I was talking to a young teenager the other day about sports. Yes I used to play some basketball at his age, I was saying, but I was certainly no LeBron James.
I was astonished. Miguel Cabrera? Drew Brees? Sydney Crosby? Nope, nope, and nope.
In my tween years in the late 1970s, I could tell you the exact Philadelphia Phillies lineup. In fact, I probably still could, along with a decent guess at their general batting averages.
Has something fundamentally changed here? If so, should we be concerned about this at all?
Usually for these posts I like to present and synthesize data, but here I must admit I am looking for some. It is clear that sports, in particular the National Football League (NFL), is doing quite well overall, thank you very much. The Nielson ratings, at least for adults, are as good as ever with even regular season games consistently around the top watched shows. Among children and adolescents, however, sports broadcasts don’t tend to make the list. What would be great to see here are some data about trends over the past 30 years or so regarding the level of sports viewing on television or in-person at sports venues. I have to think that people (i.e. advertisers) are quite aware of any changes related to kids and just prefer not to share their numbers, but perhaps it is possible with all of the ratings success with adults that a quiet decline of professional sports following among children may be slipping below the radar. Hopefully some of you reading this might be able to keep the discussion going and direct me to the facts we are looking for.
There certainly would be a number of good reasons for why kids don’t care about professional sports as much. Ticket prices have gone through the dome, making the family outing to the ballgame out of reach for many families. Even watching sports on television has become expensive as games move to premium cable networks and away from national networks. More and more families have even forgone cable or satellite subscriptions altogether in place of Netflix where live viewing isn’t even possible.
And while the surveys show that kids have absolutely no trouble spending ungodly amounts of time sitting in front of a screen, more and more of that time is being spent with video games and social media websites rather than watching live sports. Even when kids are unplugged, the old practice of collecting real athletes on sports cards have been replaced by mythical beasts and anime in games such as Magic and Pokémon.
When my own 13-year-old sums it up as, “I just like to play sports more than watch sports,” it doesn’t seem so bad. Maybe it is not a big deal, or even a good thing, that kids have disconnected somewhat from pro sports. After all, there are the daily headlines of athletes behaving badly (likely to do more with our headlines than any overall worsening of behavior), and when kids do see athletes on television, they are often peddling things like fast food or soda that aren’t that good for them anyway. The athletes told us that they didn’t want to be role models for kids, and now the kids are turning their backs.
Still, there is something disquieting about losing this connection between youth and professional sports (if indeed we are). One troubling aspect may be that children are not only watching fewer sports but they are playing fewer sports. There may be no casual connection between the two trends. On the other hand, maybe kids need that image of the 7th game of the World Series or the 18th green at Augusta to motivate them to recreate that scene in the front lawn. Maybe sports just provide a great way to spend some quality parent-child time, sitting on a hard bench with a couple of hot dogs while debating who should go to the All Star Game.
I have to wonder….what would The Babe think about all this? (He was the slightly big guy who played for the New York Yankees back in the 1920s and hit a lot of home runs).
@copyright by David Rettew, MD
David Rettew is author of Child Temperament: New Thinking About the Boundary Between Traits and Illness and a child psychiatrist in the psychiatry and pediatrics departments at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.