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Millennials Might Be Killing Youth Sports, But There’s Still Hope

2 May, 2018

By: Michael Popke

Very recently, The New York Times reported that the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals the total fertility rate at 1.77 lifetime births per woman, down 3.8 percent since 2015, and down 16.4 percent since its most recent peak at 2.12 in 2007. The rate, according to the paper, “measures how many children a woman entering her reproductive years today could expect to have, if age-specific fertility rates remain constant over time.”

Toys R Us officials referred to those statistics in March, when they announced the closing or selling of its entire 735-store roster. “Most of our end-customers are newborns and children and, as a result, our revenues are dependent on the birth rates in countries where we operate,” read the company’s filing for liquidation papers. “In recent years, many countries’ birth rates have dropped or stagnated as their population ages, and education and income levels increase. A continued and significant decline in the number of newborns and children in these countries could have a material adverse effect on our operating results.”

Now, Forbes.com is wondering if the decline in childbirths also will impact the future of youth sports. “By all accounts, participation in sports and athletic activities by kids ages 6 to 12 is in a continuous drop,” writes columnist Bob Cook. “It won’t turn around anytime soon.”

Almost 45 percent of children ages 6 to 12 played a team sport regularly in 2008, according to the Aspen Institute. By fall of 2017, that number had dropped to 37 percent.

Another problem in the youth sports sector is unrelated to birth rate: an alarming increase in inactivity. This is especially marked at households with low incomes. The 2018 Physical Activity Council Participation Report found 42 percent of households making an annual income of less than $25,000 are now reporting to be inactive, with that figure coming to 33.8 percent for households between $25,000 to $49,999.

Among upper-income brackets, only 18 percent of households making $100,000 or more are inactive, and 20.8 percent for households between $75,000 and $99,999. Overall, household segments making up income of $75k or more reduced their inactivity rates by three percent on average over the last five years. Some sports seem determined to attack this trend, including outdoor sports, which have announced participation initiatives designed to grow sports at the minority level, historically an area where income is lower.

One question that won't go away is whether the contribution to this trend includes a reliance on eSports or other pastimes that might not necessarily be recorded as sports at the school or rec level. These are difficult to track, despite their growth.

Still, Cook isn’t ready to declare youth sports a lost cause. “There is evidence that as millennials reach their 30s … they are making up for lost baby-making time.”

He points to CDC research that states “[fertility] rates for older women continued to rise [in 2016], resulting in a higher birth rate for women aged 30–34 than for women aged 25–29 for the first time since 1940.”

For now, though, Cook suggests youth sports organizations find ways to boost current participation levels: “A system that encourages specialization at an early age and spending big bucks on travel teams doesn’t encourage participation no matter how many kids are out there.”

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