Going back to 2008, participation is lower across categories, including baseball, basketball, flag football, and soccer, in some cases by a lot: Baseball is down about 20 percent.
…Among richer families, youth sports participation is actually rising. Among the poorest households, it’s trending down. Just 34 percent of children from families earning less than $25,000 played a team sport at least one day in 2017, versus 69 percent from homes earning more than $100,000. In 2011, those numbers were roughly 42 percent and 66 percent, respectively.
…Well-off parents dedicate so much time and money to kids’ sports partly because of the college system, which dangles tantalizing rewards for the most gifted teenage athletes. In the 1990s, Division 1 and Division 2 colleges distributed about $250 million a year in full and partial scholarships to student athletes. Today that figure has grown to more than $3 billion. This scholarship jackpot gives some children from lower-income families a chance to attend schools they might not otherwise afford. But it also sends a clear message to richer parents looking to enhance their kids’ eventual application: Sports matter. As soon as some children enter second or third grade, their parents scramble to place them on youth travel teams, which will set them up for middle-school travel teams, which will set them up for high-school athletic excellence, which will make them more competitive for admissions and scholarships at select colleges.
…In short, the American system of youth sports—serving the talented, and often rich, individual at the expense of the collective—has taken a metal bat to the values of participation and universal development. Youth sports has become a pay-to-play machine.