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April 10th, 2015 at 10:39 pm

Struggling to hook kids, baseball risks losing fans to other sports

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Rob Albericci saw his son Austin’s Little League baseball team struggle to recruit enough kids to fill a roster, and the rising demands of Austin’s football team, the growing pressure for kids to focus on a single sport, to specialize even before they hit puberty.  

And he saw a sharp swerve in his son’s passion.

The father tried to steer his son toward sticking with baseball — because the injury risk is lower than in football, because baseball is “a thinking man’s game,” and because baseball is how father and son first bonded over sports. “I threw with him,” the father says, and he looks at his muscular son with a softness reserved for the littlest of boys. “I’d take him to cages and throw and hit. He always wanted to bunt.”

But Austin, 15 now, a high school freshman in Demarest, N.J., wasn’t listening to his father’s pitch. Austin recognizes that “hitting a 90-mile-an-hour ball is the hardest thing to do in sports.” He still admires baseball: “There’s nothing better than a sick double play on the Top 10” on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” he says. But with Derek Jeter having retired, there’s not a single active baseball player on his list of sports favorites. Austin had had it with the imbalance in baseball between anticipation and action.

“Most of the time, I was in center field, wondering, ‘When is the ball going to get to me?’ ” he says. “Baseball players are thinking ahead all the time, always thinking of the possibilities — ‘If I can’t get it to second, do I throw to first?’ Baseball is a bunch of thinking, and I live a different lifestyle than baseball. In basketball and football, you live in the moment. You got to be quick. Everything I do, I do with urgency.”

Rob Manfred hears Austin’s words read to him, and the new commissioner of Major League Baseball lets out a bit of a sigh. “That’s a particularly articulate kid,” he says. “Those are the sorts of issues we need to address, because the single biggest predictor of avidity in sports is whether you played as a kid.”

Baseball, for decades now the national pastime only through the nostalgic lens of history, is a thriving business. Revenue is at an all-time high. Attendance in the 30 major league parks and in minor leagues around the country is strong. Baseball players on average make half again as much money as football players. But since he took office this year, Manfred has been sounding a startling warning bell: The sport must address its flagging connection to young people or risk losing a generation of fans.

On opening day of the 140th season since the National League was founded, baseball’s following is aging. Its TV audience skews older than that of any other major sport, and across the country, the number of kids playing baseball continues a two-decade-long decline.

Baseball has been defying predictions of its fall — because of overexpansion, or because of the decline of small-town America, or because Americans soured on nostalgia — since the 1920s. And the game remains the second-most popular sport for kids to play, after basketball. “Baseball is an extraordinarily healthy entertainment product,” Manfred says.

But the pervasive impact of new technologies on how children play and the acceleration of the pace of modern life have conspired against sports in general and baseball in particular.

According to Nielsen ratings, 50 percent of baseball viewers are 55 or older, up from 41 percent 10 years ago. ESPN, which airs baseball, football and basketball games, says its data show the average age of baseball viewers rising well above that of other sports: 53 for baseball, 47 for the NFL (also rising fast) and 37 for the NBA, which has kept its audience age flat.

Young people are not getting into baseball as fans as they once did: For the first time, the ESPN Sports Poll’s annual survey of young Americans’ 30 favorite sports figures finds no baseball players on the list. Adults 55 and older are 11 percent 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 percent less likely to report such interest, according to a study by Nielsen Scarborough. Kids ages 6-17 made up 7 percent of the TV audience for postseason games a decade ago; in the past couple of years, that figure is down to 4 percent.

Last fall’s first game of the World Series was the lowest-rated ever, with 12.2 million viewers. Still, in a fragmented media landscape, with some fans forsaking TV to follow sports on their phones, 12 million viewers “is a significant achievement,” says Stephen Master, Nielsen’s senior vice president for sports. As Yogi Berra, the legendary Yankees catcher and philosopher, once said, “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”

Baseball’s economic model is different from that of other sports. Its TV audience is primarily local and strong in pockets. In 11 markets where the sport does well — St. Louis, Detroit, Cincinnati and Boston top the list — the home team’s games are the most-watched programs on TV all summer.

And the sport is moving aggressively into digital culture — its mobile app, MLB.com At Bat, is the nation’s most popular sport-specific app, according to Nielsen. But in an era when local identity is taking a back seat to a national digital culture, the sport runs the risk of losing its place in the national conversation.

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“If baseball does nothing, they’ll probably stay flat for another 10 years,” says Rich Luker, a psychologist and sports researcher who has run ESPN’s polling for two decades. “But 20 years from now, they’ll be moving to a secondary position in American life, doomed to irrelevance like Tower Records or Blockbuster Video.”

Less likely to ‘have a catch’

On a late March afternoon in the bedroom community of Closter, N.J., with stubborn clumps of snow still standing sentinel against spring, eager parents, some in business suits, squeeze together on a narrow bench inside the Northern Valley Baseball Academy, a gleaming indoor facility staffed by coaches with college and pro experience. Every few minutes, a father or mother sidles over to a coach, eager to boost a boy’s chances.

“He’s a little rusty ’cause he hasn’t been out there with all the snow, but he’s got a good eye,” one father says.

“He just loves baseball,” a mother offers. “He sleeps with his glove.”

The coaches nod and stare across the room to where the boys field grounders. At these Little League tryouts, decisions are being made about which level of ball these kids will play this season. The 41 boys are in first and second grade, and they are bouncing around like pinballs.

“I’m seeing a lot of nervous faces,” Jim Oettinger tells the boys. He is Closter’s recreation commissioner, and he has the clipboard every parent is watching, the scoring sheet that will determine where their sons play. “There’s nothing to be nervous about. Everyone here is going to make a team, so have fun.”

The turnout looks great, but the image is illusory: Until last year, Closter ran its own Little League. So did the neighboring towns of Demarest and Haworth. But a severe decline in the number of kids signing up to play baseball led the towns last year to disband their own leagues and create theTri-Town Little League — the kind of consolidation that officials at Little League headquarters in Pennsylvania say is happening more and more nationwide.

“We have seen a decline in participation over the past 12 years, 1 or 2 percent every year,” says Patrick Wilson, Little League’s senior vice president of operations. “There is a generation of parents now that don’t have a connection to the game because they didn’t play it themselves, and if you didn’t play, you’re less likely to go out in the back yard and have a catch.”

For many years, Little League detailed youth participation in baseball and softball, but as those numbers declined, from nearly 3 million in the 1990s to 2.4 million two years ago, the organization stopped releasing tallies. A Little League spokesman declined to explain why it no longer puts out those numbers.

The number of kids trying out for the Tri-Town league declined sharply across age groups this spring: Despite the good turnout for first- and second-graders, fewer than half as many fifth- and sixth-graders showed up. Among seventh- and eighth-graders, only 11 boys tried out. Cost is no barrier; the towns pick up the fee.

“If that’s not an indictment, I don’t know what is,” says Mike Tsung, manager of the baseball academy.

The three towns combined now field only one-tenth the number of youth baseball teams that Closter alone had 30 years ago, Oettinger says.

Those who love the game remain deeply passionate, and in affluent northern New Jersey, there are enough such families to support a facility that charges $90 an hour for private coaching. But the academy has had to rent practice space to community soccer leagues — generating considerable whining from some baseball coaches.

“Complain all you want,” says the facility’s owner, Joe Argenziano, “but soccer pays the bills.”

‘It’s kind of like fashion’

Starting this week, Major League Baseball will push its millionaire performers to speed up their act. Hoping to catch up to the pace of a generation weaned on instant messaging and real-time video, baseball this season institutes the first clock to be associated with a proudly timeless pursuit — a countdown timer in the outfield that will limit the break between innings to two minutes and 25 seconds, plus a new rule requiring hitters to stay in the batter’s box to trim hitters’ fussing and fidgetingbetween pitches.

“It’s a reflection of the fact that our society’s constantly becoming faster-paced,” says Manfred.

But the commissioner is adamant that there’s no need to alter the basic character of baseball. “It’s kind of like fashion,” he says. “Some people buy really flashy things, and they end up in the discard pile. We are like the kind of clothing that’s classic and stays with you all your life.”

Professional baseball has concluded that if the game can be shaved from last year’s average of three hours and two minutes (compared with 2:33 in 1981), an impatient society may find more to like.

But many of those who study baseball’s appeal say they don’t see evidence that pace is the problem or the solution. Football games are often longer than baseball games, and few complain about their length, says Michael Haupert, an economist at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse who studies the business of baseball. “The problem isn’t the length, but the perception that nothing’s going on in the game.”

Haupert says boosting the game’s offense offers more promise; tweaks such as lowering the pitcher’s mound, limiting defensive shifts and restricting pitching changes are under discussion in pro, college and youth baseball.

But baseball’s troubles have at least as much to do with larger changes in society as with the rules of the game. In a time of rapidly shifting family structure, increased sports specialization and declining local identity, baseball finds itself at odds with social change.

Participation in all sports has dropped by more than 9 percent nationwide over the past five years, according to an annual study by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. Only lacrosse has shown double-digit growth over that period. Baseball participation dropped 3 percent, basketball fell by 2 percent, and football lost 5 percent of its tackle players and 7 percent of touch players. About half of American children do not participate in any team sport.

What’s distinctive about baseball’s decline is that kids leave the sport at a younger age than they fall away from basketball or football, though the dropoff is even steeper for soccer. A primary reason for kids switching out of baseball is rising pressure on youths to specialize in one sport.

Travel teams and other selective, intensive programs — including high-priced showcases and year-round academies — have had strong growth in recent years, as has the Cal Ripken Division of Babe Ruth League, which features a larger field than Little League uses. And some travel leagues have had so much demand that they have started teams for less-advanced players.

But some coaches, parents and researchers say the trend toward specialization has disproportionately hurt baseball. David Ogden, a University of Nebraska at Omaha researcher who focuses on youth baseball, says selective teams produce better-trained players for high school and college teams but diminish baseball’s appeal to the casual player.

The high cost — about $2,000 a year in many cases — limits opportunities for lower-income families, and the high level of play leaves more broad-based organizations such as Little League and YMCA teams with “a lot of kids who can’t get the ball over the plate, so the game is less fun and kids drop out,” Ogden says.

Specialization troubles baseball’s commissioner. “You’re not going to stop the natural funneling that goes on,” Manfred says, “but we’re interested in kids like me, who were not great players. Our goal is to make the pipeline as big as you can in the beginning.”

‘Few had held a glove’

A significant impediment to widening that pipeline to baseball may be the changes that have altered the structure of American families.

In a 15-year study of 10,000 youth baseball players, Ogden found that the sport is drawing a more affluent, suburban and white base than it once did. In another study he conducted, 95 percent of college baseball players were raised in families with both biological parents at home — at a time when only 46 percent of Americans 18 and younger have grown up in that traditional setting.

“We’re looking at a generation who didn’t play catch with their dads,” Ogden says, “and that’s at the core of the chasm between baseball and African Americans. Kids are just not being socialized into the game.”

The proportion of black players in the major leagues has fallen from 19 percent in 1986 to 8 percent last year. Ogden found that blacks make up only 2.6 percent of baseball players on Division I college teams.

Latinos, on the other hand, are both the fastest-growing component of major league rosters and an expanding part of the fan base; Hispanics are more likely than whites or African Americans to be avid baseball fans, according to Luker’s analysis of ESPN polling data.

Last winter, the Washington Nationals opened a youth baseball academy in the Fort Dupont section of Southeast, where 108 elementary students get after-school academic instruction as well as baseball training on three fields and in a state-of-the-art indoor facility. Similar programs are launching in other major league cities, and Manfred says the sport is investing in other programs to lure African Americans and others who feel disconnected from the game.

Visiting the new academy this winter, Manfred said, “The single most important thing for our game is getting kids to play.”

Later, in his 31st-story conference room overlooking New York’s Grand Central Terminal, Manfred recalled his own, more traditional introduction to the game: “When I was 10, my father took the time to drive me from Rome, N.Y., for a weekend full of Yankee baseball, and that made me a lifelong fan.”

Hardly anyone at the Nationals academy has had that kind of experience. The students arrive enthusiastic but with “knowledge of the game that is minimal at best,” says Tal Alter, 39, the facility’s executive director. “Very few had held a glove or bat before. But it’s not a lack of interest, more a lack of resources. Baseball does require a lot of resources — parent volunteers, equipment, fields. Our job is to make up for that gap.”

Last week, the Nationals began giving away team uniforms to all 4,500 Little League players in the city, to build the team’s brand and ease the financial burden of playing. But for many kids, the barriers are as much social and cultural as financial.

DeAndre Walker, 22, teaches and coaches at the academy and wishes he’d had such a place to go to when he was little. “A place to come and feel safe,” he says. “This here was a field of rocks when I was coming up, all dirt and rocks.” Walker fell for baseball in second grade even as his friends were into basketball and football.

“I was kind of like the outcast,” he says. In middle and high school, Walker had to spend hours persuading track and football players to sign up for baseball, too, so the school might reach the threshold for fielding a team.

“It would take not a miracle, but some convincing, because baseball’s looked at kind of like a taboo. To them, it’s a white sport. White kids learned it from their fathers. I never knew my dad. Your dad gets you your first glove, your first bat. My mother didn’t care if I went to practice on time.”

The commissioner, researchers and coaches all see the transmission of baseball fever relying heavily on the father-son dynamic, whereas other sports are often taught in school or by peers. “If somebody doesn’t teach you the art of hitting, which takes a very long time and usually has to happen at an early age, you’re not going to learn the game,” Argenziano says.

Walker says his friends eschew baseball because it’s too quiet, too reserved. Baseball coaches often note that the same celebratory on-field behavior that can help an NBA or NFL player become a fan favorite could get a batter beaned in baseball.

“Baseball has no LeBron James, who doesn’t take [guff] from anybody,” says John McCarthy, who runs Home Run Baseball Camp in upper Northwest Washington and has worked for years to revive baseball in the inner city. “Baseball has a very conservative culture where you don’t draw attention to yourself. You play every day, so you have to get along. Baseball’s culture is less celebratory, and that’s a problem for a lot of kids today.”

‘We’re not going back’

Manfred learned baseball in what he recalls as “Mayberry,” an idyllic small-town environment where kids played backyard catch with their fathers, where the grass had base paths worn into the turf, where errant Wiffle balls dotted the garden like so many bulbs awaiting spring.

But the commissioner is clear: “We’re not going back to the ’60s. Society has changed. The days when your parents sent you off to the park for eight hours and didn’t worry about you are gone.”

Baseball has lived for the better part of a century on its unchanging character, its role as a bond between generations, its identity as a quintessentially American game that features a one-on-one faceoff of individual skills tucked inside a team sport. Can a game with deliberation and anticipation at its heart thrive in a society revved up for nonstop action and scoring?

Baseball officials are confident that the game, which overcame a serious drop in attendance in the 1950s, will endure. Young people are often eager to express different passions and values from their parents, but so far at least, each new generation has returned to the fields of its fathers.

The answer this time will come from kids such as Austin Albericci, the New Jersey teen who dropped baseball to focus on football, the boy who, to his father’s disappointment, doesn’t sit with his dad and watch Yankees games like they used to.

Austin has put baseball aside for now, but he figures he may return to the game someday. “If I ever have a son, he’ll definitely have to try baseball,” he says. “Because my father loved baseball. That means something.”

Image credit:  Ian Abbott | Flickr
Via The Washington Post

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