Baseball is dying ... again

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This following headline appeared on a Wall Street Journal article two days ago: "Why Children Are Abandoning Baseball," with a sobering subhead that reads "Major League Baseball is strong, but the casual young player is vanishing, threatening the sport's future."

Brian Costa's report is billed as the first of a series on the future of baseball. The story focuses on the declining participation in a Little League in Newburgh, New York, a small city in upstate New York that has seen the number of players across four age groups in its league decline from 206 in 2009 to 74 this season.

The article also includes a chart with data from the National Sporting Goods Association showing that the number of youth baseball players ages 7 to 17 has declined from 8.8 million in 2000 to 5.3 million in 2013, and the number of softball players has declined from 5.4 to 3.2 million.

Costa writes:

This shift threatens to cost Major League Baseball millions of potential fans, raising concerns about the league’s future at a time when revenues are soaring and attendance is strong.

"The biggest predictor of fan avidity as an adult is whether you played the game," MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said. An MLB spokesman cited fan polling conducted by the league last year as proof. When asked to assess the factors that drove their interest in sports, fans between the ages of 12 and 17 cited participation as a major factor more often than watching or attending the sport. That was particularly true among male fans in that age group, 70 percent of which cited "playing the sport" as a big factor in building their interest.

Since replacing Bud Selig in January, Manfred has been especially focused on increasing youth interest in baseball. The league recently began working with ESPN to prominently feature local Little League teams during Sunday Night Baseball telecasts. MLB brings the teams to the games, and ESPN shows them during the broadcast. An MLB spokesman said the league also plans to announce a major youth initiative in the coming weeks.

The chart also mentions declining participation in basketball and soccer, and last year the Wall Street Journal ran this article citing declining participation in high school football (and other team sports). Lacrosse is one sport with booming participation rates. I see this at the high school up the road from where I live in Connecticut, where the number of kids playing lacrosse in the spring (boys and girls) seems to outnumber the football players in the fall. If more kids are playing lacrosse, fewer are likely playing baseball or softball.

Costa's article mentions the increasing cost of playing on travel teams as another deterrent to playing baseball. That certainly makes sense. Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen cited this in an article he wrote in February for The Players' Tribune:

A lot of talented kids my age probably picked the Playstation, and that was it. It was over for them. I always chose the new bat or glove. But all the scraping and saving in the world wasn’t going to be enough for my family to send me an hour north to Lakeland every weekend to play against the best competition. That’s the challenge for families today. It’s not about the $100 bat. It’s about the $100-a-night motel room and the $30 gas money and the $300 tournament fee. There’s a huge financing gap to get a child to that next level where they might be seen.

Thankfully, an AAU coach by the name of Jimmy Rutland noticed me during an All-Star game when I was 13 years old and asked my father if I’d ever been on a travel team. At that point, I had barely left the county. My dad told him that it was just too expensive, and Coach Rutland basically took me in as if I was another one of his sons. He helped pay for my jerseys and living expenses. My parents took care of what they could, which was basically just money for food.

I also wonder about this: Baseball, with many more complex skills required than football, basketball, soccer or lacrosse, is hard. Hitting is hard. Fielding is hard. Throwing with speed and accuracy can be hard. It helps to be able to run (in football, they can just put you on the offensive line if you aren’t fast). It takes years to master these skills, and how many kids have the patience to learn? How many play when they're 7 or 8, only to quit?

You also can't ignore that baseball includes a lot of standing around. Maybe it is just too boring for kids today. Which is what Manfred is worried about when assessing the long-term future of the sport. Speeding up the game is one small step to making it more fan-friendly, but you still have to worry about getting fans there in the first place.