The Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) reported (in Q4 ’18) that youth sports participation – children between the ages of 6-12 – has declined by “almost -8% over the last decade”, but by increasing access to the game through its Play Ball initiative, Major League Baseball has managed to buck the trend. SFIA reported that participation in the sport – “from a 6-year-old swinging a bat in the backyard to a starter in the College World Series” – has grown +5% since the grassroots program was introduced in 2015. In 2018, Major League Baseball and USA Baseball took another step towards ensuring the sport’s long-term viability with the roll-out of the Fun at Bat program – an educational program designed for K-4 grade gym classes (since adopted by schools in all 50 states and Puerto Rico). The league and governing body hopes to enroll 1 million students in the program this year.
Howie Long-Short: MLB’s decision to “dramatically increase” funding on youth initiatives (includes grassroots efforts like: Play Ball, Youth Academies, RBI Program, the DREAM series, Breakthrough series, and the Hank Aaron Invitational through the MLB-MLBPA Youth Development Foundation) was driven by “the 10-year period prior to 2015, when participation had been either flat or declining.” It’s been reported that since that time, the league has spent upwards of $20 million annually on growing the game at the grassroots level.
The +5% figure cited represents kids playing regularly, but baseball has experienced even greater growth amongst casual participants – those playing just 1-12x/year; more than 2.3 million children (+53%) have joined the youth baseball/softball ecosystem since Play Ball started in ‘15. That makes sense when you consider that the premise of the Play Ball program is as EVP of baseball and softball development Tony Reagins put it, “to get kids to get out and play. Whether it’s playing catch, home run derby or pickle. It doesn’t have to be 18 players on a nice field with umpires.”
To truly grasp the success of MLB’s grassroots programs, one must consider the respective declines in regular participation across other youth sports – tackle football (-3.4% since ’14), hockey (-3.8% YoY) and soccer (-4.3% YoY).
It’s worth mentioning that while there is some conflicting data out there about the level of youth baseball/softball participation, Tony said, “SFIA data has been credible over the last several years and it’s the information that we’ve relied on over time; they’re considered the most credible outlet measuring youth sports participation. We use that data as a real measuring stick when evaluating the success – or the lack thereof – of our youth participation initiatives.”
Fan Marino: MLB’s decision to start Fun at Bat with kindergarten students is rooted in data. Tony said that the “research indicates there is a direct correlation between the age at which one first engages with the sport and the likelihood they’ll remain connected to the game long-term.” The younger MLB can get a bat/ball into a child’s hands, the more likely it is they’ll become a lifelong fan. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that every child who participates in Play Ball is sent home with a plastic bat/ball.
Unlike Play Ball which is promoted by the league, its teams, USA baseball, USA softball, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Minor League Baseball and Little League International, Fun at Bat is a part of the school curriculum. Reagins explained that “there are really 3 prongs to the program: a basic introduction to the fundamental skills of the game, character building (think: responsibility, accountability, fair play) and the promotion of healthy fun physical activity. We’re trying to create that connectivity by giving kids the chance to engage with the sport during the school day.”
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