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Changing Times in Youth Sports

Participation in youth sports has been diminishing year over year and it seems this trend stems from a variety of reasons, in particular the increasingly specialized nature of youth sports and a decreasingly active generation.

Little League baseball is in a slump. A recently published article written by Brian Costa of the Wall Street Journal shows that the number of American children playing baseball has fallen from 8.8 million in 2000 to 5.3 million in 2013.

In fact, participation in basketball, soccer, and football is also on the decline. According to a survey by the Sports & Fitness Industry and the Physical Activity Council, between 2008 to 2013 football participation dropped by 5.4 percent, baseball by 7.2 and basketball by 8.3.

The diminishing participation seems to stem from a variety of reasons, particularly the increasingly specialized nature of youth sports and a decreasingly active generation.

However, the four major professional sports leagues have attempted to tackle issue over the past decade. In his article, Costa points to newly selected MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s initiatives targeting youth baseball, as proof of the MLB’s heightened awareness of baseball’s sliding popularity for America’s youth.

Why the decrease?

In a previous article, Al Buczkowski sparked conversation by referencing Joe Maddon’s fiery opposition to the specialization of youth athletes. The article highlighted Maddon’s emphasis that kids should participate in multiple sports.

This specialization in one sport has, of course, been a large factor in the deflated number of youth athletes playing the major sports. When less kids play multiple sports that tends to impact every sport.

In addition, studies have shown that the kids that specialize in one sport tend to burnout and eventually quit that sport. Frequently, rather than switch to a new sport, they wind up quitting sports altogether because of their previously negative experience with sports.

With that being said, children are also less and less active. Research by the The Aspen Institute indicates that between 2008 to 2013 the number of active children dropped from 9 million to 8.2 million. Further, in a study of other high income countries, has the highest childhood obesity rates by far, at 39.5 percent.

In this sense, kids today are less active than they were even a few years ago. Youth sports has of course been adversely impacted by this lack of activity, but also sits in a perfect position to help make American children healthy.

Professional sports leagues are noticing

Commissioner Manfred recently announced his Play Ball initiative, which will attempt to get children to play baseball in a more informal way.

Manfred isn’t the only major sport commissioner pushing greater youth sports participation. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has continued to support the expansive NBA Cares program, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has pushed the Play 60 initiative, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is very involved with Hockey is for Everyone.

In other words, the four major team sports in United States have taken note. And why wouldn’t they? These leagues will rely on the children that played sports for the rest of their lives as fans, evangelists, and even sometimes employees.

More importantly, heads of major sports leagues see the benefits they reaped from participating when they were children.

In an interview with Little League, Silver, who participated in Rye Little League, said, “There is so much that children can gain from participating in youth sports. Not only do sports build important lifelong habits and routines that stress physical fitness, they also teach kids important lessons about teamwork, integrity, and respect.”

Silver also commented on the increasing popularity of specialized athletes, saying, “I’m convinced that a diversity of activities leads to better athletes and better people.”

Spontaneous and organized sports

In response to previously mentioned Costa, Justin Peters from Slate Magazine wrote an article detailing the flaws of organized sports. Peters saw greater benefit in spontaneously playing sports.

“The most fun I had in childhood was with ad hoc games with other kids from my neighborhood: basketball on my driveway until dark, baseball with maybe four other kids in a vacant lot. Spontaneous play is better than organized play.”

The National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) was founded out of sentiments similar to those of Peters. The group seeks to ensure that all youth sports organizations offer a safe, positive experience. NAYS works with organizations like the Boys and Girls Club, YMCA/YWCAs, and Police Athletic Leagues.

But can’t we strike a balance? Personally, I have some of my best memories as a first grader playing the third graders touch football at recess, but also playing my rival in high school basketball. The two really could and often do complement each other well.

So what are your thoughts on youth sports participation? How can organized athletics coexist with spontaneous play? What role can the highest levels of sports play in youth sports?

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