A disappearing field of dreams? In Duluth, numbers say otherwise

Screen Shot 2014-12-09 at 5.24.13 PM  

Popularly known as America’s pastime, baseball has seen a decrease in youth interest in recent years, and many are concerned that the sport is becoming irrelevant.

With other summertime sports becoming more popular among children, baseball is battling lacrosse, soccer, rugby and others for playing time.

According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, youth participation in lacrosse and rugby has increased dramatically, up 37.7 percent and 50.7 percent, respectively.

Duluth area baseball registration has been steadily increasing in the past five years, but many coaches and youth sports administrators have been concerned that these numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Corbin Smyth, president of Eastern Little League Baseball in Duluth, said the game’s popularity has been diminishing because children today need more stimulation than prior generations.

“I understand what draws kids to sports: contact, constant action and competition,” Smyth said. “Unfortunately, baseball doesn’t necessarily give that back to its youth.”

With kids having electronic outlets for entertainment at younger and younger ages, it seems the death of baseball might be on the horizon.

Roger Peterson, coach of a Duluth area baseball team, said there are difficulties getting kids active.

“There are many more diversions today competing for the player’s attention than even 10 or 20 years ago,” Peterson said.

Smartphones, tablets and video games are just some of the technologies that, a decade ago, weren’t nearly as common or didn’t exist altogether.

“It is uncommon today to see children playing catch or having a pick-up game during the day,” Peterson said. “I would not be surprised to see participation in baseball, as well as other team sports, continue to decline as many children are happy to sit in front of a device and not be engaged with people.”

Health experts believe children in this generation are relying too heavily on technology for entertainment, and data is coming out that children’s health is suffering as a result.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years.

This trend can be attributed in part to children’s lack of activity and poor diet.

One possible reason for this inactivity can be traced to the lack of proper playing fields for kids in highly populated urban areas, such as Duluth.

“The city of Duluth had a lack of budget for outdoor park and recreation centers,” Smyth said. “The Little League associations around Duluth have had to raise registration prices because the money is needed to maintain baseball fields.”

Smyth points out that the diamonds around the Northland are community owned. There often is not enough funding for repairs, which in turn raises prices for youth participants.

In the United States, nearly 85 percent of all youth sports facilities are either owned by the schools or communities within a given city, according to the National Council of Youth Sports.

The difficulty with organizing youth sports in Duluth can be linked to late winters, which undoubtedly have an impact on playing fields.

Nick Luoma, president of Lake Park Little League, said the biggest challenge of playing baseball in Minnesota is the weather.

“We lost several games and practices a year to weather-related issues.” Luoma said.

Snowfall, which carries into March and even April, often cause the baseball season to start later than administrators would like.

Lack of simple fundamentals being taught is the root of the problem, Peterson said.

“It’s difficult to practice year-round in Minnesota, which you need to do to become proficient at baseball,” Peterson said. “The fundamentals need practice, and often times, the athlete has other sports going on.”

Hockey obviously takes the cake as the most popular sport among youth in Minnesota, and it’s clear why when you acknowledge the fact it can be played year-round.

“Hockey is part of the cultural fabric of Minnesotans,” Peterson said. “I mean, just look at (the amount of) Major League Baseball players coming from California compared to Minnesota. I’m sure the disparity is huge.”

Baseball may seem like the most likely sport in regard to extinction, but it seems unlikely to die out in Duluth and across the nation based on recent data.

The Sports and Fitness Industry Association’s most recent study points out that three out of every four teens in America are playing at least one team sport.

It may be true that the general public is losing interest in baseball on television, but kids in Duluth are signing up for baseball in higher numbers than previous years.

Smyth said that since 2012, Duluth East Little League has seen an increase in participation, from 286 children to 323 children in 2014.

Nick Luoma of Lake Park Little League has noticed an increase from 2011, when 380 kids registered, to last summer, when 410 kids registered.

Peterson echoed this message, saying the Western Duluth Little League surpassed 200 participants last summer after having 180 participants in 2013.

“Part of the reason for the increase is because of more aggressive sign-ups to identify potential players for our league,” Peterson said.

Other sports might be preoccupying a child’s summer more than in recent generations, but baseball still has a following in America’s youth, and it isn’t likely to die in Duluth anytime soon.

Open for business: Entrepreneurs say Duluth receptive to fledgling companies

Cancel class, I'm having a baby