Why Are Kids Leaving Baseball?

According to the Sports Industry and Fitness Association, during 2008-2013, baseball participation rates declined by 2.3 million, or 14.5%. Similar data has been reported by Little League baseball, which claims that participation fell 6.8% from 2008-2012. These reports do not bode well for the future of America’s pastime or any other baseball-related business. In recent years, various theories have emerged for why kids are not grabbing their mitts and heading off to baseball diamonds. Currently, Major League Baseball is studying methods for speeding up the game to foster more quickly-paced games. However, there are a multitude of diverse, comprehensive reasons for baseball’s slide which are not being fully addressed.

Lack of stimulation
Indulged with interactive video games, smartphones, and other technologies, today’s children have developed high expectations for being entertained. If given the choice between standing on a baseball field waiting for a ball to be hit their way versus running around with a lacrosse stick, chasing a soccer ball, or hustling up and down a basketball court, most kids will not choose baseball. As a spring sport, the growing appeal of lacrosse and its action-oriented nature presents the greatest threat to stealing prospective athletes from baseball. In an era where our youth face immense societal pressures, poor diets, and sedentary living, lacrosse enables boys to let out mounting aggression. Not surprisingly, since 2009, lacrosse has experienced a growth rate of 27.8 percent, per USLacrosse.org.
Baseball lovers recognize that their sport is an art form with intriguing twists, turns, and pauses in the action. Yet, most sports’ participants/fans view these same pauses as boring, nonsensical, and archaic. Baseball has often been described as “a thinking man’s game” because of the endless game scenarios that arise which require forethought. Kids, and people, in general, don’t want to think too much. They want to do. Furthermore, with higher rates of diagnosed ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder) cases in recent years, fewer children have the ability or desire to focus during a slow-moving sport like baseball. A study in California of almost one million children revealed ADHD rates rose 24% in the past decade (WebMD). In short, baseball requires patience and impulse control, while mashing another player with a lacrosse stick brings instant gratification.

Too much failure
Successful baseball players, including future Hall of Famer Derek Jeter, fail around seven out of ten times at the plate as hitters. Most young children do not possess the resiliency or fortitude to deal with this. Frequently, kids strike out more than one time in a game. This leaves them feeling dejected and demoralized when riding home in the backseat of their parents’ car. It is not always the best athletes that succeed in baseball – a fact exemplified by NBA legend Michael Jordan. Jordan, considered one of the greatest “athletes” of all-time (in terms of pure physical talent & ability), finished his minor league baseball career with a paltry .202 batting average. He failed eight out of ten times and never fulfilled his dream of being an MLB player.

Other sports provide more opportunities for redemption. When a player strikes out in baseball, he may not get another chance to hit for 30-45 minutes. But, if he misses a shot in soccer or basketball, he is likely to get another chance within the next few. Similarly, if he makes an error in baseball, he may not get another chance to make a clean play for the rest of that game. In today’s society, few people want to dedicate themselves to refining the skills of baseball while dealing with the frequency of failure on game day.

Lack of parity
Most of the time, there is a dominant player and pitcher within an age group in every community. This overpowering pitcher is used as often as possible by his youth coach, which only exacerbates the strikeout problem for many hitters. While there are star, highly skilled players in all sports, this pitcher-dominance situation is not as devastating in those arenas. For instance, in a youth soccer game where the final score is 3-2, players need not hang their heads after the contest. Everyone from a defensive player to an offensive forward to a goalie can be told that they played a great game. A player who goes 0 for 4 at the plate with two strikeouts in a 3-2 baseball game is not going to buy the “good game, Johnny” rhetoric.

Not everyone is a winner
Contemporary society has been sneered at by aging adults for the “every player is a winner” mentality and advent of the participation trophy. A 2012 comedy film, Parental Guidance, depicts this theme as Billy Crystal is disgusted by the absence of winners, losers, and strikeouts at his grandson’s Little League game. Even though youth baseball may offer encouragement and trophies to all, it correlates less with this overall feel-good trend. Parents want their children to have a smile on their faces at all times regardless of performance. The merits of the Protestant work ethic and learning from difficult experiences are philosophies of the 20th century, not 2015. When there is a pitcher and batter competing in each at-bat throughout the game, one person wins and one person loses. Not everyone is a winner in baseball.

No more neighborhood play
Baseball is a skill sport that requires a great deal of time to improve at. Decades ago, when most children played unsupervised in the streets or fields, kids refined the skills of hitting, catching, and throwing in a fun atmosphere among their peers. Pick-up games of stick ball, “butts up”, pepper, Wiffle ball, softball, kickball, and countless others reinforced these skills. Parents may still play catch with their children on the front lawn, but the extensive hours of children mindlessly working on various fundamentals associated with baseball are gone.
Instead of practicing in the backyard, many players get their first few hundred repetitions at a formalized T-Ball or Little League practice in a public venue where failure occurs. Even at that, practice is not frequent enough to refine the skills needed for baseball. And once the season commences, coaches and players typically only show up to play on game day. Kids have very little chance to improve their mechanics. Previously, these struggles and physical mistakes were ironed out in local neighborhood games with no adults present. Now they occur in organized leagues on manicured fields with coaches screaming out directives and grandparents squeezing video cameras through fence holes to catch all the action. Ultimately, this puts excessive pressure on youth baseball players and is much more humiliating than failing in a friendly stickball game with neighbors.

Lack of a clock
Today’s parents and children are over-scheduled with activities. This creates stress and anxiety in getting to various programs (piano, soccer, religion class, swimming… etc.) on time. Given that baseball has no clock, unlike other sports, it is impossible to predict when a game may end. Long innings riddled with errors or pitchers struggling to throw strikes will inevitably cause children to be late to their next scheduled activity. Youth baseball has always been chock full of fielding mistakes and other delays that prolong games. But, factor in doubleheaders, travel time, and an extensive “infield-outfield” warm-up, and it adds up to a six hour day. In other sports, the clock still ticks down to zero during poor or excellent play. Baseball purists relish the lack of a clock in the game, but busy, working parents may opt to place their child in an alternate sport where the game has a more concrete ending time.

Old, not cool
Kids watching professional baseball games on television see elderly announcers, heavily bearded players spitting seeds and tobacco, coaches with beer bellies, costumed mascots, and classic ballparks. Baseball’s most legendary player, Babe Ruth, was an overweight, out-of-shape athlete. In comparison, basketball, soccer, and football games feature young, sharply dressed coaches, extremely fit athletic performers, and sexy cheerleaders/dancers. When these sports’ athletes excel, they have wildly exciting celebrations. In baseball, public celebration is taboo or “bush league” and will likely get a player beaned in the back with a fastball. The pre-game introductions for other sports are fused with modern music and laser light shows or dramatic smoke-filled displays. Baseball revels in being old and nostalgic. Studies show that MLB fans are 70% male, 83% White, and 50% are age 55 or older (Time.com; 4/6/2015). Professional sports’ alternatives to baseball offer a product that is trendy, stylish, and energized. The new generation will pick hip over classic every time.

Sport specialization
Athletes are being asked to select a specific sport to specialize in at younger and younger ages. Travel teams and their coaches financially benefit from year-round programs in their respective sport. As a result, they urge and sometimes threaten players to focus on only one sport. Gone are the days of high school athletes aspiring to play ‘the big three’ sports of football, basketball, and baseball. Parents are encouraged to push their children to become highly effective at one sport that may help them gain an edge for college admissions or perhaps a scholarship. While this advice is generally misguided, it also causes overuse injuries and mental burnout. With more and more sports offering year-round programs for specialization, baseball loses. Previous generations viewed baseball as the American pastime with large percentages of the population playing in the spring and summertime. These player participation rates are down significantly.

Father no longer knows best
More and more middle class fathers are working longer hours to pay for their suburban dwellings. This leaves less time for baseball catches with children and coaching youth teams. Lower class families are often single-parent homes, with no dad at all. The fathers that are involved with coaching baseball are using, in many cases, outdated coaching techniques that they were taught as children. These activities involve a lot of standing around watching one kid try to hit the ball. Baseball is in desperate need of creative drills and fun competitions that engage a larger percentage of the participants. Not enough youth baseball leagues require their coaches to attend clinics, seminars, or be thoughtful about how to run an energized practice. Unfortunately, when it comes to youth baseball, very few fathers know best.

It’s not a home run
It is no secret that sports attract parents as a potential ‘pot of gold’ opportunity. However, the top draft picks in football and basketball always get rich contracts, and 90 percent make it to the professional ranks. In baseball, the numbers are half that, at best. Even at its highest levels, judged by the best minds and veteran talent-scouts, baseball is a crap shoot. The way that professional basketball, football, tennis, and many sports are played these days reflects a winner-take-all pyramid. The top few stars (LeBron James, Tom Brady, Serena Williams, etc.) are guaranteed a shot in the winner’s circle year after year. Baseball is just not like that – teams that stuff their rosters with the most star players and highest payrolls rarely win the World Series. It is this unpredictability for designing a championship team that makes baseball so unique. But, this variability is also less alluring to people who demand definite results.

Broken dreams
In the United States, most adults are not winning. The majority of people in the new generation of the middle class are terrified that they are going to fall out of the race, behind where their parents were, and behind ‘the other guy’. Instead of a sense that slow and steady hard work is going to pay off, many young people are approaching their lives like lotteries. They think that if they can make one leap and grasp the brass ring then they will be set forever. And if they miss, it is all over and not worth even getting off the ground for. For most kids (and too many parents), sports start out as a fantasy escape from the world, not as an instrument for learning about and navigating it. Baseball is also just random enough for deluded dads and moms to hold onto their belief that little Max might be an all-star someday, if his travel coach would just give him more playing time. In the end for some, baseball represents unfulfilled hopes and dreams.

It’s American
America has always celebrated baseball as a symbol for our nation’s tradition, rules, integrity, and history. Yet, a 2014 Harris Poll revealed that only 14% of its sports fans selected baseball as their favorite sport (The Week; 5/11/2015). In addition, America is more culturally diverse than ever before, but there are few minority groups playing the game. As a melting pot, many citizens have less allegiance to American culture and more ties to their land of origin. This is evident during the World Cup, as the various ethnic groups in our country seem to be rooting for every team, but the United States. America also stands for capitalism, which is hurting baseball more than ever. With expensive equipment, including bats, cleats, gloves, bags, uniforms, and high-priced travel teams, many families are priced out of the sport. This includes fans – a family of four spends an average of $211 to attend a MLB game (CNBC; 4/8/15). Commercialization with giant ads all over the ballpark and sales pitches in between innings is an added turn off.
In seeking higher profits and to afford increasing player salaries, MLB teams have sold out to cable stations and lost many viewers who previously watched baseball on free broadcast television. New Yorkers now have to pay an extra $58.68 a year to tune into Yankee games on the YES Network. Even worse, Yankee fans that live out of town must fork over $109.99 a year to view games on MLB.tv (Bloomberg Business; 5/18/15). Competition among baseball training facilities and sports apparel companies has created new industries that have squeezed out the typical household. American culture and for-profit corporations which helped make baseball so popular to the middle class with slogans like “baseball, apple pie, and Chevrolet” are now killing it by only targeting a sliver of the population – the wealthy elite.

“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?”
A pressing issue facing baseball is a lack of role models and heroes. While players such as Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Adam Jones make for excellent MLB torch bearers, a recent ESPN poll suggests otherwise. In its annual poll, ESPN’s survey of young Americans’ top 30 favorite sports figures had no baseball players on the list (Washington Post, 4/5/15). For years, one reason kids took an interest in specific baseball players was the fun and excitement of opening up packs of baseball cards with colorful photographs of their favorite players. Kids don’t buy baseball cards anymore. With competition from Pokemon, Garbage Pail Kids, and other cards, baseball is losing out (again). Although Simon and Garfunkel’s 1968 lyrics about Joltin’ Joe may have had a different intent, they still ring true almost fifty years later. Until the MLB and baseball stake holders can figure out these multi-layered issues, Americans will continue to ask why young players, much like Joe DiMaggio, have left and gone away.

By Darren Gurney, Washington University in St. Louis

Coach Gurney has been coaching high school and college baseball for the past 24 years and is the founder/director of the Rising Star Baseball Camp in New Rochelle, NY which teaches players ages 4-15. He has coached over twenty players who were selected in the MLB Draft or that have gone on to play professional baseball. In 2011, Coaches Choice published his instructional baseball book, Covering All the Bases, which received rave reviews from The NY Times, Collegiate Baseball, and various professional athletes.