There are a lot of truths in Brian Costa’s latest at the Wall Street Journal. Truths about the expense of high-level youth baseball, over-specialization in youth sports and the disappearance of the low-stress, casual youth baseball games, be they organized or sandlot in nature. It is clear that, for various reasons, fewer kids play baseball these days and that those who do so do it at a level that is inaccessible to kids who didn’t start doing it themselves when they were painfully young.
But while this is less-than-ideal for a number of reasons, at least one of the conclusions drawn from these truths seem off to me. Or at least not inevitable:
This shift threatens to cost Major League Baseball millions of potential fans, raising concerns about the league’s future at a time when revenues are soaring and attendance is strong.
“The biggest predictor of fan avidity as an adult is whether you played the game,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said. An MLB spokesman cited fan polling conducted by the league last year as proof.
Does it have to be that way? If, as Costa notes, every sport is suffering declines in youth participation, why is it that baseball is the only one which risks losing fans as they age? Why do we assume that patterns which fed into the fandom of people who are now adults have to persist? Think of every interest you have right now, sports or otherwise. How many of those things appeal to you only because they appealed to you when you were 12? I like detective novels and post-apocalyptic action movies yet, strangely enough, I solved very few crimes as a lad and rarely if ever fought off marauding bands of War Boys.
None of which is to say that the decline in youth baseball is a good thing. It’s not. But to think, as Rob Manfred and others seem to think, that if you lose youth players you’ve lost the best source of future fans seems off to me. How many NFL fans were drawn to the game because of marketing? Fantasy sports participation? Social stuff with friends which revolve on it being an attractive TV product? Any number of other things? Baseball is likely not putting all of its eggs in one basket when it comes to growing the game (i.e. youth participation) so we should not look to that one basket as a sign of baseball’s future vitality.
More broadly, the future does not have to look like the past. Let’s stop pretending it does.