Matthew Futterman of the Wall Street Journal wrote an interesting piece examining the declining rate at which young kids are playing organized baseball. Here are some choice quotes:
“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….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…studies suggest more people now play soccer in the U.S. than baseball, and lacrosse participation among kids has more than doubled in the last decade. The number of high school lacrosse programs has been growing by about 7% a year”
Now it’s not quite as bad as it seems there. Futterman goes on to state that baseball programs haven’t declined at the high school level and that it’s still the 4th most popular team sport among young people. Still, the facts are pretty alarming.
Futterman goes on to postulate that the pace of the play is one of the problems. Parents like to see sports as “active” exercises and baseball does involve a good amount of sitting around. He adds that MLB isn’t ignoring the problem either.
“Jim Brosnan, an executive vice-president for Major League Baseball, said the recent gloomy studies have prompted the league to order up its own research, which is ongoing, and to review the league’s efforts to grow the game. Since 1989, baseball has spent more than $50 million building and renovating fields and creating baseball leagues, especially in urban areas where kids have been abandoning the sport. It has also opened youth training academies in California and Texas to teach all aspects of the game—even umpiring. “We know if you play as a kid you over-index in your propensity to become a fan,” Brosnan said. “That’s our core right there, so any decline in it is going to get our absolute and full attention.”
That’s good news. As we know though, MLB acknowledging a problem doesn’t always make it go away (this is approximately day 464286 of Selig’s ‘studying the A’s in San Jose’ commission”). What can baseball really do about this though?
In comparison to basketball and football, it’s a lot less glamorous to be an amateur athlete in baseball. College football and college basketball are gigantic entities of their own. No one thinks of college baseball that way. It also takes a lot longer to go from amateur status to the pros in baseball. In college basketball and football, if you’re a good player, you get drafted and you’re in the league already making serious money and playing on TV. Baseball obviously takes a lot longer. Spending time riding around on buses for a few years isn’t quite as alluring as playing basketball in front of 20,000 people at UCLA or 70,000 Tigers fans at LSU and millions more watching at home. Sure you make decent money when you sign, but it’s nothing like the publicity, the contracts or the sponsorships in basketball or football. In 2010, SI’s ranking of the highest paid athletes had Matt Stafford, the Detroit Lions QB, ranked 11th. It was his rookie year. CC Sabathia was tied for 13th.
Obviously it’s in baseball’s best interest to attract as much top talent as possible. Is 50 million dollars over 23 years though really enough? That doesn’t seem like a lot of money for an organization like Major League Baseball. I always think about the way baseball markets its product compared to other sports. The NFL and NBA do a terrific job promoting their younger stars which is something baseball seldom does on a national level. Baseball is in a really great position in 2011 to do this however. The rookie class of 2010 was remarkable. In my opinion, catching up to basketball and football in terms of pushing their brand as a younger, mainstream and contemporary game would do a lot to attract younger kids to the sport. Is that enough though? I’m not sure. I would think that with this new concussion information about football players that some younger athletes would start to shy away from the sport. That may just be naivety on my part however.
It’s a very interesting topic for discussion and one in which I think there are few perfect answers. What does everyone else think?
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