Somebody Threw a Screwball

The Southwest Denver Little League should have made money with its bingo fundraisers. So why is $250,000 missing?

While the reach of Little League has spread, the number of kids playing Little League baseball seems to be dropping off. That doesn't necessarily mean fewer kids are interested in baseball, although the growth of sports such as soccer may be cutting into the pool of child athletes. But whereas Little League once had little competition, today there are dozens of rival baseball organizations, particularly in cities.

"Where I live, I could join six different baseball leagues," says Mike Duff, current president of Southwest Denver Little League. Still, he says, he decided his boys would play Little League for a common reason: "It's what I played when I grew up."

It's not a choice everyone is making, at least in Colorado. Lance VanAuken, director of media relations for Little League in Williamsport, claims that two-thirds of baseball-playing kids in this country still take their cuts and field balls in Little League. But in Colorado, that number is shrinking. Two years ago, 19,000 Colorado kids played in the baseball leagues sponsored by Little League. Last year there were a few more than 17,000. (The number of kids--mostly girls--playing in the state's Little League softball leagues has stayed constant.)

The trend--plus recent internal strife--seems to have hit Southwest Denver Little League particularly hard. The league, which encompasses an area roughly from 38th Avenue south to C-470, and Monaco Boulevard west to Kipling Boulevard, once claimed as many as seventy teams. Thus year, Duff says, the league is fielding only 25.

Still, it takes a lot of money to sustain so much organization and so many kids. And like everything else, it takes more and more money each year. "It's just like the cost of living," says VanAuken. "The price of everything has gone up."

Adds Terry Eldred, secretary for the league's western region, in San Bernardino: "Before, you used to be able to get so much donated. But equipment has become so expensive. Even fundraisers are more expensive to put on. And I remember when you could go to a city park and just play there. Now you have to pay for permits, lights, umpires."

Southwest Denver Little League is no exception. Duff says this year the league will pay about $13,000 for field permits. (Most games are played on the two fields at Federal Boulevard and 5th Avenue. Duff says the league used to play some games on Denver Public Schools fields until two years ago, when the school district raised the fee from 50 cents a night to $10 an hour.)

With the costs climbing every year, Southwest Denver Little League consistently has been forced to raise the fees it charges players to take the field. This year, kids twelve and under each were asked to pony up a $45 registration fee. (Not everyone pays the full amount; there are scholarships based on need.) For seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds, the fee is $100. And that's not including the additional $1 and $2 Denver Parks and Recreation fee (for non-city residents) or the $30 that every child is expected to come up with from the mandatory annual candy sale.

Indeed, in an informal survey conducted last year, Little League calculated that it cost about $150 to support one kid playing one year of baseball. When added up, VanAuken says, the amount of money that flows through Little League baseball teams across the country each year comes to about a half-billion dollars. "There is intense pressure to raise money," he says.

That's where bingo--the modern version of it, anyway--can help.
Debbie Lambrecht recalls her introduction to bingo in the 1950s. "I was born and raised in a good Catholic family," she says. "For us, that meant working bingo games in the basement of Enunciation Church and school, at 37th and Gilpin."

As time passed, the game remained a part of her life. In the 1970s, she and her husband volunteered to work at bingo games to raise money for her daughter's soccer league. Nine years ago Lambrecht put her accounting degree to work by starting her own business as a bingo book auditor.

These days, she says, the game she still follows is a far cry from the Enunciation basement--and if it's done properly, it can breathe substantial wealth into a nonprofit organization like Little League. "If they play two sessions a week, during prime time--Friday and Sunday nights--at a good bingo hall, these organizations can pull in $100,000 to $150,000 a year," she says. "That's net."

The changes in both Little League baseball and bingo have meant that the two institutions have become a natural for each other, and several baseball leagues across the state today rely on bingo to pay the bills.

Unlike many $250 million-a-year enterprises, the business of bingo in Colorado is conducted mostly in cash and mostly by volunteers. Lambrecht estimates that on a busy night, about $14,000 in one-, five-, ten- and twenty-dollar bills flows through the hands of volunteer bingo managers. That much cash can be a big temptation, and although the games are regulated by Secretary of State Vikki Buckley's office, there are still plenty of ways to play the system.

Take the game called Pickles. Pickles, also known as pull-tabs, are like instant-winner lotto tickets. (They used to be sold from old pickle jars, and the name stuck.) A player buys one ticket for $1 and peels back the front covering to reveal whether he has won a cash prize.

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