Youth Participation Weakens in Basketball, Football, Baseball, Soccer

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from The Wall Street Journal,

Fewer Children Play Team Sports.

If there’s an unofficial national day for America’s sports passion, it is Super Bowl Sunday, and one of the largest U.S. television audiences of 2014 is expected to watch the Seattle Seahawks face the Denver Broncos.

But ahead of this weekend’s spectacle in New Jersey, there is some sobering news about the country’s most-popular team sports: Fewer children are playing them.

Combined participation in the four most-popular U.S. team sports—basketball, soccer, baseball and football—fell among boys and girls aged 6 through 17 by roughly 4% from 2008 to 2012, according to an examination of data from youth leagues, school-sports groups and industry associations.

During those five years, the population of 6-to-17-year-olds in the U.S. fell 0.6%, according to the U.S. Census.

Organized sports have long been regarded as a valuable defense against increasing rates of disease-inducing inactivity among America’s youth.

Declines in youth sports participation could bear long-lasting consequences, says William W. Dexter, a Maine physician who is president of the American College of Sports Medicine. “It is much more likely,” he says, “that someone who is active in their childhood is going to remain active into their adulthood.”

In recent decades, while some outdoor play—climbing trees, jumping rope, playing tag—faded as a childhood pastime, organized sports remained relatively strong. But that bright spot is dimming.

While football still draws crowds to the TV set, participation in the sport in U.S. high schools was down 2.3% in the 2012-13 season from the 2008-09 season, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. High-school basketball participation fell 1.8% in the period.

The trend has business implications, too. U.S. baseball-bat sales in 2012 fell 18% from 2008 sales.

The causes of declines in youth sports aren’t clear. Experts cite everything from increasing costs to excessive pressure on kids in youth sports to cuts in school physical-education programs.

Social networking, videogames and other technology may be drawing children away from sports. As many as 140 kids used to try out for 45 slots on the baseball team at Shawnee Mission North High School in Overland Park, Kan. Today, fewer than 45 kids try out, says George Sallas, the school’s athletic director.

“Kids are more trained now to stay at home and play videogames,” he says. “Sports don’t intrigue them.”

The main reason kids fall away from youth sports “is that the sport isn’t fun to the child,” says Michael Bergeron, Executive Director of the National Youth Sports Health & Safety Institute. “We have to be aware of single sport specialization, overuse, overworking kids searching for the elite athletes; all of these things are causing kids to leave youth sport and not return.”

Football faces another hurdle: growing concern that concussions and other contact injuries can cause lasting physical damage.

Some public-health officials believe the risks associated with playing football and other sports are overblown, especially compared with the risks of not playing anything at all. “In terms of overall health, I’m more concerned about an inactive child than a child suffering a head injury,” says Cedric X. Bryant, Chief Science Officer for the American Council on Exercise.

The shift in youth participation worries youth-health officials who see organized sports as an antidote to growing problems like youth obesity. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has noted a sharp increase in youth obesity since the 1980s.

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