School is still briefly but blissfully out in much of the country as we enter August, and the month has become known not just as the “dog days” of baseball summer but the youth days, as well. The kids are away, so they come out and play.
From the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) World Series beginning Sunday at the newly named Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Fla., to the MLB Little League Classic in Williamsport, Pa., later this month, to the Little League World Series itself to the Players Weekend festivities in which big leaguers embrace their inner child, the arrival of August is as good a time as any to take note of how the game still has a hold on America’s young and how its reach has grown in recent years.
Five years ago this month, in his first act as Commissioner-elect, Rob Manfred traveled to Williamsport to foster a stronger relationship with Little League, as an institution, and youth baseball, as a whole. From there sprouted the now-annual Classic that brings a big league ballgame to the Little Leaguers (this year, it’s Pirates-Cubs on Aug. 18 at Williamsport’s Historic Bowman Field) and the Play Ball initiative that has had a direct effect on baseball participation.
“We understand how important it is to connect our game with young people around the country and the world,” says Tony Reagins, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball and softball development. “In the last five years, that growth has been consistent.”
Various independent data support the notion that no matter how much hand-wringing there might be about a 150-year-old sport’s place in the modern world (and to be sure, “baseball is dying” narratives have been uttered as far back as 1881), MLB’s grassroots-level bid to improve its influence is working.
• The Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) found that baseball has seen a growth of 21% in overall participation (both casual and core) since 2014, which dovetails with the '15 launch of Play Ball. That’s the most growth of any sport in that span, more than quadrupling the second-closest sport (basketball, at plus-4%). And participation among African-American youth was higher for baseball (3.8%) than football (3.4%).
• The SFIA also found that baseball and softball combined as the most participated team sport in the U.S. in 2018.
• According to the Aspen Institute’s “State of Play” Trending and Development Report, baseball and softball combine to have the most youth participants (ages 6 to 12).
• And the National Sporting Goods Association’s “2019 Sports Participation in the U.S.” report found that baseball participation was up 2% in '17-18 among youth ages 7 to 17. That rise came in spite of overall youth participation in sports remaining static (plus-0.3 percent) in that same time frame.
MLB has operated around the principle that a child’s participation in a sport greatly increases the likelihood of lifelong fandom. That’s why Fun At Bat, an entry-level bat and ball program adopted in schools both here and abroad with the support of MLB and USA Baseball, is seen as a vital initiative. It can also help foster continued growth in diversity at the MLB level.
Reagins has been at Fun At Bat and Play Ball programs in places like East St. Louis, Ill., and Flint, Mich., where baseball was once indeed bereft of life, and comes out excited and hopeful for the future.
“These kids are obviously young, but their athletic ability is there,” he says. “These are communities that sometimes have forgotten baseball, but we see kids engaged. We were in Gary, Ind., a couple months ago, and there were about 250 mostly African-American kids taking part and having fun. To me, as an African-American, to see that was encouraging and exciting, because these kids were all-in on baseball.”
The RBI program, MLB Youth Academies, and events like the Softball and Breakthrough Series, which were held in May and June, respectively, and the ongoing Hank Aaron Invitational, in which nearly 260 high schoolers are currently competing in Vero Beach, further promote diversity of the game, and since 2012, nearly 20 percent of players selected in the first round of the amateur Draft were African-American.
“At the beginning of every baseball season, around April 15 [Jackie Robinson Day], you’re going to get stories in the papers that African-Americans are not playing baseball,” Reagins says. “We see something different. We’re down in the grassroots and seeing something that’s different. It’s cool to be able to see kids from all backgrounds participating.”
And again, participation can breed fandom, which can be measured in attendance. Here, too, baseball stands out in the youth space. A 2018 Simmons Research 12-month study found that baseball ranked first among the various major sports (including college football and basketball, the NBA, NFL, NHL, MLS, Nascar, the PGA and professional wrestling) in total attendance for teens and kids (ages 6 to 17).
The Sports Business Journal reported that while football is favored by millennial and Generation X over baseball by a 2-to-1 margin, baseball has pulled even with the NFL among Generation Z, defined as those born in 1997 or later. With sports consumption increasingly taking place on phones and tablets versus television sets, baseball’s nightly social-media presence, fantasy relevance and popular MLB At Bat app are all pluses with that audience.
And then there is Play Ball Park, which has become an All-Star week institution in recent years. This year, in Cleveland, 149,513 fans attended Play Ball Park, making it the most attended MLB fan festival in 10 years dating back to 2009 All-Star FanFest in St. Louis.
What this all points to is a sport successfully navigating the difficult and delicate process of adapting to a changing landscape. And by proactively aiming for improvement in youth participation, baseball is protecting its future and preserving its place in American society
Look around at these events in this month of August, at the kids celebrating and reveling in the sport in the midst of summer’s last gasp, and that’s especially apparent.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.