The state of youth sports in America is either booming or suffering, depending on which box score you’re checking.
You could follow the money. Kids’ sports is a nearly $17 billion industry, which makes it larger than the business of professional baseball and approximately the same size as the National Football League. Or you could follow the kids. The share of children ages 6 to 12 who play a team sport on a regular basis declined from 41.5 percent in 2011 to 37 percent in 2017, according to a recent report from the Aspen Institute. Going back to 2008, participation is lower across categories, including baseball, basketball, flag football, and soccer, in some cases by a lot: Baseball is down about 20 percent.
The decline of youth sports participation is the sort of phenomenon that seems exquisitely tailored to exacerbate fears about the state of American childhood. One might suspect that the falloff is the result of children gravitating to video games, television, and other electronic distractions that don’t require an open field or a court. Perhaps athletics is just another legacy institution that can’t compete for attention anymore, like church, community centers, and bowling leagues.
But dig into the numbers, and a more complex, two-track story emerges. Among richer families, youth sports participation is actually rising. Among the poorest households, it’s trending down. Just 34 percent of children from families earning less than $25,000 played a team sport at least one day in 2017, versus 69 percent from homes earning more than $100,000. In 2011, those numbers were roughly 42 percent and 66 percent, respectively.