Team sports are dying in the very country that is obsessed with them

Field of dreams.
Field of dreams.
Image: Reuters/Toby Melville
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If you travel to the soccer fields of suburban New Jersey every weekend, or spend Friday nights under the lights of a Texas high school football stadium, you are probably under the impression that team sports in America are thriving.

You are wrong.

Participation in youth team sports (ages 6-17) is down 9.3% over the last five years, a combination of a 3.7% drop in the number of kids playing on teams and a 5.9% decline in the average number of sports played by each child, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA).

“Something about the American sports experience is not working as well as it should be,” Tom Cove, SFIA’s president and CEO, tells Quartz. “It’s too elite, too competitive and it’s becoming too costly.”

Of the 22 team sports tracked by the association, 15 had fewer players in 2014 than in 2009, including touch football, tackle football, court volleyball, basketball, outdoor soccer.

That fewer kids are accessing the all-American experience of playing on a local Little League team is perhaps a bit troubling. What’s more alarming is that nearly 20% of kids are now inactive, a figure that has been rising steadily for years. And it’s not just the kids: Both the number of kids and the number of adults who report having done none of the 100 activities listed by the SFIA has gone up for each of the last seven years and now represents 28% of the population, the industry group says.

If this sounds unfamiliar to you, it might be because you have a 10-year-old playing soccer three seasons a year, traveling every weekend, working with various coaches and trainers, and playing at a level never before imagined for 10-year-old children.

Which is part of the problem.

The specialization trend

Like a lot of things these days, the fall-off in team sports participation seem to come down to two main factors: skill gaps and income gaps.

The former is rooted in trends that favor specialization in a specific sport, even at a young age.

When high school football coaches lament that they no longer have a big enough pool of athletes to tap, the issue usually does not come down to fear of injury or lack of interest in football, but rather the fact that the athletic kids who used to play two or three sports a year are now specializing in one sport, and playing it all three seasons. SFIA’s data show that causal participation in sports is down more dramatically than core, or more frequent play.

“Those that play, play a lot. Those that don’t, increasingly are playing not at all,” SFIA’s Cove notes.

Kids try out for travel teams at younger ages now—and if they don’t make it, they give up on the sport. So the quality of play improves, but fewer kids are actually playing. “That’s huge because it makes kids think they should be good at something before they have even had a change to physically evolve,” Cove says.

Cove notes that football can be a great equalizer as there are positions on the field for the fast and slow kid, the lean and heavy one, the coordinated and the less so. There are risks, too, of course—in football especially, players, parents, and fans alike are far more aware than they’ve ever been about the long-term health effects of concussions.

But when it comes to the decline in the number of American kids playing football, concern about injury risk does not appear to be a prime culprit. Football participation rates are down, but so are less-physical sports like basketball and baseball. Meanwhile, participation in lacrosse, rugby, and ice hockey, all hardly gentle sports, is up.

A persistent money gap

Officials at the SFIA thought that the 2008 financial crisis and resulting recession would propel team sports, on the basis that if you had a mitt and a bat, you could always play more ball. But exactly the opposite happened.

As school districts tightened their budgets, there wasn’t as much funding to go around for positions like junior varsity coaches or buses to transport student athletes to games. Local teams fell by the wayside as leagues specialized, cutting the more casual players and funneling the more talented ones to costly elite teams.

“The cost of sports, especially at the core level, has gone up so much it affects participation,” Cove says.

According to a June report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on sports and health in America, one-third of parents in households earning less than $50,000 cite cost as a problem to continuing play, compared with 16% of those earning more than $50,000.

Bucking the trend

There are team sports success stories out there. USA Hockey, which found several years ago that nearly half of kids playing quit by age nine, reduced the attrition rate after determining—and addressing the fact—that kids were being asked to play too much, families were being asked to travel too far, and parents were increasingly worried about safety.

The group developed the American Development Model (ADM), which reduced the amount of travel time for younger players, banned body checking for younger players, and changed how the game is played. Rather than playing the whole length of the rink, kids under eight now play side-to-side, meaning more kids get their sticks on the puck instead of just the fastest skaters. The number of kids on the ice at any time was cut from six to four, and the number of games in the season was slashed by 50%.

Ken Martel, technical director of USA Hockey’s ADM program, told the Sports Business Journal:

“The average parent looks around and they go, ‘What we’re doing doesn’t seem right.’ In their gut, they know it’s not right. Why should my 9-year-old in Chicago have to travel to Boston to play in this tournament? All they hear is the loud voice of the youth coach who wants his piece of the glory or the business operation that’s going to take their money because they can convince you that your kid is the next coming.”

According to Cove, other sports have also made inroads. Tennis developed balls that younger kids can hit more easily, for example. And the Heads Up program in football trains coaches to teach tackling in such a way to protect the head.

Cove says one solution for revitalizing local teams is to push for legislation that will allow health savings accounts to be used to pay for physical activity expenses, including team sports.

If that leads to getting kids off the couch and away from the Xbox, that’s probably something teams of parents could root for.