MLB knows that youth participation in bat-and-ball sports correlates with making lifelong fans. And overall, the news seems to be good on that front: baseball and softball participation are among the most highly-participated sports for kids ages 6-12.
But is there too much of a good thing? Travel and club baseball and softball are also exploding, and those sports are not alone. The youth “elite” sport circuit is now a $7 billion industry. When entire summer (or annual!) calendars are planned around baseball for ten-year-olds, is the sport actually growing sustainably? Or burning itself up?
In my small Wisconsin town, there are at least three times as many 10-and-under “club” softball teams as recreational teams.
It seems doubtful that I just happen to live in the country’s biggest softball hotbed, so what’s going on?
I don’t doubt there are ten year olds who love baseball or softball so much that they want to play it all day, every day over the summer. They love the cool (expensive) bats and the walk-up music, and have serious aspirations of continuing to play as long as they can. And, for some players, it’s a chance to be seen by potential college coaches at showcase tournaments.
Is that the majority of youth club players, though?
Club teams for youth sports may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. When a few of those ultra-motivated and obsessive players leave for a year-round, full-time schedule of baseball, they thin out the ranks of recreational league players. With fewer players available at the recreational league, perhaps some more reluctant, though still enthusiastic, players will join the club teams. Some portion of players will then “age out” of baseball or softball altogether, unwilling to make the financial, travel, or time commitments necessary to play for a club team. The recreational league is then left with a much smaller subset of potential players from the community, who otherwise would (and did in the past) fill the league.
There is significant research that those elite clubs may be doing more harm than good–both to the medium-to-long term impacts on participation, and, more worryingly– to the youth players themselves.
On the physical side, Witt and Dangi (2019) note that “intensive, repetitive use of certain body parts for specific sports has been associated with overuse of muscles or muscle ruptures.” Baseball is almost nothing but intensive and repetitive motions; more than other sports, we spend time and effort with younger players on repetition.
“Not having fun” is the single biggest reasons kids stop participating in sports (Witt and Dangi, 2019). The “tournament” structure for high-level youth sports may add to the pressure or significantly take away from the enjoyment a kid gets from playing the game with their friends, more so than a typical league schedule where you’ll win some and lose some.
In that regard, one wonders if semi-organized sandlot leagues, such as in Chicago (no uniforms, a few rules, and no coaches), would do more for baseball (and the kids playing it) than a $3,000 registration fee and $400 bat could provide.
When the risk for injuries and burnout increase with club sports, perhaps fewer kids will stick with baseball and thin out the player pool that otherwise would fill junior-high or high school teams. As noted here, “kids join youth sports programs in droves–and drop out in droves.”
Those well-researched phenomena haven’t even addressed the cost factor. Youth club sports can (and often) cost thousands of dollars before factoring in family travel. Who can and can’t afford to play when low-cost recreational leagues are unavailable is a serious problem for the long-term health of any sport, not just baseball.
I would posit however, that baseball has some unique characteristics that make it especially susceptible to this issue. Sports like football are unable to play multiple-day tournaments with several games over the course of a few days. Basketball has a lower barrier to entry in terms of equipment, as does soccer.
None of this should be read as a castigation of the families who choose club sports for their children–in full disclosure, I am one of them. Existing research and the exploding trend of year-round, competitive “club” teams should, however, give us pause–parents, players, league organizers, and even MLB.
The well-being of kids should obviously be the sole factor in how we proceed with baseball or softball, at any age. Beyond that, however, because of the predictive nature of participation rates on baseball interest later in life, MLB, and any steward of the game–coaches, fans, and league organizers, to name a few–should pay attention.
USSSA is one of the largest organizers of youth tournaments in the country. “I think parents should have open communication with their athletes about the level of commitment they are comfortable with to make sure they aren’t getting burnt out. We are seeing this more and more at a younger age, so it’s critical that this open dialogue exists between players and parents,” said Ryan Highfill, National Director of USSSA Fastpitch in email response to my questions.
Aware that it is perhaps inadvisable, and possibly impossible to simply “ban” youth club sports, policies could be put into place to better protect youth athletes, and also continue to grow interest and participation in the game. This need not be a legal requirement; league partners (such as MLB) could prioritize sponsorships and working with clubs and leagues that adhered to best practices. Local entities could incentivize clubs with field priority, grants, or equipment.
Limit Season Time
It is advisable that kids play different sports throughout the year, both for the injury overuse risk, but also to allow kids to explore games and develop multiple interests in movement, health, and exercise. By limiting a club’s season to, say, four months, more kids would potentially be able to participate, and there would be “time off” to avoid burnout. This isn’t an unusual policy. Most states have “dead periods” for high school athletes, so it seems backwards we don’t have the same for ten year olds.
Note that this policy wouldn’t necessarily preclude kids from playing year-round. Leagues would still exist in the winter, for instance, but they may be separate from the club league a kid is playing in the summer. It would provide more choices and routes for kids to engage in baseball, rather than an “all or nothing” league where you play year-round or perhaps not at all.
When I was growing up we had the local little league that everyone played in. There was a select all-star team at the end of the season, and what were called “travel all-stars”–two or three kids from the all-star team would travel for about a month playing in tournament pool play to represent the state at a larger tournament.
Such a timeframe feels right to me, though I acknowledge my and everyone else’s bias in thinking things were better in their youth. It would allow serious players more games, while still providing plenty of opportunities for the recreational player over the summer.
Travel is both a limiting factor economically for families as well as a temporal one. Even a tournament an hour away can turn two games into an all-day affair when the two games are spaced apart enough to where it doesn’t make sense to make a two-hour round trip just to turn back a short time later to warm back up and start the next game.
I’d also think that spending hours in a car or in a hotel room is less fun than being able to do those things anywhere rather than a pre-determined location based on which town is hosting a tournament that weekend.
A sensible policy could exempt 1-2 travel tournaments farther than two hours from the club’s home field per season. Or, clubs could receive a miles “budget” per season that they couldn’t exceed. Not only would more kids be able to participate in such a league, but the risk of burnout would be lessened by having more time to enjoy other pursuits.
I propose this would do more for youth sports than perhaps any other policy, save a total regulatory environment on them. Putting a cap on what leagues can charge players under the age of, say, 16 to play would have an immediate impact in that more kids would by definition be able to afford it. It would also have several secondary effects.
It would put a serious dent in the seriously misaligned current incentives in youth sports. Again, that is not to cast judgment on families, league or tournament organizers, or even the equipment manufacturers and sellers. It is a simple acknowledgement that with such large amounts of money, the incentives are not necessarily aligned with the best interest of kids.
A cap of even $500 would limit the number of pay-to-play tournaments even available to the clubs, as lessened player fees provide fewer opportunities for tournament organizers to cash in.
Secondly, it would limit the travel impact on participation. Players would be able to play closer to home, necessitating more blending of “recreational” type leagues and club rosters.
Some clubs have “destination” tournaments, which there could be value in. I know of several little league clubs that have made trips to Cooperstown over a few days for tournaments who had great experiences. One policy tweak may be to allow one “exempt” tournament from player fees per year, so players and families who want the experience can still have it. This is another policy that is not without precedent. Collegiate athletic teams are governed by how many tournaments they can play and where they can travel each year. Once again, it seems strange to not have the same policies in effect for 4th graders.
Prioritize Recreational Leagues
MLB should take the step of promoting recreational leagues, in recognition that more people playing baseball/softball is a good thing, and that club sports below the high school level are at best stagnating that goal.
MLB’s “Play Ball” initiative is seemingly a good start, but could be improved significantly. A search for my town yielded four travel club softball teams, and zero recreational leagues for softball or baseball. MLB could not only vet the leagues listed to ensure they meet minimal participation standards, but do more to promote or incentivize recreational leagues.
Equipment donations, player appearances or sponsorships, and grants to leagues that allow everyone to play, cost under $200, and play fewer than a four-month schedule could make those leagues more desirable once off the ground.
MLB’s “RBI” program seems a good start to address this somewhat– though they are largely limited to MLB markets, and the team websites are inconsistent and not always clear if the leagues are in operation. A recent perusal of the available leagues indicated around two-month league schedules while playing in the neighborhood of 25 games, all with free registration. MLB could expand these league opportunities while also promoting or funding similar organizations that operate outside of MLB.
These proposed policies wouldn’t be easy to enact. Making changes to an industry as large as the youth sports market rarely is. For their part, USSSA’s Highfill told me he doesn’t believe there should be policy limitation on travel or time for any age group. “Again, I think it comes down to the individual and the communication between the athlete and the parent. There should be open communication about what the goals are for each individual. I think it all comes down to communication and making sure we as parents are doing right by our children,” said Highfill.
That sentiment is one I believe everyone can get behind. I’m left, though, wondering about the parents that reached out to me for this story, all of whom expressed both that they’d prefer their child to be in a recreational, local league and some concerns about the potential for burnout.
In the case of baseball and softball, the explosion of club and travel teams is having an effect on the number of recreational or seasonal leagues available to parents. Some percentage of players likely have not considered the individual goals or had open communication and as a result, other players are less likely to have recreational leagues available to them.
These policies provide clarity around the question we all should be asking ourselves.
Who is all this for?