Youth baseball is losing young players and some feel that it is because youth baseball is too boring for today's kids. Nationally youth baseball participation has declined 4.3% from 2009 to 2014, according to a tracking study by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SIFA). Contrasted with tackle football, which has declined a whopping 17.9% over the same period, baseball's decline looks comparably shallow. Football with its concussion and injury issues is perhaps more understandable, but baseball? Our national pastime? Why would youth baseball show such a decline? Is the pace of play and nature of the game turning kids off?
Youth Baseball, too Boring?
It's hard to imagine that baseball is an exciting sport for the average 9-year old. Baseball does have its exciting, action-packed moments, but overall baseball is one of the slowest, if not the slowest, team participation sports. Consider the following:
On average, there is a 11% chance that a fielder will be involved in any given play. (In actuality, it’s much less because of the high incidence of strikeouts and walks in youth baseball.)
The world’s best hitters swing and miss 70% of the time.
The average youth game lasts 1 to 1.5 hours.
There are few set plays, except when attempting to pick off base runner.
Scoring is typically very low, both in the Big and Little leagues
Add it all up, and there is just a lot of standing around. Kids today live in a world of instant gratification and baseball with its slow pace is having a hard time attracting players.
Kids are not the only ones who may be losing interest in baseball. According to an April 2015 Washington Post article, for the first time, the ESPN Sports Poll of young American's 30 favorite sports figures found no baseball players on the list. In addition the article cited a Neilsen Scarborough report that found adults 55 and over are 11% more likely than the overall population to say they have a strong interest in baseball, whereas those in the 18 to 34 age group are 14% less likely to report such interest. Major league baseball is fighting this battle now trying to speed up the game and add other enhancements to win back fans.
It is no stretch of the imagination to assume that younger parents, who may be less and less fans of baseball themselves, could be steering their kids away from baseball. It would simply be human nature for a parent to encourage participation in sports that are personally more appealing.
Batter up! What can be done to reverse baseball's slide?
Baseball is a game that requires and teaches patience and perseverance. It is largely a game of failure interspersed with triumph, but that's what makes baseball great.
Variety in sports experience is good. First, let's start with the premise that youth sports is not major league baseball. The goal in youth sports is to create an environment where kids can experience multiple sports during their early years and as they get older, gravitate to those where they feel most comfortable and exhibit the most skill. Youth sports should not be a decade long college tryout. That is a sure recipe for burnout. Parents play a huge role here. By over emphasizing a single sport at the exclusion of others, in the long run they may be contributing to certain sports’ demise and player burn out.
Youth-level should be primarily a time for training. When you start with this premise in mind, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities. Instead of focusing on winning, youth sports should be a time of focus on individual player development. Focusing on training over winning also opens the door to a whole new world of experiences, such as some of the rule and game structure changes outlined below. A case study released by USA Baseball supports this point. With the help of the Creighton University baseball organization, the Memorial Little League implemented a skills camp which triggered a 10% increase in their league on participation. In addition, with Creighton's involvement training camp participation swelled by 200%, which suggests partnering with a high-profile outside baseball organization may also be part of the rebound formula.
Make practices fun. If the game is boring, it must be off-set with fun practices. A single coach hitting balls to his/her team is about as boring as the game itself. Practices should consist of multiple stations, allowing players to develop experience at multiple positions and get the number of “touches” required to gain higher skill levels. Running practices in this way means that coaches need ample assistants and helpers to run multiple stations.
Position rotation. Many coaches already do this, but below the high-school level it is important that players rotate positions multiple times during a game. This increases position experience and reduces boredom.
Experiment with the rules. A recent article by Sporting News discussed Cal Ripken Jr’s suggested rule and game changes at the youth level to add more strategy and excitement to the game. If you look at youth sports as a time for learning over winning, some of Ripken’s suggestions make real sense:
Starting every inning with a runner on first base (love this idea!)
Starting each inning with a different count
Requiring players to steal
Switching from 3 outs an inning to 5 batters.
There have been many other suggestions to improve youth baseball which include limiting roster sizes, going for 2 bases on every hit, playing 6 on 6 games, shortening games, eliminating strikeouts, awarding points for fielding and many more. When things are not heading in the right direction, youth baseball leaders need to call a timeout and take a fresh look at the way the game is played. Most importantly they should try to look at the game of baseball through the eyes of a youngster, standing in center field, on a hot day, swatting at flies waiting for their turn at the ball or plate. Only then will real change happen.