A perfectly watered baseball diamond, with fresh cut grass lining the outfield, was once the epitome of American beauty. Children would run on the field emulating Derek Jeter—smiling from ear to ear. To the side, the bleachers were filled with parents just happy their kids were having fun. Spring filled the air, and everyone knew it was Little League baseball season.
However, the quintessential American weekend has changed for youngsters over the years. What once consisted of Little League, apple pie and ice cream—some of America’s greatest pastimes—has turned into iPads, video games and inactivity. When travel baseball became more popular, Little League numbers took a hit. Travel team coaches began siphoning players out of their house leagues. These coaches preach to parents that their kids are too good to play Little League, and that they should be competing at a higher level. Sometimes, they tell parents there is potential for a future college scholarship—something everyone likes to hear.
Travel ball is turning youth baseball into a monetary item, fueled by the parents, coaches and businesses who invest millions of dollars into youth sports. According to Mom steam.com—a website for parents of athletes—travel teams can cost up to $6,000 to participate. These costs, which don’t usually cover equipment, take care of the tournament and game fees. Usually, parents are required to chauffeur their children to and from games—traveling to different cities and states.
It’s a reality that Joe Griffin, president of the Garden City Little League, which has been in existence since 1955, has been experiencing firsthand in recent years.
“It’s an arms race of how someone’s kid is going to get the best training to be the best player. So if the Joneses are doing it across the street, then the Smiths have to do it. And they’re paying two to three thousand bucks a year for their kids to be on these teams with supposed ‘professional’ instructors. These are people who see that they can maybe scratch out a living being involved in kids sports, so they charge these prices versus Little League, which is all-volunteer,” Griffin explained. “The one thing that the Little League has going for it is that it’s a community-based program. You’re playing with your friends. You’re not just playing with some hired guns from towns all around, which is kind of the purpose of sports, to have fun with your friends, isn’t it? The other thing is that when the Williamsport tournament comes up, we put up teams. It’s one of the few things these kids get to do where they’re representing their
Coaches attend local Little League games, scouting players—just like Major League Baseball does—and invite them to try out for their travel team. For the kids who are skilled enough, they make the team; the other kids are given another option—developmental team.
After the pain of being cut subsides, the coaches let the parents know that if their child joins a developmental team, they likely make the travel team next year. Usually, developmental teams cost more, because they allow kids to receive one-on-one instruction with coaches to develop their game. These teams cut into Little League numbers, too.
So, if a travel team takes 20 kids from a Little League and a developmental team around 30, 50 players are now lost from the Little League, which means the league loses almost four teams.
Youth baseball is being monetized so much that a Little League World Series in 2014 between Las Vegas and Philadelphia had more than five million viewers. The game, which was featured on ESPN, was the most viewed baseball game on the network since a 2007 game between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. All of the kids who compete in the World Series come from travel teams.
The director of the Westbury Amateur Baseball Association, Beaumont Jefferson, said that enrollment is down in his league. In the ’70s and ’80s, the Westbury league flourished with over 20 teams, but today it only hosts four teams in the 4 to 6 and 9 to 11 age range.
“We plan on really trying to rebuild from the young kids and getting them a good experience,” Jefferson said. “We’re spending a lot of time with clinics that teach the game to youngsters, to the 4 to 6 year olds, and starting with a nice feeder program.”
Garden City has also born the brunt of younger players being cherrypicked by travel team coaches. While enrollment is up 10 percent this year with 760 players registering for baseball and girls softball, that’s down from three years ago when the league had a more robust number of 900 players. It’s gotten to the point where the Major Leagues, consisting of 11- and 12-year-old players, is down to six teams versus the 10 that made up the league four years ago.
Baseball and softball continue to be prominent sports in the U.S., but Little League is also losing many players to soccer. Recently, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that soccer is now the third most-played sport in the country. In the report, it states that soccer is more popular among children ages 7 to 17, and those numbers are still rising. Little League Baseball reported that in 2012, baseball and softball participation was down 6.8 percent.
In 2007, baseball bat sales were at $216 million a year, but fell to $174 million in 2014. When those numbers were plummeting, video game sales were on the rise, jumping from $9.5 billion in 2007 to $15.4 billion in 2014. Out of all the gamers in the video games world, which rakes in $22 billion dollars in total sales, 26 percent of gamers were under the age of 18, according to an Entertainment Software Association report.
The biggest impact of Little League’s numbers dwindling is on the children; they are missing out on an important part of life—team building. Participating in Little Leagues can teach fundamental life values that children can take forward in other areas of life. Mickey Mantle said, “A team is where a boy goes to prove his courage on his own.” Not only do Little Leaguers learn to win and lose, they learn to work together in a team environment, which can be a very valuable lesson for when they grow up.
Westbury resident Claire Kelly was one of the first females to play in the Westbury Little League when it was thriving. Now that its numbers are dwindling, there are fewer kids experiencing the fun and excitement that she did.
“In the ’70s, baseball is what we did when our parents tossed us out of the house and told us to go have fun,” Kelly said. “Everyone played pick up baseball and you had this common bond.
As the money flows in and the children become scarce, Little League may soon be another curbed product of America’s pastimes.
—Additional reporting by Dave Gil de Rubio