These should be among the best of times for American soccer. Though the top-ranked U.S. women’s national team fell short of its pursuit of an unprecedented third consecutive World Cup title, TV ratings for the team’s games have been impressive—especially for a tournament taking place in Australia and New Zealand—while broadcast ad revenues are nearly double what they were four years ago. Meantime, the world’s greatest men’s player, Lionel Messi, is working his magic at Major League Soccer’s Miami franchise.
But amid all the exuberance lies a troubling, though often ignored, trend: a sharp decline in the number of American boys and girls playing the game. That slide, which began more than a decade ago, has persisted through several World Cup victories by the U.S. women and growing media exposure of the sport. And soccer is not alone in this respect. Youth sports participation in general has been falling—a testament to powerful larger forces, from the dampening effect of social media to the impact of drastic Covid lockdowns.
The numbers are startling. According to annual reports by the Aspen Institute’s Project Play, in the last decade, the proportion of boys and girls aged six to 12 involved in team sports slumped to 36.8 percent, down from 41.4 percent. Among the five top team sports tracked by Aspen, that represents a loss of about 2.8 million participants—or nearly one-fifth of all players. Among high-school-age kids engaged in team sports, the share of those participating similarly dropped to 41.7 percent, from 45.4 percent.
These represent big declines for some of our biggest sports. Soccer, the country’s third-most-popular team sport among kids, has sustained the largest losses. Participation has slumped by more than a quarter of all players, or about 800,000 kids aged six to 12, from a peak of 3 million players in 2010. The number of children aged six to 12 playing basketball has declined to about 4.2 million in 2021, down from a peak of 4.5 million in the same period. Baseball now suits up slightly under 3.7 million participants between the ages of six and 12, a sharp fall from almost 4.5 million in 2008.
Some of the losses for soccer have been specific to the sport itself. The national federation mismanaged a transition to a new age-classification system for youth players over the last decade. The mistake scrambled rosters and separated kids from their friends—sparking what Aspen estimates was a loss of hundreds of thousands of youth players over several years.
But other influences have been at work, too. Many youth-sports experts have noted a correlation between the rise of social-media use among the young and a decline in physical activity. A 2015 article in the American Journal of Public Health found that kids who used social media frequently were less likely to participate in youth sports and more likely to experience anxiety and other emotional problems. Youth coaches describe increasing difficulty recruiting kids for sports programs.
“I hear stories of basketball teams struggling to fill their lineups and soccer programs not getting enough athletes out to have a Junior Varsity team. This baffles me,” one longtime coach wrote recently about the impact of social media.
Extreme pandemic lockdowns fed the decline in youth sports. Despite evidence that young people were among the least affected by Covid, in the summer of 2020 Los Angeles County required youth athletes to wear masks while playing sports outside—even though outdoor transmission of the virus was rare—and take weekly Covid tests. In Michigan in early 2021, the state allowed bars and restaurant to open weeks before it permitted high school winter sports programs to resume—angering parents, players, and school officials.
The consequences for youth sports have been significant. In an Aspen survey, 40 percent of parents of student athletes in California said that their children had lost interest in sports during the pandemic. Shrinking participation may have something to do with greater anxiety among the young. One study of high school athletes found that they were less likely to experience emotional problems as young adults than teens who didn’t play sports.
Sports leagues and national organizations have made some efforts to stem the decline, such as launching programs to get kids from low-income neighborhoods more involved in leagues. Only about a quarter of children in households earning under $25,000 a year now participate, and the percentage of physically inactive kids in those households has risen sharply in the past decade, now totaling nearly one-third of all children.
The NBA, Major League Baseball, and U.S. Soccer have all invested in building city fields and starting free training programs for kids in low-income neighborhoods. These efforts have shown little payoff. Rising crime, rising costs for equipment and fields, and a lack of male-headed households have left many athletic programs in these neighborhoods struggling. Though soccer’s woes are sometimes attributed to the high cost of joining an elite youth club, some of the biggest losses have been among community recreation programs, which suspended play, or in some cases completely disappeared, during the pandemic.
One gets little sense of these struggles watching the exuberant media coverage of the World Cup and its narrative of soaring interest in the sport. The development of soccer, or indeed any sport these days, is often measured in TV ratings and broadcast revenues. But surveys show that many fans attribute their passion for a sport to having participated in it as a young player. One wonders how long the money can keep flowing into America’s top sports if fewer and fewer kids are playing.