With the World Series going on right now, and the heart of football season taking place, it might seem like interest in sports is everywhere.
But even with the high-profile nature of sports, interest in younger generations has been waning for decades as fewer kids are taking part in youth leagues than ever before.
“When I was growing up, they had to force me to come inside the house,” said Dwight Downer, a coach for the Bronx Buccaneers, a youth football team in New York. “These kids— we have to force them to go outside. That’s bad. Physical activity is good for them.”
A 2021 survey from the Aspen Institute showed that 44% of families nationwide saw their community-based youth sports program close because of lower participation. Another survey by the organization showed in 2018, 38% of kids in the United States regularly participated in an organized sport. In 2008, that same number was 45%.
“In 2015, [our participation] was 120 kids,” said Keith Spivey, director of the Bronx Buccaneers. “In 2016, it went to like 60 kids. 2017, it went to like 45, and then it climbed a little bit again, and then it died again.”
“Yeah, [the decline] has been going on for more than 10 years,” added Jon Solomon of the Aspen Institute. “It probably really goes back to the late 1990s and into the early 2000s.”
In the '90s, youth sports started becoming a ticket to college. Tuition was increasing mightily, so parents started pressuring their kids to excel in sports so they could get a scholarship. In many areas, that led to burnout among players, and higher league dues as families pumped more money into these travel programs than ever before.
Fast forward to 2008, when the Great Recession hit, and it widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots, as local leagues started to close due to increased interest in travel-only programs.
“There was less investment than from municipalities into parks and recs leagues,” said Solomon. “You had more and more families leaving and going the travel route and that meant you had less money and fewer volunteers to run these leagues, and in some cases then the leagues became perceived as lesser quality as well.”
The problem has only persisted as the pandemic exacerbated many issues youth leagues were already facing.
The pandemic stopped many teams, like the Bronx Buccaneers, from meeting for fear of spreading COVID, and it forced kids to explore other interests, many of which have stayed, and it has led to where we are today: leagues doing whatever they can to stay afloat.
“It’s stressful, and it’s stressful mostly because I hate to tell kids bad news,” said Spivey. “They’ve been out here all summer working hard. It just hurts to have to tell them you can’t play and then to watch them to cry and everything else so it’s kind of heartbreaking.”
There are things to be done. Experts like Solomon say public investment will help, as will empowering parents to demand it from their municipalities. He fears without public pressure, youth sports will only continue to shrink.