What’s Going On With Youth Sports?

Recent Study Shows Big Drop in ‘Core’ Participants: PE Is the Solution

08/24/2015  |  With Michelle Smith

When it comes to team sports, the U.S. is becoming a nation of spectators and not participants. Recent statistics released by PHIT America (www.PHITAmerica.org) and the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (When it comes to team sports, the U.S. is becoming a nation of spectators and not participants. Recent statistics released by PHIT America (www.PHITAmerica.org) and the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (www.SFIA.org) indicate a drastic decline in team sports participation, in the last five years, by children ages six to 17. 

Combined with recent news that a record 82.7 million Americans are physically inactive, this is a troubling trend which has far-reaching ramifications that is impacting rising spending on national health care, decreased life expectancy, inadequate levels of national defense, and the future of the sports and fitness industry.

Not only do the statistics indicate a drop in overall participation in youth sports, they reveal a decline in the number of “core” participants in 10 major team sports — baseball, basketball, cheerleading, court volleyball, fast-pitch softball, field hockey, ice hockey, outdoor soccer, tackle football, tennis, and track and field. The only youth team sports to show any kind of gains in participation in the last five years at the core level are lacrosse and gymnastics, two sports which have relatively low levels of overall participation.

The bottom line is that the number of children who used to spend lots of time every year being physically active playing sports is dropping. With a growing U.S. population, the participation figures in team sports should be going in the other direction. Instead, the exact opposite is happening.

There are a number of reasons why there are fewer children being active in team sports. Four of the main reasons for the decline are:

  1. The decline and lack of quality physical education in schools
  2. A heavy emphasis on “travel” ball at any early age, which means young athletes are too focused on playing just one sport and not multiple activities
  3. Youth addiction to using electronic devices and social media, which encourages sedentary behavior
  4. “Pay-To-Play” costs for school sports, league play, specialty clinics, etc. has made the cost to participate too high for many families

“Another overlooked element is the decline of ‘sandlot’ play — in all sports — where children play in the backyard or an open field, pick the teams, establish the rules, and resolve any kind of rules infractions,” says Jim Baugh, Founder, PHIT America. “Too many youth sports opportunities are driven by parents that are taking these fun, recreational activities too seriously, which detracts from the all-important ‘fun’ factor that is a big part of the recreational sports experience. We have to let kids be kids and have fun!”

“In the sport of youth baseball, ‘travel’ ball has become a big competitor of the local recreational youth baseball and softball league,” says Steven Tellefson, President/CEO of Babe Ruth Baseball and Softball. “The games of baseball and softball have become more expensive and results in a lack of appeal in the form of children and families choosing not to participate. The cost with ‘travel’/elite teams is quite expensive. In rural areas, this has decimated local, affordable community based programs. Better players who can afford it are lost to ‘travel’ teams. The end result is community based programs struggle to get enough participants to have a viable league.”

Another issue that is seriously impacting physical activity patterns in the U.S. is this addiction that people, especially children, have with their cell phones, tablets and computers. As sad as it is, people have difficulty breaking away from these electronic devices. Posting pictures to Instagram, texting with friends, surfing the web, instant messaging, and responding to email have become priorities over playing basketball in the driveway, kickball in the backyard, and riding bikes with friends around the neighborhood. It’s worth noting that PHIT America is working on an app, to be released later this year, which will allow parents to suspend their child’s access to a cell phone for recreational and social purposes, hopefully sending the message that they need to get outside and be active.

The “Pay to Play” issue has always been a thorn in the side of the sports industry, especially in communities that lack a local tax base, which can provide athletic opportunities for all local student-athletes. When Pay to Play policies are enforced, it always impacts the children from families that have lower annual incomes, but often the private sector in many communities steps forward with sponsorship assistance to make it less of an issue.

Reactions from leaders within the sports industry about physical inactivity are strong.

“Society is changing and kids have more options, so as an industry, we need to continue to encourage innovation that is focused on the player and improving the player’s performance,” says Michael Schindler, CEO, Baden Sports. “By doing that, we improve the overall experience and increase the enjoyment of participating in youth sports, while also encouraging a lifelong passion for physical fitness.”

“The role and impact that participation in sports and fitness have played in shaping our country and industry is indisputable,” says Bob Puccini, President, Mizuno Sports USA, and Chairman, Sports and Fitness Industry Association. “We know that if kids are engaged in physical activity at a young age, they are up to three or four times more likely to be engaged and active as adults. We need P.E. in schools! In addition to the obvious and quantitatively proven benefits from physical health and academic perspectives, it’s the values associated with sports that have also been a major contributor to the character and fabric of our extraordinary American society. The fact that core participation in team sports is declining at such a rate is not only concerning from an industry vitality perspective, but most profoundly, it rings a major alarm related to what “substitute(s)” are increasingly shaping our character as a nation, going forward.”

“Team sports participation declines in recent years are troubling,” says Chris Considine, President, Considine Management Advisors, and a former President of Wilson Sporting Goods. “While there is not one answer to this challenge, as an industry, we must create and support programs that promote sports participation and physical activity.” 

The general public can play a role in this process of reversing the Inactivity Pandemic by contacting their local member of Congress and advocating for key pro-activity U.S. legislation in Congress — the PEP Program and the PHIT Act. PEP supports P.E. in schools and the PHIT Act will help reduce the cost to be active for families and individuals.

Recent research indicates that while sports fandom and viewership levels have never been stronger, sports participation rates have declined. As a nation, we need to get back to the basics of physical activity and that starts with P.E. in our schools — every day for each student, from kindergarten through 12th grade. Some school districts agree with that mindset and are making changes to make P.E. a priority.

P.E. was the foundation for my success in life. Let’s give all American children that same foundational experience. They deserve it!

Michele Smith is an ESPN Softball Analyst and 1996 and 2000 U.S. Olympic Softball Gold Medalist.
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