Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 20 No. 45

In Depth

Participation in girls high school soccer has increased 10 percent or more in 16 states in the past five years.
When the AAU’s director of sports considers some of the swings in the choices high school girls are making these days, he tracks back to trends that have taken hold on the youth sports scene.

Volleyball and soccer, fueled by large, well-established club systems with paid coaches who hard-sell the promise of a college scholarship, are on the rise.

Basketball and softball, which often lack that level of club infrastructure, have seen declines in high school participation.

“I think a lot of it has to do with how soccer and volleyball have organized themselves from a grassroots perspective,” said James Parker, who oversees AAU youth programs in 35 sports. “There are not a lot of big

basketball clubs where I can pay one price and get a schedule that says we train on Tuesday and Thursday and here are the dates we’re traveling and here’s our budget. That’s what parents get when they put their daughter in soccer or volleyball.

“Parents are paying more money to play in those sports. They don’t mind, because it’s organized. I’m not saying [girls] basketball is not organized. But it’s not to the level of sophistication that soccer and volleyball are because, in most cases, the model is different.

“In soccer and volleyball, they do this for a living. They have built a business out of it. It makes sense to parents — and especially to parents who are thinking of this as a way to pay for college.”

There is no way to know to what degree the growth of club participation, which encourages year-round play and often pushes girls and their families to choose one sport exclusively at an early age, is responsible for the shift toward certain sports in high school.

First Look podcast with discussion of youth sports beginning at the 7:10 mark:

But there’s no debating that shift.

Overall, girls high school sports participation rose 4.3 percent from 2010 to 2015, based on an analysis of data collected by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

But because overall participation rates count multisport athletes multiple times, and because conditions, economics and trends vary widely from state to state, one must dig deeper to get a sense for what’s going on. Among the revelations from that closer look is a considerable shift in the sports that girls now favor, which has led to double-digit swings in many states.

The winners in this, overwhelmingly, have been soccer, up by more than 10 percent in 16 states in the last five years and 28 states in the last 10, and volleyball, up by double digits in 25 states over the last 10 years.

At the same time, girls basketball has seen double-digit declines in 21 states in the last decade, with 24 states falling by more than 5 percent in the last five years. There also is cause for concern in softball, which has grown by double-digit percentages in 15 states in the last decade, but also shrank by that margin in 14 states.

All of the five- and 10-year comparisons in this analysis leave out Alabama, Oklahoma and Washington, D.C., which in recent years changed the way they count heads.

The flow away from basketball and softball and into volleyball and soccer over the last decade is most pronounced in eight states, several of which include cities of considerable size: Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. Georgia, Maryland and New Hampshire have seen similar shifts, though to lesser degrees.

Participation is up in all four of those sports in 10 states. It’s down in all four in only four states. In eight states, soccer is the only one of those sports that is up.

Specialization concerns

When longtime college softball coach Carol Bruggeman assesses the state of that sport, she sees growth in many metrics. More college softball airs on television than ever before, with the Women’s College World Series attracting audiences of nearly 2 million for the best-of-three finals. Attendance exceeds 8,500 per session.

“Softball has had this huge explosion,” said Bruggeman, the executive director of the National Fastpitch Coaches Association, who coached at Michigan, Purdue and Louisville and has served as a TV analyst for ESPN, the Big Ten Network and SEC Network. “But when you peel the onion back and look at the high school level, you’re not seeing quite the same thing. I think part of that is that girls have so many choices now … But a lot of it is that players of any sport are specializing at a much earlier age.

“It used to be that someone who was really good at softball would also play volleyball and maybe run track. Now, they feel like they have to do [hitting] lessons. They’ve got to play in tournaments a little more. Those things are expected. So they don’t pick as many high school sports, which is really sad.”

“It used to be that someone who was really good at softball would also play volleyball and maybe run track. Now, they feel like they have to do [hitting] lessons. They’ve got to play in tournaments … So they don’t pick as many high school sports, which is really sad.”

Executive Director,
National Fastpitch Coaches Association

Bruggeman said she worries that the increased cost of softball — both in terms of equipment and travel for top teams — also has decreased the pool of potential players.

To address the increasingly packed tournament and showcase schedule, the NFCA successfully lobbied the NCAA’s Division I Council to drastically reduce evaluation periods in the fall. While driven largely by coaches’ preference to be on campus with incoming players in September and October, the move also should reduce pressure on players to travel to so many showcases.

“Kids know a lot of college recruiters are out there, so they feel they have to play,” Bruggeman said. “If tournament directors still want to have tournaments [in the fall], they can. But the Division I coaches aren’t going to be there.

“We’re hoping that flows down to the kids. Maybe instead of feeling they have to be out there year-round to get recruited they’ll play volleyball or soccer or golf.”

Volleyball made headlines recently when the NFHS numbers revealed that it had surpassed basketball as the No. 2 sport for girls, behind track and field, which with its large squads and low barrier to entry is the
No. 2 sport on the boys side behind football.

In competitive basketball circles, this was cause for particular concern, since the two sports place a similar premium on long athletes who jump well. But from a broader perspective, it’s the fact that the increase of one sport would necessarily lead to a decline in another that has some concerned.

“There are lot of positives that come from playing high school sports,” said Terry Liskevych, who coached the U.S. women’s volleyball team through three Olympics and now operates a coaches education website called “You socialize. You feel self-worth. You learn how to compete. All those are great. Those are why you play sports. But that’s not what drives club volleyball. Twelve scholarships drive club volleyball.
“The clubs have created a ‘play in college, play one sport’ mentality. Kids burn out. They get injured. You have so many leaders trying to get this turned around, saying play multiple sports, but I’m afraid the train has left the station.
“And it’s a runaway train.”

‘Everything has become year-round’

At the youth level, that train has yielded a mixed bag.

A Sports and Fitness Industry Association survey that is the most widely accepted gauge of youth sports participation showed an 8 percent increase in those aged 6-17 playing team sports in 2015 as compared to a year earlier and a 5 percent increase over a five-year span. But it also showed a continued decline in the number of sports they play, which fell to 1.89 per child, a drop of almost 15 percent from where it was in 2011.

The head of basketball’s national governing body agreed that the increase in specialization likely has been a factor in the decline of girls’ participation in that sport.

“I think there’s some correlation,” said Jim Tooley, CEO of USA Basketball. “We don’t have one underlying reason that it’s down. But we’re very much aware that it is and we’re trying to address it.”

Last year, USA Basketball rolled out a set of guidelines meant to address some of the downside that has come along with increased club and travel play. Those recommendations included practices no longer than 75 minutes and no more than two games per week for those under age 12, as well as no more than two tournament games per day for any age player.

The guidelines also recommended no more than seven months of basketball per year for 12- to 14-year-olds and capped high school age players at nine to 10 months. They discouraged specialization in basketball before age 14.

“We want to eliminate the burnout and address the injury factors,” Tooley said. “Everything has become year-round. Everything is nonstop.

“Kids have to have time to be kids.”

Because it is linked so closely with the travel sports culture, the AAU frequently is viewed as an organization that has fostered the trend of single-sport specialization, especially in the sports in which it operates heavily recruited events. But Parker points out that the AAU charges only a single $14 annual membership that clears athletes to participate in any of its sports; that it is increasingly pairing events in two sports at a single site; and that its six-day Junior Olympics annually brings a broad menu of youth sports to cities across the country.

“We’re a multisport organization and we encourage athletes to play multiple sports,” Parker said. “But parents a lot of times are fed different information. They want their child to be the best in that one sport. They’ll give them all the training they can give them in the hope that this will guide them in a direction to earn a scholarship.

“To a lot of parents, that’s what this is all about.”

The youth sports world has changed dramatically in the last decade, with the boom of travel teams, the shift toward earlier specialization and parents’ unrealistic emphasis on the quest for college scholarships all emerging as hot-button issues.

We wondered how that’s coloring the athletic choices those students make as they move through high school.
To find out, we dug into participation data gathered by the National Federation of High School Athletic Associations, which has collected head counts from its members for almost 50 years.

Some of those figures have been well-documented. Fewer high school boys are playing football, which from 2010 to 2015 saw participation fall by 5 percent or more in 19 states. Other trends, such as the shift in sports girls are playing at many schools, have received less attention.

Like politics, high school sports is inherently local. So we looked at this state by state.

The maps will give you an idea of where each of the eight most popular team sports has made strides or lost ground in the last five years, and also in the last decade.

Next, the bar graphic (example at right) shows the number of states that showed increased and decreased participation in select high school sports over the past five years and 10 years, and the number of states that increased or decreased by 10 percent or more over the same periods.

To read: Over 5 years, girls soccer saw 33 states increase participation, with 15 of those states increasing 10 percent or more. Fifteen states decreased, with 4 decreasing 10 percent or more.

Below that, you’ll find the top-10 states in each sport, ranked by number of students playing, and the states that have the largest percentage of boys or girls playing each sport, based on participation figures from the NFHS and high school enrollment figures taken from census data.

For example, 27 percent of high school boys in Mississippi and 25 percent of those in Alabama played football, a reminder that tradition dies hard in the Deep South. In Oklahoma — home to the Women’s College World Series — 12 percent of high school girls play softball, the highest rate in the country for that sport.

Because state associations in Alabama, Oklahoma and Washington, D.C., changed the way they tabulated data in recent years, they aren’t reflected in the five- and 10-year comparisons.

—Bill King

Children at Topgolf’s Jacksonville location receive lessons as part of Topgolf Junior Play in March.
Photo by: PGA TOUR
Cost and accessibility can be significant barriers to getting kids to play golf, but an alliance Topgolf has struck with the PGA Tour and LPGA, and separately with the PGA of America, aim to increase participation among junior golfers.

Topgolf Junior Play was developed as an outgrowth of the 2016 alliance between the PGA Tour, the LPGA and Topgolf. Junior golfers from ages 6-17 were offered a free game of play, instruction, and food and drink at Topgolf facilities in Jacksonville; Denver; Gilbert, Ariz.; Dallas; and Alpharetta, Ga.

The March 19 event drew about 2,000 junior golfers to those Topgolf locations, and the program may be expanded. Topgolf has 31 locations throughout the country.

“We are continuing to collaborate on a number of efforts,” said Bill Whaley, who as a senior regional director of operations for the PGA Tour’s TPC Network is closely involved in the tour’s grassroots growth efforts. “We are continuing to build out more programs. It is something that is part of our culture and something we believe in heavily.”

The program comes as the alliance between the tour, LPGA and Topgolf continues to evolve as programs are developed around the tour’s First Tee program and the LPGA-USGA’s Girls Golf program, both of which are major areas of focus to bring more young players to the game. Add in Topgolf’s younger, entertainment-focused offerings and the goal is to get more junior players to participate.

PGA of America recently announced a program in which Topgolf will assist golf professionals in the promotion of PGA Junior League Golf for boys and girls ages 13 and younger to learn and enjoy the game of golf. In addition, Topgolf’s Youth Play It Forward program will be available to all PGA Junior League Golf participants, and PGA Junior League captains can arrange complimentary game play sessions for their teams at Topgolf facilities.

Also, as part of its Topgolf for Good program, Topgolf in March announced that it will now offer free play to any charitable organization that is aligned with youth leadership and mentorship at any Topgolf locations Mondays through Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“You don’t have to play an 18-hole course to enjoy golf,” said Topgolf Entertainment Group CEO Erik Anderson when the Junior Play effort was announced. “Topgolf is always thinking of how we can help get clubs in the hands of new players, prepare them to transition to green grass and inspire them to enjoy golf in all of its forms, whether that’s on TV, a mobile app or a PGA Tour event. Part of reaching the next generation of golfers means making the sport fun and accessible to everyone.”

An aerial view shows baseball and softball fields and an indoor training facility set to open in early October.
Photo by: POPULOUS (2)
Kansas City’s new MLB Urban Youth Academy fills a vital role beyond providing inner-city kids with free opportunities to play baseball and softball.

The two-year, $20 million project, to be completed by early October, is situated behind the Negro Leagues Museum in the city’s historic 18th and Vine district. It’s a partnership funded between the Kansas City Royals, the MLB Players Association, the city and the state of Missouri.

Private donations also helped finance the facility that includes three outdoor baseball fields and one outdoor softball field — all outfitted with artificial turf for year-round use — plus an indoor training facility with a full infield, batting cages, pitching mounds, concessions and restrooms.

Populous, the youth academy’s architect, contributed $151,100 through its home office in Kansas City, and general contractor J.E. Dunn donated its fees to the project, said Carolyn Watley, vice president of community engagement for CBiz, the firm in charge of fundraising for the project’s second phase.

Royals general manager Dayton Moore, spearheading the project for the MLB team, and Kansas City Mayor Sly James are big supporters of the project, said Kevin Uhlich, the Royals’ senior vice president of business operations. The Royals have committed $500,000 annually over the next 20 years to cover operating costs at the youth academy, with eight full-time employees working at the facility.

MLB Urban Youth Academy locations

Compton Youth Academy
Darrell Miller, MLB vice president of youth and facility development
Houston Astros Youth Academy
Director Daryl Wade
Philadelphia Youth Academy Jon Joaquin, director, Youth Baseball Development, Philadelphia Phillies;
Rob Holiday, director, amateur scouting administration, Philadelphia Phillies
Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School Director Luis Cintron; Headmaster Lucy Batista
Nationals Youth Baseball Academy Executive Director Tal Alter
 P&G Cincinnati Youth Academy Director Jerome Wright
Texas Rangers Youth Academy Director Homer Bush
Kansas City Urban Youth Academy Director Darwin Pennye
In development:
Roberto Clemente MLB Youth Academy
in Bronx, N.Y. (DREAM — formerly Harlem RBI)
San Francisco MLB Youth Academy (San Francisco Giants)
Academy at Curtis Granderson Stadium in Chicago (University of Illinois and Curtis Granderson)
“We’re treating this project like our lowest-level minor league affiliate,” said Kyle Vena, the Royals’ director of baseball administration. “Our approach is to treat every player in our system like our own son, and this is no different.”

A key piece of the 40,000-square-foot indoor building is classroom space to teach children life skills and career development opportunities. As part of the educational component, the Royals are in discussions with University of Missouri-Kansas City officials to assist kids on and off the field.

The team’s goal is to provide UMKC education majors with volunteer student-teaching jobs at the youth academy, although those details have not been confirmed, Vena said.

“For every young boy and girl that comes through those doors, our goal is to help them reach their ceiling on and off the field, as well as develop a passion for baseball and softball,” he said.

Over the past two years, the project grew rapidly in scope from its initial cost of $1.5 million as an add-on to the local Boys & Girls Club, said Dave Bower, Populous’ principal-in-charge. Other MLB markets have youth academies, but none are to the scale of Kansas City, Bower said.

At the Royals’ request, two of the youth academy’s three baseball fields were designed to the same dimensions as Kauffman Stadium, which includes a distance of 330 feet down the foul lines. The softball field conforms to NCAA regulations, positioning the academy for college games, Bower said.

In addition, youth leagues will use the baseball fields for tournaments. Apart from the mini-versions of “The K,” the third baseball field conforms to Little League standards.

“This is not just a temporary facility, it’s a full-blown commitment,” he said. “The Royals are using it as an extension of their farm system. They spared no cost and effort to make it first class.”

The Royals hired former minor league player Darwin Pennye as the youth academy’s director. Pennye grew up in the Houston area participating in the Boys & Girls Club before playing baseball in college, and later, with the Astros, Pirates, Cubs and Expos farm systems. He coached with the Astros in the minors before earning a degree in high school administration. Pennye moved to Kansas City, in part, to do something special that has an impact in the community, Vena said.

“This project is not just about playing baseball,” Bower said. “There will be opportunities to learn about broadcasting and sports writing. You don’t have to be athletically talented to participate.”