N.J. Teams and leagues customize and maintain their own sites. He and his clients can make money from advertising, he said. His is home to teams and leagues in 41 states and eight countries, Israel and South Africa among them.

One site that uses a different commercial designer is balky even on relatively new computers because of its memory-gagging multimedia features.

Still, as the Atholton Youth Recreation Association's site demonstrates, it's momentary fun -- unless you're in a hurry -- listening to a catchy rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" while the site loads.

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