Where have all the baseball fans gone?

July 20, 2014

PitsIt’s a perfect summer night for baseball at Dominico Field in Christie Pits Park in Toronto.

A few lazy clouds are hanging in the sky, it’s pleasant T-shirt weather, and the trees and sea of green grass make you forget you’re in the middle of the country’s largest concrete jungle.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, a semi-professional team that’s played in this former gravel pit for decades, are on their way to a come-from-behind win over the visiting Kitchener Panthers.

Here and there, a few families lounge on the steep grass slopes that surround the ball field. A handful of diehards stake out spots on the wooden bleachers, or sit high above the field, just a few feet from the sidewalk, and hurl insults at the umpire.

Since it’s a public park, there’s no price for admission, and anyone can wander in, plop down a lawn chair or spread out a blanket. It’s got to be some of the best free entertainment on this night in the big city.

But you can’t help but wonder: Where are all the fans? The ladies selling jumbo hotdogs in the canteen out by centre field have an answer. They point to a faded poster showing hundreds of spectators jammed into Christie Pits, and shake their heads.

“We used to get thousands of fans. Now it’s all soccer,” said one.

They’re not far off in their assessment. Across Canada, baseball’s young fan base is shrinking. And that’s a shame.

The number of five- to 14-year-olds who played organized baseball dropped from 13 per cent in 1992 to five per cent in 2005, according to Statistics Canada, and there are signs the pace is accelerating. Participation in soccer over that same time frame, meanwhile, soared from 12 per cent to 20 per cent.

Participation in hockey, which is still so tangled up with our national identity, slipped slightly, too. But no major sport declined nearly as much as baseball, and it happened at a time when there’s never been more Canadians playing professional baseball in leagues around the world.

That’s too bad — for the future of the sport itself, and since the benefits to children of playing organized sports are well-documented. And few sports teach you patience and mental awareness like baseball.

Overall, kids are playing fewer and fewer organized sports. Statistics Canada suggests there’s a few reasons for that. More split families and demands on parents’ time, increasing financial pressures and changing immigration trends all play a role.

A 2013 report by the CBC on the costs of organized sports helped explain one theory why sports like hockey and baseball are declining, but soccer is growing. It costs an average of $740 to outfit your kid to play hockey, and $335 for a child to play baseball.

Soccer, now the most popular sport in Canada, costs just $160 per child, according to the CBC’s calculations. But maybe it’s about more than just money.

A few years ago, The Wall Street Journal examined declining youth baseball enrolment in the U.S. and asked, “Has baseball’s moment passed?” They pointed to another possible answer: the game is too slow.

Baseball, the only major game with no time clock, has always had its own unique pace. The moments between pitches and plays can crawl past. Increasingly, fans want unrelenting action, a thrill every minute.

In today’s modern life, baseball asks fans to be patient, to wait, to hold on. Perhaps, just maybe, that’s not such a bad thing.

-Guelph Mercury, July 19, 2014

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