Let The Children Play – Why Support Youth Baseball?

I’m new to blogging. However, I understand that bloggers refer to key, foundational posts as “cornerstone content.” In my opinion, the cornerstone content for the 4Bases4Kids blog should be my rationale for starting the program. In other words, I need to explain why I am doing this and why the reader should care.

My first piece explained why I was starting this quest and why I included fundraising for youth baseball and softball. The second discussed my baseball background, answering the “OK I’m going on a quest, but why baseball?” question. My third post outlines my itinerary and hopefully garners enough interest so that readers will want to follow my progress. To complete the foundation, I need to explain why I think we need to support youth baseball. Is there an issue with youth baseball in low-income and inner-city areas that requires focus and donations?

The knee jerk answer is “of course, don’t low-income and inner-cities need help in any number of areas?” While that is the assumption, there is also evidence that indicates that youth athletics in these areas need support.

The evidence indicates:

  • Lack of activity causes physical and mental hardships in children.
  • However, participation in athletics including community sports leagues (including baseball leagues) is shrinking.
  • A significant part of the attrition is due to more expensive private club teams that are cannibalizing the traditional leagues.
  • Registration and other participation fees make up a large percentage of local community league’s revenue.
  • Lower-income kids are more likely to stop participating in organized sports than middle and upper-income kids — likely due, in part, to these high costs.
  • Some organizations work in low-income and inner-city areas but need increased funding and awareness.

Active Kids Do Better in Life

Yes, you’re likely thinking, “tell me something I don’t know,” but let’s start at the beginning.

The Aspen Institute’s Project Play initiative summarizes the benefits of sports activity in the chart below. 1

If we want kids to avoid obesity, drug use, risky sex and pregnancy, we should encourage them to exercise. If they do, they are also more likely to do better in school, attend college, earn more financially and be more productive at work. Additionally, active children have a lower probability of disability, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes.

“Indeed, the physiological health benefits of sport participation are well documented. Sport participation for as little as 2–3 hours per week can result in significant cardiovascular, metabolic, and musculoskeletal adaptations independent of age and gender, and is associated with a 7% lower risk of obesity in adulthood for girls. Numerous studies have also shown the social, emotional, and cognitive benefits of sport participation. In addition, compared with school-sponsored physical education, youth sport programs provide a broader community support for addressing the physical inactivity and childhood obesity epidemics by engaging children and adolescents in addition to parents, coaches, and families.”2

Benefits to Society

I’ve always considered myself to be relatively compassionate. I’m one of those “do things for the good of humanity” sorts of people. As such, this evidence is enough reason for me to support helping kids’ develop active lifestyles. However, others may need to understand if there are macroeconomic benefits to society? I don’t have those numbers, sorry. However, if active children become more productive and earn more, won’t they pay more taxes? Won’t they also purchase and maintain health insurance, increasing the health system’s solvency? Additionally, if they avoid major health issues won’t they require less help from society? It sounds like there are benefits to keeping kids active.

Moreover, support now has a reoccurring value. The Alpine Institute found that active children become active parents who raise active children, so the cycle continues intergeneration-ally. 3

While there are long term benefits, there are also immediate benefits to society. “Communities have found that it is cheaper to invest in planned sporting activities and keep children involved than to deal with the problems caused by kids that grow up without supervision, getting in trouble all the time.” 4

So if youth activity is good, what is the problem?

Participation Rates

The problem is that kids don’t participate in these activities. For example, only 24% of kids ages 6 – 12 regularly participated in high-calorie-burning-sports in 2017. 5

Additionally, the Aspen Institute reports that only 69% of children ages 6 to 12 joined in a team or individual sport in 2017. That means that roughly one-third of children aged six to twelve are less than appropriately involved. Significantly, the chart below indicates that these rates are consistent with, if not slightly below the six-year trend. Baseball fans should note that only 37% of these children regularly participate in a team sport. 6

The “glass half full” perspective for baseball is that its participation consistently ranks third, behind only basketball and bicycling. Additionally, almost the same percentage of kids play either baseball or softball as those who play basketball. The “glass half empty” perspective is that although baseball participation was up almost 4% (softball was up 2.0%) in 2017 over 2016, only 14% participated in the two sports. 7

Financial Stress on Lower-Income Families

Significantly (and why my focus is on low-income and inner-city areas), participation rates correlate with family income. While only 34% of children in families that earn less than $25k participate, 69% of those in families that earn greater than $100k do so. The other income ranges follow this progression. 8

Additionally, participation in families that earn less than $75k has declined since 2011. Conversely, those in families that make more than $75k have increased their involvement. Most disconcerting is the drastic decline for those in families that earn less than $25k. Their participation dropped from 42% in 2011 to 34% in 2017. 9

“Athletic participation for kids ages 6 through 12 is down almost 8 percent over the last decade, according to SFIA and Aspen data, and children from low-income households are half as likely to play one day’s worth of team sports than children from households earning at least $100,000.”

“ ‘Sports in America have separated into sport-haves and have-nots,’ said Tom Farrey, executive director of Aspen’s Sports & Society program. The group released its research at its annual Project Play Summit on Wednesday in Washington. ‘All that matters is if kids come from a family that has resources. If you don’t have money, it’s hard to play.’ ” 10

Competition With Community Baseball

Consider how the disparity between the “sport-have’s and have-nots” effects traditional community and Little League baseball. Both are facing stiff competition from private club teams. “Little League participation, for example, is down 20% from its turn-of-the-century peak. These local leagues have been nudged aside by private club teams, a loosely governed constellation that includes everything from development academies affiliated with professional sports franchises to regional squads run by moonlighting coaches with little experience.” 11

Private leagues are more expensive and can cost – on the high end – more than 10% of a family’s income. 12

“Full-time travel baseball means many more practices and many more games — many of them far away. To rise in rankings and win tournaments, some teams, especially in warm climates, play nearly year-round, competing in as many as 120 games per year, more than most minor league players.” 13

“Travel ball is not new — it’s been around for a couple of decades. But participation in full-time travel baseball has exploded in recent years. For example, in 2000, Atlanta’s first All-American Wood Bat Classic tournament opened with about a dozen teams. This Memorial Day weekend, nearly 100 squads from half a dozen states will descend on fields throughout metropolitan Atlanta to participate. The players range in age from 8 to 14.” 14

Costs to Participate

Costs to play, of course, are provided by the children’ families. Player registration fees, can be expensive and possibly limits the possibilities of participation. For example, Little League registration fees account for 65% of budgeted income. Uniforms, equipment supplies account for 66% of expenses. Costs are estimated to be $75 in spring and $40 in fall. 15

These fees can cover more than the cost of uniforms and equipment. This scenario discussed on the Little League’s web site is instructive (emphasis added):

“The Situation: A local league decided to build a field for the Little League Intermediate (50/70) Baseball Division to begin offering new opportunities for its 11- to-13-year-old baseball players. The building cost to the league was $100,000, and after securing a loan through a local bank, construction began in the fall so that the field would be ready for play the following spring. In order to raise the necessary funds to complete the project and pay off the loan, the local league hosted district tournament games, with all of the concession stand proceeds going to offset the cost; organized a capital fund that requested funds from local league sponsors; and also generated revenue from a silent auction and home run derby-style fundraising events. The remaining balance was to be covered by the player participation fee collected during registration for the coming season.” 16

Pressure on Low-Income Families

It’s not surprising that it’s easier for children for higher-income families to participate in private clubs. “Fees and travel costs are pricing out lower-income families. Some kids who don’t show talent at a young age are discouraged from ever participating in organized sports.” 17

The pressure on low-income kids to participate increases due to weaker participation in school. “The schools have by and large defunded gym programs for children creating a healthcare crisis of major proportion in the US and other parts of the world with childhood obesity and asthma creating lifelong chronic disease problems.” Global Youth Team, League, and Tournament Sports Market, 2018-2024: A $15.5 billion market in the US, the youth sports market rivals the size of the $14 billion NFL, Cision PRNewswire reporting on a new study by Wintergreen Research Inc., September 5, 2018 18

The “Hypercompetitive Selection Process”

Once children fall behind in their athletic development, it’s hard to catch up.

“But pursuit of a college athletic scholarship has ‘reshaped’ the youth sports landscape, and placed an earlier emphasis on winning and elite skill development that often forces children to select one sport at an early age.” 19

“That has pushed hypercompetitive selection processes into younger age groups — some basketball analysts rank the nation’s best kindergartners — and ravaged traditional recreational leagues whose purpose is to get kids playing rather than winning games.” 20

Not surprisingly, the hypercompetitive atmosphere is not fun for all children and they don’t thrive or continue. “Children cite ‘fun’ as the primary reason for participation in organized sport and its absence as the number one reason for youth sport attrition.” 21 Attrition is “alarmingly high,” “one-third of participants drop out annually, and 70% drop out by adolescence.”22

Note that there are additional and very disconcerting physical issues that arise from children playing baseball in this hypercompetitive atmosphere. Some of the proliferation of arm injuries is due to early involvement in highly competitive leagues. 23

Is Major League Baseball Involved?

Major League Baseball is involved in at least two initiatives:

In 2015, MLB teamed with the United States Conference of Mayors (USCM) to launch the Play Ball initiative. The ongoing goal is to “encourage sustained participation in the sport for years to come.” 24 Playball.org is a $30 million effort that has shown positive results in getting children interested in baseball. 25

The second is RBI “Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities” that has been administered by MLB since 1991 and has “designated more than $30 million in resources” since its inception. The program’s mission is to:

  • Increase participation and interest in baseball and softball among underserved youth
  • Promote greater inclusion of youth with diverse backgrounds into the mainstream of the game
  • Increase number of talented athletes prepared to play in college and professionally
  • Encourage academic achievement
  • Teach the value of teamwork 26

While both have admirable goals – it’s likely that they need help. With regards to the RBI program specifically:

“In more than twenty-five years, Baseball has spent more than $30 million. Which, and I’m not sure how to put this kindly, doesn’t seem like a lot. This season, Yankees left-hander CC Sabathia will start twenty-seven games and earn $25 million.”

“It’s just unrealistic to think $30 million spread over all those years is going to accomplish much of anything. Or even $60 million, or $90 million. Unless all those millions are spent in one year, and then again every year for a bunch more years. But over nearly thirty years, ostensibly in efforts to change the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands of American kids? To convince them not just to play baseball, but also become lifelong fans? “It’s too good of a cause to be a lost cause,” longtime Dodgers executive Fred Claire says. “I think Baseball can do a better job. You can’t change society, but you can be a part of that change.” 27

What Does One Do?

In my case, I’ve decided to spend the year to raise awareness of the programs and money to support them. In so doing, I am hoping that others will become involved by donating their time and money to work with the various organizations that work with children to become more active, especially in the game I love.

This list includes organizations that I am researching and trying to communicate with to establish how I will distribute the funds raised and possibly to help publicize the initiative.

-Little League International “Urban Initiative” – https://www.littleleague.org/play-little-league/urban-initiative/ – explicitly focused on developing the game in the inner city

Thanks for reading my article.

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  1.  Credit, where credit is due, much of the information in the first part of this article, is from the Aspen Institute’s Project Play website https://www.aspenprojectplay.org/- I’d recommend you review it in its entirety. The chart is on this page https://www.aspenprojectplay.org/the-facts/
  2. The Fun Integration Theory: Towards Sustaining Children and Adolescents Sport Participation, Amanda J. Visek, Sara M. Achrati, Heather Manning, Karen McDonnell, Brandon S. Harris, and Loretta DiPietro, NIH, April 17, 2014
  3. See the chart in the previous section.
  4. Global Youth Team, League, and Tournament Sports Market, 2018-2024: A $15.5 billion market in the US, the youth sports market rivals the size of the $14 billion NFL, Cision PRNewswire reporting on a new study by Wintergreen Research Inc., September 5, 2018
  5. Aspen Institute Project Play https://www.aspenprojectplay.org/kids-sports-participation-rates I will admit to the small flaw in my argument that baseball activity is valuable. The survey does not consider to be a “high-calorie-burning-sport.” However, I am assuming that active ballplayers will also participate in some of these activities as well.
  6. Aspen Institute Project Play https://www.aspenprojectplay.org/kids-sports-participation-rates
  7. Ibid
  8. Ibid
  9. Ibid
  10. “Youth sports study: Declining participation, rising costs and unqualified coaches”, Jacob Bogage, Washington Post, September 6, 2017
  11. “How Kids’ Sports Became a $15 Billion Industry”, Sean Gregory, Time Magazine, August 24, 2017
  12. Ibid
  13. “Stealing Home: How Travel Teams are Eroding Community Baseball”, David Mendell, Washington Post, May 23, 2014
  14. Ibid
  15. Creating a Budget, https://www.littleleague.org/university/articles/local-league-creating-a-budget
  16. Lack of League Marketing, Promotion Leads to Money Troubles, https://www.littleleague.org/university/articles/lack-of-league-marketing-promotion-leads-to-money-troubles
  17. “How Kids’ Sports Became a $15 Billion Industry”, Sean Gregory, Time Magazine, August 24, 2017
  18. Global Youth Team, League, and Tournament Sports Market, 2018-2024: A $15.5 billion market in the US, the youth sports market rivals the size of the $14 billion NFL, Cision PRNewswire reporting on a new study by Wintergreen Research Inc., September 5, 2018
  19. Youth Sports Study: Declining Participation, Rising Costs And Unqualified Coaches, Jacob Bogage, Washington Post, September 6, 2017
  20. Ibid
  21. The Fun Integration Theory: Towards Sustaining Children and Adolescents Sport Participation, Amanda J. Visek, Sara M. Achrati, Heather Manning, Karen McDonnell, Brandonn S. Harris, and Loretta DiPietro, NIH, April 17, 2014
  22. Ibid
  23. Passan, Jeff. The Arm: Inside the Billion – Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports., Reprint Edition. Harper Collins Publishing, 2016. See chapter two specifically.
  24. “About Play Ball” https://www.usmayors.org/play-ball/
  25. Neyer, Rob. Power Ball: Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game., Kindle Edition, Harper Collins Publishing, 2018 – see position 2749.
  26. See “About RBI” – https://www.mlb.com/rbi/about
  27. Neyer, Rob. Power Ball: Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game., Kindle Edition, Harper Collins Publishing, 2018 – see position 2737.

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