In decades past, youth sports were widely varied from season to season. Student athletes played baseball or softball in the spring, football in the fall and basketball in the winter. As the stakes go higher in youth sports – many kids are under pressure to be thinking about scholarships – more and more kids are focusing all their efforts on a single sport, specializing long before they even reach high school. As a result, some sports are winning and others are losing.
Baseball may be the official national pastime, but these days, it’s merely a title of honor. While the sport remains popular among fans at the professional level – revenue and attendance at major league games remains high -- it’s experiencing something of a crisis at the youth level, according to a recent article by the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher.
“On opening day of the 140th season since the National League was founded, baseball’s following is aging,” wrote Fisher. “Its TV audience skews older than that of any other major sport, and across the country, the number of kids playing baseball continues a two-decade-long decline.”
Rob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, told the Post that the sport must address its flagging connection to young people or risk losing a generation of fans, particularly as future fans of any sport are created by the kids who play in their youth.
Broadcasters have confirmed the aging nature of baseball: ESPN tracks viewer demographics data, and the sports broadcasting giant has noted that the average age of baseball viewers is 53. Compare this to the average age of NFL fans at 47 (though this group is also aging) and the relatively youthful average age of 37 for NBA games.
Some analysts point out that baseball is a highly localized game – viewership of MLB games varies wildly depending on region, with the numbers highest in St. Louis, Detroit, Cincinnati and Boston – whereas modern digital fan culture lends itself better to sporting events with broad nationwide interest.
If youth participation is a significant marker for future fandom, then baseball is truly in trouble. Across the U.S., enrollment in Little League has been down. The number of American youth participating in Little League declined to 2.4 million two years ago from three million in the 1990s.
“We have seen a decline in participation over the past 12 years, 1 or 2 percent every year,” Patrick Wilson, Little League’s senior vice president of operations told the Washington Post. “There is a generation of parents now that don’t have a connection to the game because they didn’t play it themselves, and if you didn’t play, you’re less likely to go out in the back yard and have a catch.”
Other experts blame the long length of baseball games, coupled with the slow pace of play, in a hyper-fast, multitasking entertainment industry. Baseball has often been called a “thinking man’s game,” and in an era of reality television, sound bite entertainment and manufactured pop music, Americans may not be as keen to think anymore as they once were.