The Surprising Numbers Behind the Decline of Kids’ Team Sports

It’s not just Little League – about half of American children don’t participate in any team sport

My kid is almost 8. She loves playing baseball – batting, catching, tagging kids out and especially running the bases.

She’s an exception to the trend of baseball’s declining popularity among kids.

Last year, for the first time, ESPN Sports Poll’s annual survey of young Americans’ 30 favorite sports players had no baseball players on the list.

Youth participation in Little League declined from 3 million in the 1990s to 2.4 million in 2012.  Around the nation, little leagues are consolidating with their neighbors.

But it’s not just baseball – about half of American children don’t participate in any team sport

With all the hand-wringing about baseball’s supposed slow pace, lack of action and conservative culture, the most surprising thing about its decline is that it isn’t alone.

In Marc Fisher’s Washington Post article about baseball’s “struggle” to connect with kids, he reports that participation in all sports has dropped by more than 9 percent nationwide over the past five years.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal shared a report from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association showing how specific sports have lost ground among kids aged 6 – 18:

  • participation in tackle football was down 5.4%
  • participation in soccer was down 7.1%
  • participation in baseball was down 7.2%
  • participation in basketball was down 8.3%

However, these two sports actually saw increases in youth involvement:

  • participation in ice hockey was up 64%
  • participation in lacrosse was up 158%

Meanwhile, youth are more inactive than ever.

The percentage of inactive 6-to-12-year-olds—youths involved in no physical activities over a 12-month period—rose to near 20% in 2012 from 16% in 2007, according to the SFIA/Physical Activity Council survey.

Inactive 13-to-17-year-olds rose to 19% from 17%.

 The single biggest factor in how much someone loves a sport is if they played it as a kid.

In conversation with Marc Fisher in the Washington PostRob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball says “the single biggest predictor of avidity in sports is whether you played as a kid.”

In that same conversation, Patrick Wilson, Little League’s senior vice president of operations said “We’ve seen a decline in participation over the past 12 years, 1 or 2 percent every year.” He attributed this to the fact than many parents didn’t play baseball and so are less likely to introduce it to their kids.

It seems that kids aren’t just playing less team sports because they’re doing other things – schoolwork, video games, alternative sports, social media, watching TV – they’re playing less team sports because the structure and interests of the American family are changing.

This reminds me of another study reported by NPR (How We Become Sports Fans) that found that fathers have the greatest influence when a kid chooses his or her first favorite sports team.

This is all to say, LET’S GO RED SOX.