The Wall Street Journal recently published a lengthy article detailing the drop in participation in the four most-popular U.S. team sports — basketball, soccer, baseball and football. The results are not pretty. The author examined data from youth leagues, school sports groups and industry associations from 2008 to 2012.

We recommend checking out the entire article, but here are some of the statistics the article highlights (All data is from 2008 to 2012):

Participation Declines:

  • Combined participation in the four most-popular team sports listed above fell among boys and girls aged 6 through 17 by about 4 percent.
  • The population of 6- to 17-year-olds in the U.S. fell just 0.6 percent during that same time period, according to the U.S. Census.
  • Participation in high school football was down 2.3 percent in 2012-2013 compared to the 2008-2009 season, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
  • Participation in high school basketball was down 1.8 percent.
  • Little League baseball reports U.S. participation in its baseball and softball leagues was down 6.8 percent.
  • A new survey by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association and the Physical Activity Council, a nonprofit research agency funded by seven trade groups, found that 2012 participation in organized football by players aged 6 through 14 was 4.9 percent below that in 2008.
  • Basketball participation fell 6.3 percent in the 6-to-14 group during that period, according to the survey of nearly 70,000 households and individuals.
  • The percentage of inactive 6- to 12-year-olds — youths involved in no physical activities over a 12-month period — rose to near 20 percent in 2012 from 16 percent in 2007, according to the SFIA/Physical Activity Council survey.
  • Inactive 13- to 17-year-olds rose from 17 to 19 percent.


Some good news:

  • Participation in youth lacrosse was up 158 percent according to the SFIA/Physical Activity Council Survey.
  • Participation in hockey was up 64 percent among 6- to 18-year-olds.

Why is this data concerning? Besides our country's well-documented childhood obesity problem, declines in youth sports participation could bear long-lasting consequences, William W. Dexter, a Maine physician who is president of the American College of Sports Medicine told the WSJ. "It is much more likely that someone who is active in their childhood is going to remain active into their adulthood," Dexter told the WSJ.

We want to hear from our readers. Are you experiencing similar declines in your programs? What can be done to boost participation in your sports leagues?

[Youth Participation Weakens in Basketball, Football, Baseball and Soccer]

Michael Gaio is eMedia Editor of Athletic Business.
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Unfortunately, Lacrosse has become a cash cow for those smart enough to see that this is not an urban sport...evntually, like hockey, it might be but for the for money involved...it is now a sport for the rich and believe me they are all willing to pay for the chance to get that scholarship. Problem is that aren't any out there to get...just another string of lies and broken promises that is now the banner for youth sports. AAU basketball, elite Soccer, travel baseball have all exhausted the market...football is down because of concussion scares....parents will gravitate to where they think they have the best chance.
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Interesting take, Jim. Appreciate the comment.
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Michael, with respect to baseball I'd like to know if there are data sources other than Little League. It is possible that LL's numbers are down but travel baseball and recreational baseball participation may not be. I think that's important to know before drawing any dire conclusions.
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These findings are troubling. I suggest there are at least two drivers behind this trend; 1) our societal emphasis on academic testing results (propagated by big corporate testing bureaus) means that teachers are overloading homework and leaving little time for physical activities, and 2) the proliferation of mobile technology is a growing time bandit for our youth. I wonder what is happening with other after school activities, such as music and theater – are they declining too? The most disturbing part of this report is that children are missing out on a "once in a lifetime" opportunity to develop their neuromuscular foundation. Youth sports develop our children’s physiology in a most ideal way. Additionally, the life lessons learned from youth sports competition are invaluable. Missing out on these important developmental experiences can lead to a lifetime of physical and mental underperformance.
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Tim Rappe wrote:
Michael, with respect to baseball I'd like to know if there are data sources other than Little League. It is possible that LL's numbers are down but travel baseball and recreational baseball participation may not be. I think that's important to know before drawing any dire conclusions.

Tim, the WSJ article I referenced (which now unfortunately looks like it's behind a paywall) did mention that high-school baseball participation rose 0.3% between 2008 and 2012.

Not the exact stat you're looking for, but it does provide more information.
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I agree with Tim Rappe. It is extremely difficult to quantify youth sport participation nationwide. There are countless independently run programs, leagues and associations - some small, some huge. They do not report to an affiliate organization like Little League. (Many times the city or county they operate in does not even have a clear idea of their participation numbers.) Although Little League, Pop Warner, etc. may be down in numbers, I think that is just because it has become easy for a few parents to break off and start their travel team or entire league. Very interesting what is happening with youth sports! Side note: Great to see Lacrosse booming - one of my sports!
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I can say that in my area (Suburbs outside of Boston), the number of kids playing hockey and lacrosse far outnumber the other sports. It is most likely a regional thing (and I am not "hockey rich"), but basketball is non-existent and soccer seems to fade away by 9 or 10. Baseball is fairly solid in patches, but they seem to be recruiting extra hard already for the spring. Meanwhile, I took my son, who is 11, to a spring/summer ice hockey tryout last night and there were close to 80 kids in his age range (and many also play lacrosse in the spring as well).
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I grew up in Minnesota and lacrosse and hockey had a similar relationship there, too. It was just assumed that lacrosse was the spring/summer activity of hockey players.
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I think a big part of the problem is this overemphasis towards travel teams, all-star teams, multi-month, or year long commitments of a tremendous amount of time and money to participate in sports. We have lived in two communities in the past year, and in both, recreational leagues were failing, because there weren't enough kids signing up to create teams. Unless you want to commit to the whole travel-team philosophy, there is no space for you any more. I have four kids. Our older two wanted to be on every travel team, were ultra-competitive in nature, and are 3 sport athletes in high school. Our younger two just want to play (as an example) basketball, but don't want to play in tournaments every Saturday and Sunday, and two hour practices several times a week for nine months. Well, that is becoming the only option. The opportunity to play an organized sport just for fun is disappearing. Down the road, the result is there is a smaller pool to pull from for higher level competition, and as kids get burned out, or specialize in one sport, then the effects are seen in smaller high school teams, the elimination of 9th grade teams, etc.

The continuous pressure to push kids to the highest level of performance possible, means that, for many kids, it's not fun anymore. And if it's not fun, they are not going to continue doing it.There has to be more done to encourage recreational leagues, and sports staying within one season, and kids getting involved in multiple activities (one at a time) to turn some of this downward spiral around. For football, eliminate tackling and full pads until 7th grade or so, and encourage flag football at those younger ages. A late developing kid who gets "lit up" as a nine or ten year old in full pads probably won't come back to the sport. Make the games and sports about having fun, about learning, about their lives about having a balance, and NOT about their ticket to a college scholarship. That is what will get more kids involved and will keep them involved.
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George, and others, are correct in that for many kids they just want to have fun playing a sport, but this emphasis on high level competition (usually by parents) is just turning many off and burning them out. I have seen this with my nieces and nephews and many students entering college. They no longer want to be involved in organized sports because they are burned out on/by the coaches, parents, time commitments and travel--far too often this is starting when kids are 7, 8, 9 and 10. My brother-in-law and another good friend changed their little league introductory baseball program from being competitive to being more instructional and making sure that an inning changed after everyone got to bat. There was no score kept. This kids ran the bases, as long as they did not make an out. The "game" only lasted about an hour, and there were always drinks and snacks for the kids. Parents no longer "went nuts" regarding playing or officiating, and the kids had fun. Then, when they are older, they can advance to the more competitive little league teams, which keep score, etc.

One sport that has been steadily growing for youth over the past 25 years in this country is rowing. Every year there are new teams and larger teams, the numbers keep going up every year. Some programs are highly competitive and some are just "fun" competitive. Plus, I have seen an increase in those involved in climbing and other "alternative" sports.
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I think that we also have to look at the economic recession as a major factor in the recent decline in youth sports participation. In Chesterfield VA, we have had approximately 30,000 kids playing each year from 04 through 08 and as the recession was being felt in 09 and 10 we dropped down to 27,000. Now it l;ooks like we are seeing a modest increase in more recent years as the economy is slowly coming back. It costs well over $100 per kid per season to play in our recreational leagues. I would like to see if the data cited in the article had a similar trend.