Is Youth Baseball Dying In America?

SOUTH WILLAMSPORT PA - AUGUST 29: Chris Leger #6 of Pearland Texas jumps onto home plate scoring the teams first run during the game against Chinese Taipei on August 29 2010 in South Willamsport Pennsylvania. Chinese Taipei won the Consolation game 14-2. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

Via the Wall Street Journal, Matthew Futterman has a long piece, well worth reading, about the decline of youth baseball in the United States. Some numbers:

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.

--snip--

At the high school level, baseball has held steady with about 15,786 programs in the U.S.-a number that ranks it No. 3 among all boys' sports. Youth sports officials say there's been a small decline in the number of teams, but largely because of funding cutbacks.

As for Little League, which covers kids aged 4 to 18, about two million kids played in the U.S. last year, compared to about 2.5 million in 1996-an overall decline of 25%. The only growth in youth baseball participation since the 1990s, according to the NSGA, has come from kids who play more than 50 times a year-which suggests more children who play baseball have chosen to specialize.

So the sky is falling?

Not really. That statistic about high-school baseball is telling, I think. And I think the statistic about kids 7 to 17 playing baseball is less than telling. At least in terms of the talent base. These days, lots of little kids are still playing baseball (if only because soccer's mostly a fall sport). They play, and if they don't enjoy it much -- often, because they're not really good at it -- they find something else to do. Can you blame them?

Granted, the coaches at the youth level aren't helping much. How many times have you driven past a youth team's practice, and seen a coach lobbing pitches to a kid while everybody else is standing around with nothing to do?

Too often, I'll bet. There are ways to run practices that keep all the kids engaged and having at least some fun, but it's not realistic to think more than a handful of coaches around the country will ever get there.

While the American talent base might be trending ever so slightly downward, I have to think that's more than balanced by what's happening in Latin America and Asia. So don't worry about Major League Baseball; even if you could notice a difference -- which you probably couldn't -- the talent in the majors figures to go up, not down, in the coming years.

Speaking of Major League Baseball, you might guess they would be concerned about fewer children playing baseball. Because theoretically at least, kids who don't play baseball are less likely to become adult baseball fans.

Perhaps. But pundits have been predicting the death of baseball as a big-time spectator sport for around 50 years, and for around 50 years they've been dead wrong. Nothing lasts forever, of course. But I don't see anything coming down the pike that's going to replace baseball in the American sporting mind every summer.

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