By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck LLC
In September of last year the Washington Post printed an article that should send shock waves through the youth sports community. In the past decade youth sports participation in “the big four”, baseball, football, soccer and basketball has fallen to under 37% of school age children. Why is this happening and is there anything we can do to reverse this trend?
In order to have any chance of turning around the downward spiral in youth sports, we first need to identify some of the causes. What follows is a list of various factors that have combined to create a culture which is not conducive to mass participation. No one factor is solely to blame, nor is there any easy solution.
Whether you want to refer to them as travel, club, competitive or select teams, the explosion of non-recreational sports organizations has undoubtedly had a tremendous impact on the youth sports landscape.
I am not against travel sports. All of my kids played them. What I am not a fan of is travel sports instead of rec sports. I’m not in favor of travel sports as a sole way of life, as a child or (usually) a parent’s identity. I feel that, often, they begin too early. I do believe travel sports and rec sports should be able to coexist. My boys, for instance, all played Little League games during the week and on Saturday. They then played a travel ball game or two on Sunday. Most of the kids on their Little League team did not play travel….rec ball was good enough. But the kids who wanted more got it without losing the Little League experience.
The hardcore travel parent will argue that the coaching their child gets at the rec level is inferior and that they are not learning the proper fundamentals. Then why not do something about it? Organize a coaches clinic with the local high school coach. I don’t know of one high school coach who would not do this for free. Not to insert a shameless plug, but buy CoachDecks for your coaches so that even those with no experience can run great practices. Volunteer yourself. But to run away from the problem instead of trying to solve it is unconscionable.
It’s a simple matter of math. Travel ball is not rec ball because it is not open to all skill levels (or income levels but I’ll get to that later). Therefore in a community where there may be, say, 100 kids who might form eight rec baseball or soccer teams, instead only 25 make up“A” and “B” team rosters of travel. Consequently, the remaining 75 kids often feel less worthy or embarrassed and choose not to play at all. If they do play, the league is diminished in size and quality, making the experience less attractive. The result? Kids play a year of rec and then don’t choose to come back for a follow-up season, and the participation numbers take a hit.
Why can’t competitive organizations scale back to allow for participation in recreational leagues and in other sports? One reason is money. The people running these leagues know that if they demand 100% commitment they can charge top dollar to participate. They say their mission is to help kids but often they are really more interested in their incomes. When my oldest son had finished with Little League, we had a little travel ball team made up of a dozen kids from our league who were friends. The cost was minimal. The parents only paid for uniforms and umpires. My friend, who also had a son on the team, and I coached for free. We played what I thought was a reasonable schedule of games.
Then a young guy who had played in college formed a new travel organization and recruited players from our team. Several of them left to play for him, leaving our team without enough to continue. The young coach had a brilliant strategy. He told all of the parents of 12 and 13 year-old kids that he’d make sure they all played in high school. That was all many of them needed to hear and they signed the check. I don’t know if anyone asked him how he was going to make sure they all made the high school team, but since not making the team in a few years was a big fear, he stoked it. At the time, this young coach was going to law school and said this travel club was just something he was doing until he became a lawyer. Thirteen years later he is still running what is now a huge competitive baseball organization as its CEO and has, to my knowledge, not bothered to finish his law degree.
Rising cost is another reason fewer kids are participating in sports and that is also related to the travel sports explosion. What is interesting is that years ago competitive organizations really were reserved only for those who exhibited the talent to be considered elite. Then, many of these clubs figured out that they could simply create “A”, “B”, “C”, even “D” teams at each age group so that they didn’t have to turn anyone away who was willing to pay. Parental egos are satisfied because they can say their child plays for (insert prestigious club name), and they can feel that they are giving them an advantage over others. This has often led to less than rec quality play at travel club prices. And it has hip-checked out of the way a lot of youngsters who may or may not be just as talented, but who can’t afford fees.
And even the cost of some rec sports like football and baseball are daunting. Any quality baseball bat now costs in the hundreds of dollars and if you don’t have your own, the parents of the kids who paid that much don’t want you borrowing theirs all season. Some families see soccer cleats as a luxury they can’t afford. Kids from households earning less than $25,000/year play sports at half the rate of kids from homes making at least $100,000. It is surely not because the poorer boys and girls are just not as interested. That greater resources provide greater advantages is a fact we all have to live with in business and real life. But should it now trickle down all the way to our youngsters?
Brian Gotta is a former youth baseball coach and volunteer Little League board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels and a baseball coaching book which can be found at www.booksbygotta.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org