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.

Why I Let My Son Watch (Some) Sports on TV

Its Sunday afternoon. Superbowl Sunday to be exact.

My husband is in the garage laying out recycled pallet boards planning the wall he will finish off in our basement. I am working on my freelance writing while thinking about how to create a label for my lip balm made from our beeswax. My six-year-old son is watching the LA Clippers play the Miami Heat on the basement TV.

One of these things is not like the other?

While my husband and I played sports when we were young and encourage our kids to do the same, we’re not big professional or college sports fans. We may joke about your Yankees vs. Red Sox household, but I can’t remember the last time we actually watched more than 10 minutes of a baseball game. For us, sporting events are usually limited to The Olympics and the occasional play-off or World Cup game.

So it has come as a bit of a surprise to us that our son likes to watch sports on TV. It doesn’t seem to matter which sport – today was his first basketball game, but he was hugely into World Cup soccer and will watch most other sports when given the opportunity.

I will admit that some of the draw for him is just the sheer pleasure of watching TV. We’re those parents who limit screen time to Friday night movies and the occasional PBS show. So when he does get to watch TV he zones out like he’s watching the moon landing or someone has cast a spell on him that blocks out all external stimuli.

But there’s something different about watching sports. He’s not that passive zombie. Instead, he’s interacting with what he is watching and with the people who are with him, and he can re-enter the world around him more smoothly than after other screen time experiences.

Here’s what I think is going on:

[su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]First, he’s active.[/su_highlight]

He’s a competitive kid so he enjoys cheering on “his team” (usually whichever team is winning when he turns on the game). He moves around in his seat or stands up and jumps up and down just like the adults who are really into a game, cheering when his team scores, waving his arms as they are getting close, and grunting when they are scored upon.

Moving his body instead of sitting in a trance on the couch keeps him from zoning out completely on the screen.

[su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Second, he’s doing math.[/su_highlight]

My son loves math and is always asking us to give him math problems to solve. When he is watching sports he is constantly talking about the score – which team is winning and by how much.

We talk with him about what it would take for the other team to catch up and he learns how many points are awarded for each kind of goal, basket, touchdown, etc.

[su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”][su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Third, he’s learning some pretty complex rules.[/su_highlight]

He doesn’t quite understand why a soccer goal is one point but a basket is two (or sometimes three). He wants to know why the whistle is blown or what kind of penalty was called. He wants to know who we are rooting for and why, or why they wear those kinds of sneakers or cleats.

Luckily we know enough to answer most of his questions. We can sense his brain processing new information, and we hear him describing the game as it progresses using the new terms he has learned.

[su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Lastly, he is witnessing sportsmanship (at least we hope he is) and learning that everyone loses once in a while.[/su_highlight]

Being the competitive kid that he is, he takes losing hard – whether that’s in a board game or on the baseball field. We try to point out when players help each other up after tackling each other or shake hands after a match. And when players aren’t sportsmanlike, he usually sees them get called on it. Y

You should have heard the conversations about the soccer player who bit another player during the men’s world cup; that was not ok and he knew it.

So despite my personal lack of interest in most professional sports (except for women’s soccer – cause those women rock), I don’t mind that he likes watching.

That said, we do have two parental rules of thumb (both of which were confirmed by the Superbowl that happened later the same day):

[su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]First, we are cautious about football.[/su_highlight]

More than enough brain injury research has informed our decision that he will never be allowed to play, so we hesitate to have him exposed too often to the sport. Yes, I understand that other sports are also dangerous and do result in concussions, but most studies still list football as the most dangerous sport (see this summary by the CDC if you’re curious) and professional leagues seem to have a long way to go in making players’ safety top priority.

In addition, the sport seems ripe for unsportsmanlike conduct and sore losers, despite the many well-intentioned players that I am sure are part of the game.

[su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Second, we try to supervise and, when needed, intervene or distract during commercials and halftimes.[/su_highlight]

Why so much sex, beer, and violence has to go with sports is a topic for another essay altogether.

To put it another way, Parental Guidance is still required.

No doubt more questions will arise as he gets older. But for now we’re appreciating his innocent one-man cheering squad and listening to him enthusiastically describe his favorite play of the game, even if we’re sitting right next to him.

Who knows, maybe he’ll rub off on us.

So, You’re a Pats Fan, But Your Kid Likes The Jets…

My son is just beginning to understand what happens on Sunday afternoons at our house.

From about 1 pm to 7:30 pm, the day is spent clogging arteries on the couch in between bathroom and occasional honey-do breaks. (That’s not to say that the day isn’t entirely unproductive; before kickoff we’re up and at it doing stuff that needs to be done for a guilt-free afternoon.)

We’re a Patriots family. We’ve got the gear, and we wear it proudly. Our enthusiasm is backed up by the fact that we live in New England. Everywhere we go, we’re presented with Patriots gear reinforcing our fandom. Our son sees the Patriots all around him, and sees us rooting for them. My best guess is that he will end up a Pats fan.  

Now, of course, he can root for any team he wants, but it makes me think about what made me a Pats fan.

I didn’t grow up in New England.  I grew up in Upstate NY, so being a Patriots fan is okay with the proximity to New England, but that’s not the reason I’m a fan.

It all started in 1985 when the Patriots were headed to the Super Bowl against the Chicago Bears.  That year the Bears were unstoppable with a 15-1 regular season record and a roster full of future hall of fame guys like Mike Singletary, Jim McMahon, Walter Payton, and William “The Refrigerator” Perry.

These guys were marketing gold. They were willing to do anything for publicity. Remember, this was the 80’s, and nothing was off limits. They even made a wildly popular and very bad rap video.

The Bears were being gigantic clowns all over the media, but they were huge favorites to beat the Patriots. All of the bravado and media golden boy stuff pissed me off.  I was old enough to know that the Patriots had to be a good team to get to the Super Bowl, but all anyone talked about was the Bears and how the Patriots didn’t have a chance.  

The Patriots, on the other hand, were humble, understated, and had great players that nobody was talking about like Tony Eason, Mosi Tatupu, Irving Fryar, and Andre Tippett.  I fell in love with the underdogs, and was hoping the Patriots would pull out a huge upset to shut up the loudmouths.  

That didn’t happen. They were utterly dominated in a 46-10 trouncing. I’ve been a die-hard Patriots fan ever since.

So, when it comes time for my son to choose the team he wants to root for, I think it would be great if he becomes a Patriots fan. But he doesn’t need to be one by default.  

In fact, it might be great if he picks another team. I’m going to talk to him about what it means to create a connection with a team that’s deeper than geography. I just don’t want him to settle on a team because it’s the easiest choice.

It’s one more thing to look forward to: epic father-son smack-talk sessions (especially if he picks another AFC team.)

Just please, not the Jets.

Football, Sportsmanship & Learning What You Teach

No one in our house is fanatical about pro football (we’ve never prayed for our team, for example.) However, hanging out with a game on TV is relaxing part of our winter weekends.

I (mostly) enjoy answering my six-year-old girl’s millions of questions about the game. “Why did he do that? What does that mean? What do you think they’ll do next?”

We’ve had many, many conversations about where the teams are from, their players, where they stand in the rankings, how many Super bowls they’ve won, and what their team emblems mean.

I grew up cheering for the Patriots. I was born in Boston. They’ll always going be my team. At first, our kid also loved the Pats, even though her mother is a 49ers fan.

However, this winter I noticed a dark trend: increasing chatter about the Green Bay Packers. Then, one day in December, she confessed. Green Bay is officially her favorite team. Why? Because green is her favorite color and because for some reason she’s obsessed with Wisconsin.

We joke about how we all follow different teams. We also talked about how important it is to enjoy the excitement of competition while also being a good sport. I’ve seen my friend’s kids cry, weep and fight over professional sports affiliations.  Unfortunately, many people fail to grow out of that behavior.

Six year olds are pretty much sore winners and losers by default. It’s kinda cute when they’re young, but quickly becomes obnoxious. Fortunately, watching sports together provides hundreds of teachable moments about sportsmanship. (Actually playing sports provides vastly more, of course.)

I’m not going to lie – as a Red Sox fan, I’ve yelled “Yankees Suck” at many games at Fenway Park. But around the kid, I consciously try to model good sportsmanship in five ways:

  1. Explain and discuss the concept of “sportsmanship” – don’t take it for granted they understand what it is.
  2. Recognize good efforts and good plays by both teams.
  3. Don’t put individual players down.
  4. Discuss controversial plays, but respect the ref when he makes the call (easier said than done)
  5. Cheer, clap, hoot and have fun when your team makes a good play or wins, but remember respect the fans of the other team. Don’t be rude.

As in many areas of modern parenting, I’m learning what I’m actually teaching as I go. Exemplifying good sportsmanship for my daughter has helped me become a better sport. I’ve supported my kids choice of football teams, and even cheered for Green Bay once or twice.

Totally different matter if she ever supports Yankees, of course.


Dads have the overwhelming influence  for how kids choose their sports teams.[stag_icon icon=”external-link-square” url=”” size=”16px” new_window=”no”]

Some further tips on sportsmanship from PBS Parents [stag_icon icon=”external-link-square” url=”” size=”16px” new_window=”no”]