Fewer kids are on our fields. Late last year the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) and the Aspen Institute released a study that further documented the decline of youth team sports participation. Just 36.9 percent of kids between the ages of 6 and 12 played a team sport in 2016, down from 45 percent in 2008, according to the study.
The Big 3 team field sports – football, soccer, and baseball – experienced the biggest declines. Just 12.4 percent of kids played baseball in 2016, down from 16.5 percent in 2008; soccer participation fell from 10.4 percent to 7.7 percent during the same period; and football participation fell from 8.2 percent to 6.3 percent. Football stands to lose more participation as more study and attention is given to the long-term effects of head trauma, and right now it doesn’t look good.
The only sports that saw growth over the past eight years were golf, gymnastics, ice hockey, and track and field.
The reasons for the downward participation trends of the main field sports are fairly intuitive: The emergence of elite travel leagues continues to permeate younger age groups, forcing kids to gravitate toward single sports and erode the time and ability to play multiple sports. This dynamic creates an additional divide among players: those with the money and means to play for more prestigious travel leagues, and lower socio-economic kids relegated to recreational leagues. Oftentimes recreational leagues are left with subpar players, coaches and much of the time, poorer facilities to play on.
According to the SFIA study, kids who live in households with at least $100,000 in income are twice as likely (68.4 percent who played at least one day of a team sport in 2016) to play sports than kids who live in households that earn less than $25,000 (34.6 percent). Kids in middle-income households fell in the middle at 53.7 percent, illustrating a direct correlation to household income and participation.
College scholarships have an impact, too. Players and parents vying for coveted tuition benefits at four-year universities with skyrocketing tuition costs increasingly steer players to developing elite skills in a single sport at an earlier age. Add video games, social media, and an all-encompassing digital fragmentation of people’s time and attention, and it’s easy to understand how this trend has developed.
If we value our profession and the work we do, then we owe it to ourselves to help to reverse this trend. Sports field managers are seldom expected to boost player participation as their counterparts on golf courses are expected to do. It took superintendents about a decade to realize how important their role was in introducing new players to golf. But eventually they realized that growing amazing turfgrass in a micromanaged environment wasn’t sustainable if the player numbers continued to drop. Incrementally, they lost budget line items for the equipment they needed and the labor that contributed to meeting player/member expectations. Growing the game has become a core responsibility for superintendents, not an ancillary one. The same transition must come from sports field managers, and introduction to sport must happen early.
Have you ever considered talking to local schools about the programs you offer on your fields? Can you provide literature about your programs at other recreational facilities? Do you actively develop programs and market to families with young children?
Of course, the benefits of team sports are well documented. They build confidence, provide exercise, develop relationships, contribute to stronger academics, and teach winning, losing and respect. Some studies show it creates stronger families, too. We have a lot of good to talk about, and we need to start communicating that message whenever we can.