Sporting goods stores are probably the best places to get a decent idea of what's going on with youth sports today. Where else can you observe firsthand which pieces of equipment are getting grabbed up and which products are striking out with shoppers?
In a recent interview with Business Insider, Dick's Sporting Goods CEO Ed Stack said that he's been noticing one pattern in particular in his fleet of stores: the decline of youth football. Parents are dodging pigskins, shoulder pads, and bulky helmets in favor of soccer balls and baseball bats.
“There's just so many parents who just don't want their kids to play football any longer because of the concussion piece,” Stack told Business Insider.
In 2017, The Journal of the American Medical Association published its findings based on the donated brains of 202 dead former football players. They posthumously diagnosed 177 of those athletes — including 110 of 111 former NFL professionals — with chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE is a degenerative brain disease linked to memory disorders, depression, and dementia.
And now that the connection between football and permanent brain damage has been flagged, parents are running scared.
University of Washington School of Medicine researchers surveyed a sample of 1,025 parents based in the United States in April 2019. Of those parents, over 60% said “they would support age restrictions for tackling in youth football, similar to limits in soccer and hockey.” And high school football has already begun to feel the crush. Reuters reported in 2018 that, after spiking to 1.11 million student athletes in 2008, high school football programs had dropped to 1.06 million by 2017.
In his book “It's How We Play the Game,” Stack wrote about his own positive experience playing football growing up, adding that he thinks steering kids away from the sport is an understandable move.
“Football has really got to do something,” Stack said. “I think they're making some good strides with what they're doing from a flag football standpoint; having kids start tackling later than they do now. Hopefully, they'll figure it out. But from a participation standpoint, they're in structural decline.”
But it's not all yellow penalty flags for children's sports. Stack said that his stores have seen an uptick in participation in both baseball and soccer, the latter of which has also been linked to brain damage later in life.
Stack said that the void left by youth football is being filled by baseball, a sport that is increasingly bursting the confines of its traditional spring season.
“Fall baseball has gotten to be really significant,” Stack said. “A long time ago when a lot of us were younger, there weren't many fall ball baseball leagues. But it's really gotten big.”