With 11.5 million players of all ages in the U.S., baseball remains the fourth-most-popular team sport, trailing only basketball, soccer and softball.
But over the last 16 years, numbers for Little League Baseball, which accounts for about two-thirds of the country's youth play, have been steadily dropping. And there are signs the pace is accelerating.From 2000 to 2009, the latest year for which figures are available, the number of kids aged 7 to 17 playing baseball fell 24%, according to the National Sporting Goods Association, an industry trade group. Despite growing concerns about the long-term effects of concussions, participation in youth tackle football has soared 21% over the same time span, while ice hockey jumped 38%. The Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association, another industry trade group, said baseball participation fell 12.7% for the overall population.
"The days of kids being born with a glove next to their ear in the crib and boys playing catch in the backyard by age three, those are over," said Len Coleman, the former president of the National League.
I don't need to remind regular readers that I am obviously a big baseball guy. I'm on the board of our local little league, I coach both my kids...we even go to Florida to catch spring training games.
And while our local league is actually growing by leaps and bounds, the national numbers suggest kids are simply "bored" with baseball, particularly in our technologically advanced, super-speed society. With all the video games and DS and Wii and so forth, who wants to "stand around in the outfield" and be bored?
And what is the youth sport which seems to be replacing it?
Studies suggest more people now play soccer in the U.S. than baseball. Anecdotally, parents say it has to do with the game's languid pace—and the fact that other sports do a better job forcing kids to stay alert. "Parents want to see their kids moving," said John Mitchell, a former college baseball coach from Alabama. "They drop their kids off at soccer and they know they're going to run around like maniacs for an hour. When they watch baseball practice, they often see them standing around in the outfield while the coach throws batting practice."I have a theory that will probably earn me all kinds of grief from my soccer-loving readership (particularly those of you who are parents with kids play soccer), but here goes.
Soccer is a great game but, fundamentally, one of those games where everyone is a "winner" and no one has to stand out or be put in the position of having to perform individually within the team context.
In baseball, each kid has to face the possibility of failure: of striking out, of booting a ball, of throwing wildly. The game can literally come down to one bat, one pitch, one slide.
In soccer, there is none of that. If you're not goal-tending, you're anonymously running around hoping someone, somehow kicks a goal. But if not, no big deal. Your self-esteem is intact and, in our hyper-self-esteem society, that's all that matters. There's no fear of failure, which is both unnatural and unfortunate.
Interestingly enough, my kids tried soccer and both found it "boring." From what I saw, there was nothing challenging about it, on a youth level, anyway.
Regardless, little league baseball needs to be more responsive to these changes. I am quite aware that little league today isn't like it was when I was playing 30 years ago, nor is society, culture and technology. Yes, there are more distractions, kids are expected to grow up faster, etc.
And MLB has certainly seen better days. Segregation was a stain on the league for decades, and more recently, the steroid scandal continues to be something that is difficult to explain to kids (although, if you've been riveted by the Barry Bonds trial testimony this week, you're my kind of people).
But the great thing about the game is in its history as well. While it needs to adapt to the 21st century in ways the NFL has (starting with instant replay, for one), there is something awesome about playing virtually the same game that kids and adults did 50 years ago or 100 years ago.
Today walking around on campus, I noticed a ton of Braves gear (Braves are playing now) and one guy even had on a New York Yankees hat and jersey (Jetah!). The game may not be as popular as it has been, and perhaps it's seen better days, but the game is still the game.
And it's Opening Day.
BONUS: Both the Yankees and the Braves won today, so it's a great Opening Day.