According to a study conducted by Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SIFA), from 2009 to 2014 there was a 4.3% drop in the number of children aged 6-17 enrolled in organized youth baseball.
It’s easy enough to attribute the decline to video games, or television, or any number of the seemingly endless entertainment options available to the kids of today, but the real reasons are more complex and worthy of discussion.
Why our youth moving away from the Great American Pastime, and perhaps more importantly, is there anything we can do to stop it?
Options, options, options
During those long summer days when I was young, there weren’t a whole lot of things you could do when you were bored. You could either ride bikes, or grab your friends and go down the big open lot on the corner and play baseball.
I guess you could say that baseball was ingrained in our psyches. So when baseball season opened, our dads marched us down to the local league offices or parks department and signed us up to play.
We enjoyed being able to emulate our heroes, which for me – and this gives away my age – were guys like Johnny Bench, Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson. These days though, it seems hard to find a hero that isn’t tarnished in some way by legal issues or involvement with “banned substances”.
Issues like that aside, however, the real problem seems to be that there are so many other options available to kids, and it isn’t limited to television, the internet and video games.
The same SIFA study mentioned above showed that as participation in the traditional “big-3” American youth sports – baseball, basketball and football – declined, participation in other sports like lacrosse, rugby and ice hockey, actually increased.
This would indicate that today’s youth are not disinterested in sports, it’s just that the availability of different sports has increased, giving them more options to select from.
Is baseball too boring?
There’s no question that in today’s society immediate gratification is the name of the game. We all expect everything from our home Internet connection to online shopping to be faster-and-faster. In that respect, baseball seems to be better suited to days gone by.
The average youth game lasts anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half, and the chances of a player, particularly an outfielder, being involved in a given play is around 10%, or even less.
The scoring is also generally low.
Sports like soccer, lacrosse and basketball offer more or less constant movement and more frequent opportunities to be involved in the action, and in the case of basketball, more frequent scoring.
It’s also likely that children aren’t nearly as interested in professional baseball for the same reason.
A 2015 ESPN Sports Poll of young American's 30 favorite sports figures found no baseball players on the list.
This lack of interest isn’t going unnoticed by the league.
Major League Baseball is currently looking for ways to speed up the game or add other enhancements that might win back fans.
There are, of course other considerations.
One is the cost of participation and equipment. Used to be baseball was one of the less expensive sports to be involved in.
The average cost of joining a recreational league is usually pretty nominal, anywhere from $10 to $100, depending upon location and facilities, but joining a travel team can run into the thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars per season.
That is an expense that few parents can afford to lay out on a regular basis. Even in recreational leagues, the cost of some equipment can be eye-opening.
An “inexpensive” composite bat for tee-ball at a big box athletics store was recently listed at $49.99. A mid-price glove from the same store was $59.99. That’s over $100 before the first pitch is even thrown.
Throw in a helmet, cleats and bag to put your child’s stuff in and you can see that the cost can really add up. Now imagine having more than one child signed up. Wow!
There’s also the risk of burnout. Baseball is no longer just a spring or summer sport. Now there’s fall ball, winter camps, all-stars. It seems to never end. No matter how much a kid loves a sport, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.
My 12 year-old grandson, is a great example of this. He is a very talented kid, plays pitcher, 1st base and shortstop and has made the all-stars several seasons in a row.
Last summer, after the regular season ended, he told his dad he didn’t want to play all-stars.
He’d had enough and just wanted to spend the rest of the summer at home playing with his friends rather than traveling to a different field every weekend.
Just goes to show the formula of all baseball, all the time, is not necessarily conducive to holding the attention of teen and preteen boys in the long term.
Baseball is a great sport and has a lot to offer our youth.
It teaches patience and perseverance (qualities sadly lacking in many of our young people) and keeps them active; and it’s a sport that the whole family can enjoy.
There’s nothing quite like taking a picnic lunch to the ball park or buying some hotdogs and nachos from the concession stand and cheering your little slugger on. In order to save it, parents and the community need to get involved in promoting the sport. The cost of equipment needs to become more reasonable.
At this point, that may be difficult, but the manufacturers and retailers need to understand that the Midland Texas Diamondbacks aren’t in “The Show” and little Evan Smith isn’t Miguel Cabrera.
Coaches could also make practices more fun and interactive by requiring his players to get a certain number of “touches” every practice and no one is allowed to stand around.
Coaches and leagues could also experiment with different changes to make the game move faster. I am as much of a purest as the next guy, but again we’re talking about kids in the 6-17 year age range.
Don’t make the game at that level bigger than it is. Changing a few minor things to ensure the survival of the sport is not the end of the world.
How About You?
Have you noticed a decline in participation in your youth baseball league?
What ideas do you have to combat the declining interest in youth baseball?