By GRAIG GRAZIOSI
Youth baseball is disappearing.
Jeff Jackson, president of the Campbell City Baseball League and a baseball coach at Campbell Memorial High School, has been trying to stymie the exodus of young people from the baseball diamond since he took over the position seven years ago.
“Things aren’t like how they were 15 or 20 years ago,” Jackson said. “You don’t see kids playing pickup games like they used to.”
The city league includes a T-ball team, a coach-pitch team, boys and girls teams for children between 9 and 12 and a boys Pony League.
This year, Jackson has about 130 students participating, down from the 200-plus participants the league had in the early 2000s.
He said Campbell used to have enough students to field seven teams and play its entire season inside Campbell. Now the team p lays against teams in Struthers and Lowellville to fill out the season.
“I’ve been trying to figure out how to get the kids more involved,” Jackson said. “I’ve already cut the cost of participation way below the other sports offered in the city.”
The decline in participation isn’t a local phenomenon; youth sports programs across the nation have been losing players for years.
The “big four” youth sports – baseball, football, soccer and basketball – have seen significant declines in active participants over the past decade.
According to research from Stanford University, participation in youth baseball, football and basketball has declined 30 percent or more since 2006, and while soccer has fared significantly better, it has still experienced a 15 percent decline in the same period.
The Aspen Institute – a Washington-based think-tank – found only 36 percent of 6- to 12-year-olds were involved in any kind of team sport on a regular basis, a
2 percent drop from 2015.
The study also found children from low-income homes are far more likely to be physically inactive than those from wealthier families, which may suggest that increasing income inequality contributes to the decline in youth sports.
In Campbell, Jackson has tried to eliminate cost barriers that keep students from participating.
The cost for 9- to 12-year-old players formerly was $65, but Jackson has reduced the cost to $40.
For comparison, the city soccer league costs students $80 and the flag football league costs $110.
“For some students, cost is definitely an issue, but there’s plenty of other students who can afford to play more expensive sports,” Jackson said. “I don’t want any student have to turn away from playing because they can’t afford it.”
Jackson isn’t the only local coach dealing with declining participation.
Brett Fine is a member of the Tri-T Baseball and Softball League’s executive committee and spent 14 years as president of Liberty Township Baseball Association. Like Jackson, he’s noticed the trend, and he doesn’t like what he’s been seeing.
“I’ve really noticed the drop off in the past three to four years,” Fine said. “When I was president, we had around 250 kids in Liberty. Now we’re down to between 125 and 140 kids.”
Fine attributes the drops to parent involvement and general disinterest.
“Part of it is the kids have other things to fill their time. Video games, computers, all that,” Fine said. “But parents play a role, too. They may not want to be bothered or may be worried that it’s going to disrupt their vacation plans, though we only run through mid-June. Sometimes the kids think if they play baseball it’ll eat up their whole summer, but that’s not the case.”
Travel leagues have also played a part in depopulating location-based youth leagues. Better players often join or are recruited to play in highly-competitive travel leagues, with teams made up of of highly skilled players from various communities traveling to play other composite teams.
This can leave local programs deflated and the players who don’t make the cut disillusioned.
To survive the decline in participation, the 304 League – which began with Liberty, McDonald, Girard and Hubbard – has had to expand to include more communities. Now the league includes Niles, Mineral Ridge, LaBrae, Howland, Brookfield, Lordstown and Lakeview.
“Expanding has helped us keep the kids playing, and it exposes them to a bunch of different programs. The only real downside is the travel time,” Fine said. “It’s hard though if you have two working parents who live in Hubbard but work in Warren to get home and drive their kids to a ball game in LaBrae.”
Though declining participation in youth baseball is a prolific issue for programs nationwide, a group of coaches in Struthers has seen some success in not only keeping players interested, but introducing new players to the game.
Matt Bradley, his brother Mark and a network of coaches and assistant coaches in Struthers have pooled their resources to create a fall league, separate from the more common spring leagues. Students who sign up to play in spring get to play in the fall league for free, and Matt Bradley says the second league has been a success.
There are two age groups in the city with fall leagues – the coach-pitch players and the 9- and 10-year-olds – and each of those groups has enough students to field three teams of players. Each of the other groups has enough for a single team.
“I believe we only have the groups we do because we’re giving them an opportunity to play year round. We’re able to pull a couple more kids each year,” Bradley said.
The Bradleys and their fellow coaches focus on education during the fall league, which they believe plays a part in keeping students engaged with the game and eager to return in the spring.
“Last year, our first year we had the fall league, we only had enough kids for two teams. This year we had four teams. I’ve got no reason to think we aren’t going to keep growing,” he said.
During the fall, the Struthers teams play against one another, though Bradley hopes in the future other local baseball programs will begin fielding their own fall teams.
Some local coaches have also succeeded in keeping their highly-skilled players in the city.
In addition to the recreational teams, the Struthers coaches participate in the Springfield-run Competitive Community Baseball weekend league comprised of each community’s most competitive players. These players are required to play on a general recreation team before they can be considered for the competitive team.
“We put all the “all-stars” on that team and they play other all-star teams and that helps us keep the kids here in the city rather than losing them to the traveling leagues,” Bradley said. “The kids have to be on a rec league team to be on the weekend team.”
While the Bradleys have been lucky to have a dedicated group of coaches helping them and enough success in their careers beyond the field to allow them to spend their own money on the league, Matt Bradley believes the most important factor in keeping youth baseball from disappearing is increased coach involvement.
“Youth coaches that are serious about baseball have to do more,” Bradley said. “If we don’t do more we can’t expect to see the game grow in our communities. I feel that’s the only way we can combat it. If we’re gonna buck the trend that’s staring us in the face, then youth coaches need to do more. We’re doing more here and it’s working.”