Step Up To The Plate

When I founded the National Alliance For Youth Sports in 1981, one of the driving forces behind that decision was due to the alarming number of youth-sports programs that resembled those in the professional ranks.

As most know--that’s not what youth sports are supposed to be about.

I knew that if programs continued down that path, more and more kids would become disenchanted with sports, bail out, and look elsewhere for something fun to do.

Sizing Up The Numbers

A recent Wall Street Journal article turned the spotlight on the rapidly declining participation in youth baseball. From 2000 to 2009, the number of kids aged 7 to 17 playing baseball fell 24 percent, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. Furthermore, the article reports, about 2 million kids played Little League last year, compared to about 2.5 million in 1996. That’s an overall decline of 25 percent.

So just how bad is the situation?

The spiraling numbers are even turning heads at Major League Baseball headquarters, which is doing its own research to review the league’s efforts to grow the game.

As recreation professionals, these gloomy participation numbers should be cause for great concern.

After all, how unthinkable would it be if someday all the ball fields scattered around the country sat empty because we pushed kids to model the professionals, instead of making kid-friendly decisions for those on the field?

I remember during my previous job working with the Athletic Institute--a promotional arm of the sporting-goods industry--in which a survey found that 70 percent of children who started playing sports at an early age quit by the time they reached their 13th birthday because fun was shoved to the side and no longer part of the equation.

Interestingly, a high school student in Connecticut recently took it upon himself to conduct his own study on why youngsters play sports. At last count, he had polled nearly 700 boys and girls in fourth through eighth grades. For both boys and girls, the most popular answer was the same: they play to have fun. That’s what means the most to them.

Inspect Your Programs

Are your baseball programs experiencing smaller turnouts? Are kids simply choosing other, more action-packed sports at your facility, or are they turning their backs on sports all together?

If it’s the latter, your challenge is to take a look at how your baseball program is structured. If it’s modeled after the pros, with stress-filled tryouts and a heavy schedule of practices and games, it’s likely too overwhelming for many children who aren’t ready for that type of experience just yet. Sure, a portion of children embrace the competitive elements the first time they step on the field, but it’s not for everyone.

Your job is to make sure that all the kids have those special experiences so they are eager to come back and take swings, run bases, and field grounders. I’m sure most of you have some wonderful memories of playing the game while growing up. It’s a shame that a large segment of today’s youth population won’t have those same memories to look back on. It’s up to you to take on that challenge and help change that.

Fred Engh is founder and CEO of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla. He can be reached via e-mail at To join more than 3,000 communities by starting a NAYS chapter, visit or contact Emmy Martinez at or (800) 729-2057.

Bryan BuchkoComment