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Your kids aren’t playing baseball

Mar 31, 2011, 11:09 AM EDT

Little League

In this morning’s invocation I said that people will, come August, start slagging on baseball.  Well, some aren’t waiting. The Wall Street Journal sounds an alarm today about how kids just aren’t playing the game anymore:

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.

Certainly not an unfair slag — facts is facts — but it is a downer to read it on Opening Day.

But I wonder if there isn’t as much to worry about with this.  Baseball isn’t the National Pastime it used to be, but part of it being so dominant for so long was that there were way more kids playing it who, let’s be honest, were doing so out of social pressure. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that every kid isn’t given a glove on his birthday and is expected to be a ballplayer. How many kids played ball in the past 60 years simply because not playing ball meant being ostracized? For them and for everyone it’s probably better that they’re playing soccer or playing guitar or learning programming languages or whatever.

I get that this could potentially bode ill for the size of the fan base in that, as the article notes, playing baseball is a good indicator of later following it. But attendance is way healthier now than it ever was when everyone played as a kid, so I question whether this effect is as big as it’s made out to be.

It’s an interesting phenomenon, but I don’t think it’s a particularly threatening one. Either for the game or for our nations’ youth.

  1. Tapps - Mar 31, 2011 at 11:16 AM

    I think the one big worry with not playing in terms of the later fan base is that baseball’s intricate rules often keep new fans away. It’s a simple enough game on the surface, but there are so many little things you need to know to truly appreciate it. (I’m not talking WAR and stuff like that, but rather the infield fly rule, or balks, or a thrown glove that touches a fly ball is a triple, or even foul balls as strikes [or not strikes], force outs v put outs, and on and on).

    You can only really get all that if you played…unless you’re doggedly determined to know the game.

    • Joe - Mar 31, 2011 at 1:00 PM

      “or a thrown glove that touches a fly ball is a triple”

      I have been a huge baseball fan for close to 40 years, and I have NEVER seen this. Not once in the thousands of games that I have watched. I’ve never even heard of it happening. If someone is explaining this rule to new fans, they aren’t doing anybody any favors.

      Same goes for the IFR. You see that come into play once in awhile, but at least 99% of the times the ball is caught anyway so the rule goes unnoticed. Don’t even go into it unless you have to.

  2. bloodysock - Mar 31, 2011 at 11:23 AM

    Isn’t 2.5 million to 2 million a 20% decline, not 25% as the WSJ mentions?

    I’d like to see this figure in the context of other sports. Sure, youth football has expanded but I see far less kids playing soccer than 15 years ago too.

    • Utley's Hair - Mar 31, 2011 at 11:32 AM

      And the WSJ is supposed to be relatively good with numbers, eh?

      • heynerdlinger - Mar 31, 2011 at 12:08 PM

        They didn’t see the financial meltdown either, so maybe that reputation needs to be re-evaluated.

      • Utley's Hair - Mar 31, 2011 at 12:24 PM

        Well, there’s that, too.

    • dodger88 - Mar 31, 2011 at 11:57 AM

      2.5 / 2 = 25%

      • jamie54 - Mar 31, 2011 at 12:07 PM

        Wrong. 500,000/2,500,000 = 20%.

      • heynerdlinger - Mar 31, 2011 at 12:14 PM

        2.5 / 2 = 1.25

        The number of kids playing Little League is 80% what it was 15 years ago. That’s a 20% decline. Or if you’d rather, the number of kids playing Little League in 1996 was 25% higher than it is today.

  3. sdelmonte - Mar 31, 2011 at 11:26 AM

    It’s worth noting that softball is listed as ahead of baseball. For this purpose, it would make sense to add those numbers to baseball, since for many of us softball is baseball with a lower degree of difficulty.

    And I don’t know if popularity as an activity means anything. Soccer is king among what kids play, and that continues to not translate into any meaningful fan base in the US. And football rules the roost all weekend in the fall despite how few of us have ever played it in an organized fashion.

    The only time I would worry is when someone shows me numbers indicating kids aren’t interested in baseball in any way. (Odds are, alas, that those numbers are on their way.)

  4. minnesconsin - Mar 31, 2011 at 11:27 AM

    I’d like to see the numbers from Latin America. Guessing those tell a different story. Remember, it’s not all about the good ol U-S-of-A.

  5. yankeesfanlen - Mar 31, 2011 at 11:30 AM

    Not to do an economic reasearch study in this venue (but I will anyway).
    Babe Ruth’s $50,000 salary in 1925 was $564,000 in recent dollars. The Yankees drew during this baseball crazed era a home attendance in a larger seat capacity at the House That Ruth built was about one million fans at about $1.50 a seat.
    ARod gets $27M for four million avg. attendance at $130/per seat average. Costs less per fannie.
    Give ARod a raise!

    • Utley's Hair - Mar 31, 2011 at 12:23 PM

      LEAVE AROD(‘s bank account) ALONE!!!!!

  6. senatorsguy - Mar 31, 2011 at 11:51 AM

    Softball is a major consideration in thinking this through. More young ladies are learning the game in general – and they will become baseball fans as well as their baseball-playing brothers. It is certainly the case in my house.

  7. BC - Mar 31, 2011 at 11:53 AM

    I honesty just think its a sign of the times. Football has hitting. Basketball has power dunks, continuous action, and some hitting. NASCAR has continous action (save for rain) and crashes. Heck, hockey has continuous action and hitting. Other than the 500-foot home run or occasional basebrawl, MLB falls short. That and the inherent pace of the game just isn’t appealing to the I-want-it-now-and-a-lot-of-it, iPad generation.

    • JBerardi - Mar 31, 2011 at 12:06 PM

      “That and the inherent pace of the game just isn’t appealing to the I-want-it-now-and-a-lot-of-it, iPad generation.”

      Errr… Baseball is about to make a gazillion dollars with an MLB.tv app for the iPad.

      • BC - Mar 31, 2011 at 12:17 PM

        Yeah, but the pace of the game is inherently slow and there’s little physical contact (unless a catcher gets mowed at the plate or there’s a donnybrook). Younger folks would rather watch James Harrison flatten a QB or Dwight Howard posterizing someone.

      • JBerardi - Mar 31, 2011 at 3:44 PM

        “Younger folks would rather watch James Harrison flatten a QB or Dwight Howard posterizing someone.”

        Says who? Crotchety older folks?

  8. okobojicat - Mar 31, 2011 at 12:09 PM

    I think this stat is garbage. They are using “Little League” numbers. The WSJ claims 2/3′s of leagues in America play Little League baseball. I would bet it is much lower because the fees are stupendous and they have atrocious rules about how to be a part of the national organization. More and more leagues are simply copying Little League’s rules, but don’t pay the fees to the national organization and they don’t report their numbers to them.

    Basically, its a crap stat. Little League is burden for most pee-wee baseball organizations. Kids do better when local organizations set the rules. When you have parents setting the rules you have a better control on the safety issues, such as innings pitched and helmet safety.

    • JBerardi - Mar 31, 2011 at 3:48 PM

      Oh modern journalism. How useless you are in the face of… random guys on the internet. Bang up job, WSJ.

  9. oikosjeremy - Mar 31, 2011 at 12:23 PM

    Craig, isn’t your suggested timeline off? There may well have been a time when lots of kids played baseball because of social pressure. But surely that time was already long gone by 1996? Changes in participation since 1996 likely reflect kids shifting to other activities–soccer or videogames or whatever.

  10. hep3 - Mar 31, 2011 at 12:43 PM

    You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time. ~Jim Bouton, Ball Four, 1970

    A hot dog at the ballgame beats roast beef at the Ritz. ~Humphrey Bogart

    Baseball is what we were. Football is what we have become. ~Mary McGrory

    Football combines the two worst things about America: it is violence punctuated by committee meetings. ~George F. Will

    • Richard In Big D - Mar 31, 2011 at 4:44 PM

      All very true, and of reputable origination. Here are a few more:

      “When I was a small boy in Kansas, a friend of mine and I went fishing….. I told him I wanted to be a real Major League Baseball player, a genuineprofessional like Honus Wagner. My friend said that he’d like to be President of the United States. Neither of us gout our wish.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

      “Last year, more Americans went to symphonies than went to baseball games. This may be viewed as an alarming statistic, but I think that both baseball and the country will endure” – John F. Kennedy

      If people don’t want to come to the ballpark, how are you gonna stop them?” – Yogi Berra

  11. simon94022 - Mar 31, 2011 at 4:20 PM

    It would be easier to take this seriously if national publications hadn’t been churning out variations of this article for the past 60 years. There’s often a related piece about how soccer is The Sport of the Future. The demise of baseball and coming breakthrough of soccer as a major spectator sport has been right around the corner since Eisenhower’s first term.

    You’d think by now journalists would realize that no matter how many orange slices your 8 year old has at half time of his soccer games, by the time he grows up he’s 10 times more likely to care about the local MLB team than to follow soccer.

    • JBerardi - Mar 31, 2011 at 4:41 PM

      I don’t understand why the rise of soccer is automatically linked the the decline of baseball or any other sport. Amazingly, some young athletes have managed to carve out baseball careers for themselves despite the suffering the horribly debilitating effects of liking soccer:

      “Some people might say that soccer is boring, but have you ever sat and watched a boring baseball game? I have. Sometime there’s not much going on, but that’s a part of it. It’s a chess game. People are trying to move here and there, just like in baseball where you’re trying to move runners. If you’re a baseball fan, I’m sure you can get into soccer.”

      - Ryan Kalish (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=11436)

  12. youngstowntony - Mar 31, 2011 at 6:33 PM

    It comes down to the parents of these kids. I coach both soccer and baseball, I have a 6 year old. The problem is time, and time management. The parents are willingly to throw money to register a kid for a sport but not willingly to out there with their child and play catch. I know it’s not the child fault but the parents aren’t to take any responsibities for it either. I really don’t want to hear the single parent excuse because 3 of my best players are for single parents for my baseball team this season.

    I watched baseball game that score was 15 to 14 and I hated those games, I enjoy a 1 to 0 game as for soccer if there isn’t a lot of goals scored. I don’t like to see a game end in a tie, you practice and played hard for nothing.

  13. paul514 - Apr 1, 2011 at 12:26 AM

    Don’t kid yourself. Most of the 25% not playing ball are inside playing video games

    • ptho16 - Apr 1, 2011 at 8:25 AM

      Agree completely with this. Also forgetting that lacrosse is the fastest growing sport, I bet more kids are playing that than soccer.

  14. kage10 - Apr 1, 2011 at 11:24 AM

    The bigger worry is that national writers don’t know the difference between using “less” and “fewer”. Really? “Less and Less kids..” It’s FEWER!! Maybe our children shouldn’t play sports so they can learn to read and write correctly!

  15. cur68 - Apr 3, 2011 at 11:01 PM

    A bit late to the discussion but better than never at all. No one will see this in all likelihood but if you do there is a simple explanation for the 20% fewer kids playing little league; there are ~ 20% fewer kids. The birthrate has declined by ~ 20% over the last decade. A better stat would’ve been the %of kids under 15 playing Little League now vs 10 years ago.

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