Youth sports leagues find fewer suburban kids are signing up to play

  • Many experts and coaches blame the computer and video games for a decrease in softball and baseball enrollment this year.

    Many experts and coaches blame the computer and video games for a decrease in softball and baseball enrollment this year. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

Posted2/14/2010 12:01 AM

Suburban youth baseball and softball coaches can expect to find fewer players on the ball fields this summer, according to many league directors.

And while the finger can be pointed at everything from the recession to competition from other sports, experts increasingly are blaming children's habitual video game playing as a key reason why droves are ignoring America's No. 1 pastime.


And the better children get at video games and more used to the fast-paced action they get, the less likely they'll give them up to play the real game, experts say.

"Instead of going out to play sandlot baseball, kids today are content to sit in front of a computer to play a video game," said Rich Honack, a professor at Kellogg School of Management.

Studying generations, he says his data shows the computer is the reason for the decrease in kids playing competitive sports.

And the numbers don't lie - fewer children are going to be outdoors on baseball and softball diamonds playing recreational ball this spring and summer, according to polls of leagues across the West and Northwest suburbs.

Enrollment at Bartlett Little League is down 20 percent, said Phil Rizzo, district administrator for 17 area leagues. Player counts are down ranging from 3 percent to 20 percent in eight of his leagues, including Elgin, Streamwood and Woodstock.

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Warrenville softball enrollment is down nearly 20 percent from four years ago, and Cary reported a double digit decrease in youth baseball players so far this year.

Lake Zurich Baseball and Softball Association, down 17 percent from two years ago and 26 percent from five years ago, launched a massive marketing campaign to get its numbers up. The campaign appears to have reduced the drop, with an expected dip of about 3 percent in the number of players from last year, compared to double digit decreases elsewhere.

"We're seeing a fall off in older players," said Michael Sailor, chairman of the Warrenville Girls Softball Association. "I'm hearing from a lot of the leagues. Everyone has seen a bit of a drop off."

Like many other communities, Warrenville sees growth in the younger players, but sharp drops in the 10-to-14 age level.

"The older ones are the ones where we are competing with computer and video games for their time and attention," Sailor said.


Some kids say they aren't good at baseball, but are successful at playing video games, so they pick the latter, said Dr. Donald Shifrin with the American Academy of Pediatrics. Sitting in front of a video game is more fun than sitting on the bench, the kids say.

Supporting this theory, Shifrin points to a Kaiser study that shows young people are now spending nearly every waking minute - except for the time in school - using a smart phone, computer, TV or other electronic device.

Youth ages 8 to 18 spend more than 7.5 hours a day with such devices, compared with less than 6.5 hours five years ago, the study reports. And because so many of them are multi-tasking - surfing the Internet while texting - they pack about 11 hours of media content into that 7.5 hours.

Professor Honack says children under the age of 12 have grown up with the computer and the games that go with it. He says the constant action and instant gratification on the video game screen can't be matched on the baseball diamond when a child is learning a sport.

"They find baseball boring, they find soccer boring and they find golf boring," Honack said.

Economy's role

Some coaches believe family budget cuts are to blame.

"I think it's the economy. I don't see any less enthusiasm for the sport," said Scott Padjen, president of Cary Youth Baseball.

Cary, like many other leagues, has a fund available for families that cannot afford the fees that typically range from $150 to $200. Payment plans also are available.

But Cary hasn't seen big spikes in parents applying for economic hardship. And coaches in nearly every league say they will make it work.

"If a kid wants to play," Padjen said, "we'll find a way to get them on the field."

Constant action

The lack of hardship cases leads Warrenville's Sailor to believe computers are the culprit.

"We have seen a decline in participation over the past several years. We attribute that to video and computer games becoming the most common source of entertainment for children now-a-days," Sailor said.

He believes video games teach children that they have to be "engaged" all the time.

Rizzo agrees that video games are playing a part in the demise. "My concern is if kids aren't playing baseball," he said, "they're likely doing something that could get them in trouble."

Doctors are concerned that children are less active. It's widely known that obesity rates in children are spiking.

"We're seeing kids are becoming heavier," Dr. Shifrin said.

He believes parents must take a more active role in assisting their children in finding physical activities.

"Parents have to reassert control," said Shifrin, who serves on a council studying the impact media has on the health of children.

"I'm concerned with any statistic that decreases a child's physical activity."

If team enrollment figures are declining, he says, parents need to be aware. "It's a wake-up call."

Team spirit

And when kids are in front of the computer or texting for countless hours, there are other negative consequences. Children are failing to learn life lessons about achieving goals, building esteem, the commitment it takes to be on a team as well as how to interact with others.

"Social skills are lacking in these kids," Honack says.

Another fear is what will happen to sports teams at higher levels?

"I'm hearing that this trend is already creeping into the high school level," Honack said. "The numbers are dropping everywhere. It has no boundaries."


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