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Basketball is still the most popular team sport among children and lacrosse the fastest growing, according to the latest study conducted by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.
The report, compiled from 41,000 surveys taken in January 2009, states that 26.2 million children ages 6 and older played basketball in 2008. Finishing a distant second and third were baseball with 15 million and outdoor soccer with 14.2 million.
Basketball, which has topped the survey since SGMA started compiling the data in the late 1980s, benefits more than any other sport from the number of informal pickup games and the relatively low cost of equipment.
Lacrosse has grown steadily since the turn of the millennium, more than doubling from 518,000 participants in 2000 to 1.1 million in 2008. The only other sports measured by SGMA that posted substantial increases over the same span were paintball and cheerleading.
Fred Engh, founder of the National Alliance for Youth Sports and author of the book “Why Johnny Hates Sports,” attributes the spike in lacrosse participation to the influx of girls playing the sport.
“Like a lot of things, all of a sudden it catches on and it’s the ‘in’ thing to do, particularly with girls,” Engh said. “They now have a sport that they latch on to.”
Lacrosse is still primarily a regional sport, with most teams in the Northeast and Southeast, but it is slowly spreading to other parts of the country, Engh said. The 1.1 million who play the sport is equal to field hockey and about a third as many cheerleaders and wrestlers.
Ultimate Frisbee showed the second-largest year-over-year gain, a 21 percent increase from 4 million to 4.9 million participants. It was followed in percentage growth by indoor court volleyball (17 percent, from 7.0 million to 8.2 million). Rugby and indoor soccer each increased 12 percent from 2007.
SGMA did not chart sports such as indoor and outdoor soccer, rugby and ultimate Frisbee in 2000, so eight-year trends were unavailable.
The team sports that fell the furthest in participation numbers over the eight-year stretch were roller hockey (down 60 percent), slow-pitch softball (down 28 percent) and ice hockey, beach volleyball and gymnastics (each down approximately 20 percent).
In its analysis, SGMA states that growth in team sports over the last five years has primarily come from increased female participation. However, SGMA found women are still 40 percent less likely to play team sports than the general population.
Soccer and lacrosse are widely viewed as the sports with the most growth potential over the next five years. Engh expects outdoor soccer to overtake baseball as the second most popular sport among kids. Jeff Hennion, chief marketing officer at Dick’s Sporting Goods, expects soccer and lacrosse equipment to lead sales of equipment for youth team sports.
Troublesome to directors of youth sports organizations is the declining total numbers of active children, which has been blamed on everything from the increasing number of leisure activities such as video games, to inadequate physical fitness programs in schools. Some directors also cite the rising cost of playing youth sports as a reason for the decline.
“It’s worrisome to all of us in youth sports,” said Jon Butler, executive director of Pop Warner. “I think it’s an ominous sign.”
Broadband is the new television, as far as many youth sports groups are concerned.
Where youth and high school leagues once chased television deals as the easiest way to market their sport, many now are being seduced by the low cost and easy distribution of broadband services.
“You’re seeing more people trying to capitalize on that as the cost of production goes down and the cost of distribution goes down,” said Doug Perlman, managing director of Accrue Sports and Entertainment Ventures. “We’ve seen some real interesting companies that are creating production kits that are really simple to operate and really inexpensive.”
Even companies that are well-entrenched with TV are looking to broadband streams as the easiest and most cost-effective way of producing video.
For example, America’s biggest sports TV outlet, ESPN, is revamping its Rise Web site to allow for more broadband and mobile applications. And the Pop Warner youth football league is pursuing a broadband strategy that would allow many of its games to be streamed online.
Little League Baseball provides, perhaps, the best example of this newfound interest in broadband applications. In January 2007, the group signed a TV deal with ESPN that pays it about $30.5 million over eight years. The deal runs through 2014.
But talk to the group’s president and CEO, Stephen Keener, and he seems as excited about a relatively small broadband deal Little League signed this summer as he is with the TV deal.
“We have a terrific relationship with ESPN/ABC Sports. It’s the strongest marketing vehicle we have,” Keener said. “But we’ve reached a point where we have a bit of TV saturation.”
That’s where Little League’s broadband strategy comes into play. Late last month, the group signed a two-year deal with Youth Sports Live that is streaming most of Little League’s non-televised tournament games via the Internet. Customers pay $14.95 for access during the season, with Little League getting a small percentage of every subscription sold. There was no rights fee involved with the deal.
Next spring, Keener plans to make this deal available to all leagues for regular-season games, with up to three cameras documenting the action. Any of the group’s national leagues would have the opportunity to opt into the Youth Sports Live deal, and Keener clearly hopes that most do, allowing family and friends to either watch the games live or on-demand.
This year, Youth Sports Live rolled out its system only for the Little League playoffs, including Little League, Junior League and Senior League Baseball, and Junior and Big League Softball.
“If you were told that you could see every one of your child’s baseball games live online, that would be really compelling,” Accrue’s Perlman said. “I don’t envision that any time soon being a compelling advertising model because you’re not going to get the scale. But the subscription model is going to be interesting because of the passion they have.”
The broadband plan is not a money-making venture for Keener, at least not initially. He doesn’t expect mass interest in a regular-season Little League game. But he thinks it has potential to grow into something that could be a nice, small business for the league.
“I think that’s the next step — digital implementation into sports,” Keener said. “Down the road, we will probably have our own Little League network on the Web, providing training, rules and information.”
Mark Lazarus, president of media and marketing for Career Sports & Entertainment, believes these broadband services could start to attract some advertising. The potential is not huge, but Little League Baseball’s typical broadband subscriber would be someone that advertisers would want to reach.
The online system still is so new that nobody has tried to sell advertising against the games that have been streamed this summer.
Lazarus, however, pointed to signage on the outfield fences at Little League fields around his hometown of Atlanta. The ads feature many national brands.
“I look at it as a friends, family and alumni network,” he said. “Youth sports can provide a way for national brands to localize in an interesting way. It’s a small number of people that you can aggregate into a bigger number.”
Little League’s Keener has seen the power of these broadband streams firsthand. His father-in-law subscribed to the Youth Sports Live service at the end of last month to watch Keener’s 18-year-old son Nick represent the East Region during the Big League Baseball World Series in Greenville, S.C.
During a July 31 game when Nick was pitching, Keener’s father-in-law called Stephen on his cell phone to say that Nick wasn’t pushing off enough during his delivery. Stephen, who was sitting in the outfield, relayed the message to one of the coaches.
“I see how valuable this can be,” Stephen Keener said.
Pop Warner also is starting to figure out the value of broadband. Last year, ESPN’s broadband site, ESPN360, streamed several of the youth football league’s playoff games, in a deal that was billed as a “test” to see how well the broadband site could cover the games.
“We’re working with them to expand that this year,” said Mary FitzGerald, Pop Warner’s chief operating officer.
Originally, some Pop Warner officials were nervous that an expanded broadband offering would hurt sales of videos taken from the game. But FitzGerald said those fears were not realized.
Broadband is a natural for Pop Warner, which has not been as successful as Little League in getting its games on TV. Its Midget Division I championship, filmed by NFL Films, has been presented via tape delay on ESPN since 1996. FitzGerald is talking with various media partners about increasing that commitment.
“We have to have the television element,” FitzGerald said. “We are the next logical youth sport to capitalize on the media’s interest in youth sports.”
But broadband also is a big part of Pop Warner’s plans, though FitzGerald sees it more as a helpful application to allow relatives and friends to watch games rather than a money-making venture.
For ESPN, the value isn’t so much with friends and family as it is with the kids themselves. That’s one of the reasons why it bought SchoolSports and Student Sports and created ESPN Rise last summer.
“The digital space is where we are concentrating our efforts,” said James Brown, ESPN Rise senior vice president. “That’s where the mass of kids reside.”
After nearly a year under the ESPN banner, Brown decided that ESPN Rise’s Web site needed to be retooled to accommodate more video and be more interactive. Brown said ESPN still was developing the specific details of what the site would look like, but hinted that he wanted to make it easier for users to upload videos. And he wants to make sure that mobile applications play a big part on its new broadband site.
“We want to make sure that whatever we do on the Web can be supported with mobile,” he said.
Brown pointed to ESPN Rise’s support of its Elite 11 quarterback competition as an example of how he wants the revamped site to operate. The competition occurred in July, but ESPN Rise is using content from the event to develop five webisodes and video game challenges to promote the competition on the site. The finale will be telecast on ESPNU.
The Champion Gridiron Kings launched in July at the ESPN Rise Games at Disney’s Wide World of Sports, featuring a seven-on-seven competition with high school players. ESPNU carried a one-hour show on the event, but the competition had no broadband video. However, ESPN Rise plans to make it available next year as part of its plans to stream more video on its revamped site.
“We’re delivering the 12- to 17-year-old audience,” Brown said. “We’re an entry point to deliver more of ESPN and capture the audience early.”
Broadband applications aren’t limited to just streaming live games. Perlman said he’s seen a lot of activity in the recruiting, training and social-networking areas.
“A hot area right now is in the recruiting space,” he said. “It’s tied into the altogether macro trends of cheap video production, easy distribution, ability to do quality searches.”
Overall participation in high school sports has grown 14.6 percent in the past 10 years. Year Boy participants Girl participants Total 1-year change 2007-08 4,372,115 3,057,266 7,429,381 1.20% 2006-07 4,321,103 3,021,807 7,342,910 2.60% 2005-06 4,206,549 2,953,355 7,159,904 2.00% 2004-05 4,110,319 2,908,390 7,018,709 1.70% 2003-04 4,038,253 2,865,299 6,903,552 0.90% 2002-03 3,988,738 2,856,358 6,845,096 1.10% 2001-02 3,960,517 2,806,998 6,767,515 0.90% 2000-01 3,921,069 2,784,154 6,705,223 2.60% 1999-00 3,861,749 2,675,874 6,537,623 0.80% 1998-99 3,832,352 2,652,726 6,485,078 — Source: National Federation of State High School Associations Ten most popular boys High School programs (2007-08) Rank Sport Participants 1 Football 1,108,286 2 Basketball 552,935 3 Track and fieldoutdoor 548,821 4 Baseball 478,029 5 Soccer 383,561 6 Wrestling 259,688 7 Cross country 221,109 8 Golf 159,958 9 Tennis 156,285 10 Swimming and diving 111,896 Source: National Federation of State High School Associations Ten most popular girls high School programs (2007-08) Rank Sport Participants 1 Basketball 449,450 2 Track and fieldoutdoor 447,520 3 Volleyball 397,968 4 Softball-fast pitch 371,293 5 Soccer 346,545 6 Cross country 190,349 7 Tennis 172,455 8 Swimming and diving 147,197 9 Competitive spirit squads 111,307 10 Golf 69,243 Source: National Federation of State High School Associations The next hot youth sport? Panelists in the Turnkey Sports Poll were asked in July: Ten years from now, what sport is going to have the highest levels of participation amongst 10- to 18-year-olds? Soccer 32.26% Basketball 22.22% Baseball 15.77% Lacrosse 8.60% Football 3.58% Skateboarding 3.58% Golf 3.23% Hockey 1.79% BMX 1.43% Other 1.43% Tennis 0.36% Softball 0.00% No response/Not sure 5.73% Source: Turnkey Sports & Entertainment in conjunction with SportsBusiness Journal. taken in July. The survey covered more than 1,100 senior-level sports industry executives spanning professional and college sports.
The same script has played out for ages on athletic fields across the country. The center snaps the ball to the quarterback, who rolls out of the pocket to avoid would-be tacklers. The quarterback fires a 10-yard completion to a receiver on a slant route. Touchdown.
The main difference in this scenario is that the participants are wearing flag belts instead of pads, and some are even wearing ponytails. They are part of the NFL’s most recent expansion into youth and high school sports.
Besides the desire to maintain developmental programs that produce elite athletes, professional leagues invest time and money in youth sports because participants are more likely to become avid fans of that professional sport, resulting in more money to the teams and leagues, and their corporate partners.
Connecting with children 6 to 13 is paramount in turning them into lifelong fans, according to data compiled by the NFL. Fifty-five percent of avid NFL fans said they became engaged or interested in football in elementary school or earlier. Seventy-five percent of avid fans and 62 percent of casual fans participated in football at some level as a child.
The NFL is sorting through a mountain of data to establish the return on investment of its youth programs. Peter O’Reilly, vice president of fan strategy and marketing for the NFL, wouldn’t share preliminary findings but said, “It affirms a lot of what we hypothesized in terms of the importance of marketing to youth.”
In short, avid fans buy more tickets and more merchandise than casual fans. They watch more games per year. Higher ratings mean higher ad rates, driven upward because avid fans have higher recall rates of advertisers.
Armed with that hypothesis, the NFL launched a recreational flag football program in 1996 for boys and girls ages 5 to 17. This year, children will play in eight regional tournaments held in NFL cities for the opportunity to play in the championship prior to the Pro Bowl at Dolphins Stadium.
In 2008, the league helped expand the number of high school varsity girls flag football teams after conducting research in Florida and Alaska — the two states with existing high school programs. The league identified potential hotbeds in other states and approached girls in those markets to lead a grassroots charge.
“There’s tons of research out there that proves that fan avidity is based on involvement in the sport and participating in the sport at a young age,” said Samantha Rapoport, manager of girls flag football for the NFL. “There’s no doubt these girls will become NFL football fans by playing in a football league that’s related to the NFL.”
In its second year in the high school program, girls flag football has expanded from two to seven states and will be played by more than 12,000 girls this year.
Flag football is an extension of the NFL’s multilayered youth development program that includes the annual punt-pass-and-kick competition and the Play 60 initiative launched in 2007.
“Not everyone that’s a fan is going to play the game, so we’ve really built out what we think is a good portfolio of ways to connect with kids in the 6 to 13 range,” O’Reilly said.
Major League Soccer is presented with a challenge much different than the NFL. Rather than develop avid fans by getting them to play football, MLS is trying to cultivate its fan base by appealing to the millions of kids who already play soccer.
MLS’s Soccer United Marketing works with U.S. Youth Soccer, and the league has ties to other organizations that run youth soccer programs. But a unique point of contact comes at stadiums surrounded by soccer complexes.
Three MLS soccer stadiums are surrounded by soccer fields that can be rented by youth sports organizations. The footprint was created to help make the stadiums year-round destinations in markets where they were unlikely to compete with other stadiums and arenas for concerts and other entertainment events.
“We think it will create a long-term benefit by leading to higher ratings and ticket sales and a larger fan base,” said Neel Shah, MLS director of fan development.
Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, home to the Colorado Rapids, hosts 1 million athletes each year on the 24 fields (22 grass, two artificial turf) surrounding the stadium. It gives the fields a year-round revenue stream, but also provides more opportunity for the Rapids to put its brand in front of children.
In addition to offering youth the chance to play in the stadium’s shadows, the Rapids conduct stadium tours and include match tickets in registration packages.
NBA teams also put heavy emphasis on marketing their brands in local markets through team-branded leagues. However, the league’s most recent effort, iHoops, was created to improve the quality of youth basketball programs.
“We can add something to organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCA, and parks and recreation leagues by supporting them,” said Kathy Behrens, the NBA’s executive vice president of social responsibility and player programs. “Is there an added benefit in terms of a positive brand (association) for the NBA? Certainly. But the bigger benefit goes to the kids who are participating.”
Cost is becoming more of an underlying issue in youth sports participation. Basketball is the most popular participatory sport among children, in part, because of the relatively inexpensive cost of pickup games. Conversely, hockey has lost 20 percent of its participants in the last eight years, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (see chart).
Skates, pads and sticks can cost a few hundred dollars every couple of years, but ice time is the largest expense. It’s not uncommon for youth hockey programs to charge 9- and 10-year-olds $1,000 for a single season.
The NHLPA’s Goals & Dreams fund is trying to counteract rising costs by donating hockey and ice rink equipment to underprivileged children around the world. The union donated nearly $1 million worth of equipment last season, and has given away more than $17 million, including 10,000 full sets of equipment, since launching in 1999.
Increasing participation among underprivileged children is also a focus of Major League Baseball’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program. This year, baseball launched a pilot program called Junior RBI in 16 cities across the U.S.
The program, sponsored by accounting firm KPMG, creates playing divisions for children ages 6 to 12. Teams from each of the cities met in St. Louis during the All-Star Game in early July to play a 32-game tournament. MLB expects to expand the program nationwide in 2010.
Given all of the year-round instruction that’s offered for youth baseball players, is there even a place for the summer camp anymore?
Cal Ripken believes there is.
“I hope so,” said Major League Baseball’s ironman. “We’re in the camp business.”
Weekly baseball camps through the summer are central to Ripken’s youth baseball enterprise, which also includes leagues and tournaments.
At $495 for the week, parents are paying for more than just fundamental instruction. The camps include a practice inside Camden Yards, visits to local aquariums and science centers, and of course a meet-and-greet with the hall of famer. It’s less a camp and more an “experience.”
“The experience we’re trying to give is the same experience big leaguers have when they walk into a big league park for the first time,” Ripken said. “We try to make it as much about fun and build our activities around baseball. We even go to the Ravens stadium and play flag football.”
The more traditional camps are still around, offered by the local college or high school coach, as well as the many camps run by instructional centers. The purpose of these camps, however, has expanded beyond the mere offering of fundamentals.
At the college level, camps are about recruiting and identifying talent, no matter the sport. Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski recently created an “elite” camp for the top high school prospects to get them on campus. Many other college programs, basketball and otherwise, offer similar camps that give top recruits the chance to compete against each other, while also fostering a relationship between coach and players.
For baseball-oriented instructional centers, camps serve as a brand extension, a way to establish relationships with families that they hope will turn into private lessons that often cost $100 an hour or more. Many of these instructional centers now field their own spring and summer select teams with professional coaches for ages as young as 9.
“I don’t think youth baseball has ever been better, in terms of the instruction that’s offered,” said Mississippi State coach John Cohen, who offers a team camp, a pitching/catching camp and all-skills camps on the school’s campus, with proceeds going back into the baseball team’s budget. “With the Internet and the information that’s available, youth baseball has really become an industry.”
But with the evolution of the industry comes additional cost for young people to play baseball at the highest levels.
When Ripken came along, he played for the West Asheville (N.C.) Little League, or wherever his dad was managing at the time. Now it’s not uncommon for investments of $2,000 or more to be required for a season on an instructional center’s branded team with paid coaches.
“These centers are as common as the local gym now,” Cohen said. “But as things get more expensive, it’s becoming more and more like golf or tennis, where there might be certain demographics that become excluded. But if you want instruction at practically any age, you can get it.”
The summer camps carry on, even if many of them don’t look much like the camps that introduced kids to sports years ago.
“We know practice isn’t always fun,” Ripken said. “What we’re looking to do is make it a good value and keep it fun for the kids. We know that some of the numbers show fewer kids are playing the game than 10 years ago, but the ones who are playing are playing more of it.”
Most popular sports for U.S. children, ages 6 and older (000s) Team sports 2000 2006 2007 2008 1-year change 8-year change Baseball 15,848 14,586 16,058 15,020 -6.50% -5.20% Basketball 26,215 23,680 25,961 26,254 1.10% 0.10% Cheerleading 2,634 2,931 3,279 3,104 -5.30% 17.80% Field hockey NA 774 1,127 1,118 -0.80% NA Football (flag) NA NA NA 7,310 NA NA Football (touch) NA NA NA 10,493 NA NA Football (tackle) 8,229 8,404 7,939 7,692 -3.10% -6.50% Gymnastics 4,876 3,630 4,066 3,883 -4.50% -20.40% Ice hockey 2,432 1,717 1,840 1,902 3.40% -21.80% Lacrosse 518 871 1,058 1,127 6.50% 117.60% Paintball 3,615 4,547 5,476 4,857 -11.30% 34.30% Roller hockey 3,888 1,383 1,847 1,562 -15.40% -59.80% Rugby NA 514 617 690 11.80% NA Soccer (indoor) NA 4,701 4,237 4,737 11.80% NA Soccer (outdoor) NA 13,598 13,708 14,223 3.80% NA Softball (fast pitch) 2,693 1,759 2,345 2,316 -1.20% -14.00% Softball (slow pitch) 13,577 9,518 9,485 9,835 3.70% -27.60% Track and field NA 4,031 4,691 4,516 -3.70% NA Ultimate Frisbee NA 3,698 4,038 4,879 20.80% NA Volleyball (beach) 5,248 3,315 3,878 4,171 7.50% -20.50% Volleyball (court) NA 6,132 6,986 8,190 17.20% NA Volleyball( grass) NA 4,372 4,940 5,086 3.00% NA Wrestling 3,743 2,914 3,313 3,358 1.40% -10.30% Source: SGMAs Sports Participation in America 2009