MONEY Sports

5 Sports Struggling to Reach Kids

It goes without saying, but if you ever have to launch a campaign to convince people that something is cool, it's probably not.

Kids today! They’re overscheduled with activities, and they’ve got no attention spans thanks to social media, video games, smartphones, and assorted other screens. That’s the gist of how today’s younger generations have been routinely portrayed. And these factors are among the reasons cited for waning interest and participation in sports that once captured the attention—and dollars—of the masses, but are now considered too old-fashioned, too time-consuming, too unexciting, or just too uncool by kids today.

These struggling sports aren’t simply conceding defeat, however. They’re introducing marketing initiatives and new business models to win over younger consumers as if the future of these sports depends on them—which is pretty much the case.

  • Bowling

    Bowling alley with neon lights

    The number of bowling alleys in America has been on a steady decline for years, dropping roughly 25% from 1998 (5,400 alleys) to 2013 (just under 4,000). Bowling alleys once thrived thanks to active bowling leagues around the country, but participation has dwindled, perhaps as part of the broader trend of Americans detaching from society and their local communities, as explained in the groundbreaking 2000 book Bowling Alone.

    That might not be the only reason interest in bowling has faded. “People’s social tastes change, too,” Wayne State University assistant sociology professor David Merolla told the Detroit Free Press. “It’s also possible bowling isn’t what people do anymore.”

    In recent years, emerging entertainment brands like Pinstack and Latitude 360 have aimed to reinvent the faded old bowling alley concept and attract more young people by adding all sorts of bells and whistles—or rather, ropes courses, laser tag, rock climbing walls, bumper cars, restaurants, and concert and comedy venues, all under one roof. Latitude 360, which plans on opening a location in lower Manhattan in late 2015, bills itself as a “cruise ship on land.” An ongoing Kids Bowl Free summertime promotion encourages children (and their families) to bowl too.

  • Golf

    Jordan Spieth of the U.S. grins as he wears his Champion's green jacket on the putting green after winning the Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Course in Augusta, Georgia April 12, 2015.
    Brian Snyder—Reuters Jordan Spieth of the U.S. grins as he wears his Champion's green jacket on the putting green after winning the Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Course in Augusta, Georgia April 12, 2015.

    Jordan Speith and Rory McIlroy are among the young golf champions who have been heralded as the sport’s potential saviors. And why might the sport need saving? The reasons include that it’s too snobby, too hard, too expensive, or just not cool or too time-consuming for our fast-moving culture.

    Perhaps the most obvious sign of golf’s struggles is that the number of courses in America is expected to plummet for years to come. To boost participation and interest in the sport, golf associations and country clubs have tried everything from pushing the idea of playing nine holes rather than the full 18, to using oversized holes on courses to make the game less frustrating—and perhaps even fun.

  • Boxing

    Boxing: Mayweather vs Pacquiao
    Mark J. Rebilas—USA TODAY Sports/Reuters Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao box during their world welterweight championship bout at MGM Grand Garden Arena, May 2, 2015.

    The big Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao match in Las Vegas was a huge money maker, but it didn’t help endear the sport to casual fans. Dozens of lawsuits have been filed by spectators who want their money back because the match was so boring (and because Pacquiao didn’t disclose an injury to prior to the fight).

    The heightened attention given to boxing with the “Fight of the Century” was also an anomaly. Interest in boxing among fans has been described as struggling, dead, or “undead” at least since the rise of mixed martial arts into the mainstream. Prior to the most recent “Fight of the Century,” many boxing pay-per-view events have drawn disappointing viewer numbers, and some have argued that PPV format is to blame as the reason so many casual fans stopped keeping up with the sport.

    “What’s hurting boxing is they’re not putting it on free television,” boxing great Evander Holyfield theorized in 2011. In March, boxing returned to prime time network television for the first time in three decades, with Saturday broadcasts of Premier Boxing Champions on NBC. Thus far, boxing on network TV has proved to be the equal of UFC in terms of viewer numbers.

    Interestingly, while the consensus is that fan interest in boxing has dwindled, participation in boxing has been on the upswing over the past decade, as it’s become a trendy fitness activity among men and women alike. Still, the American Association of Pediatricians vigorously opposes youths being involved in amateur boxing because of the serious risk of brain injury. On a related note, fewer kids are playing football across the U.S., though the trend may come as a result of children increasingly specializing in one sport for most of the year, rather than just concerns about head injuries.

  • Fishing

    Alex Wong—Getty Images Local students of Septima Clark Public Charter School participate during a fishing event at the Constitution Gardens Pond of the National Mall in Washington, DC.

    According to a 2014 report, there was a net loss of 1.2 million fishing participants in the previous year: Overall, 9.9 million people gave up fishing, while only 8.7 participants picked up the sport, representing a decrease of 21%. The poll shows that households with kids are more likely to fish: 17.5%, versus 12% of households without young children. But teenagers are the group least likely to be interested in fishing: Only 6.6% of people ages 13 to 17 who don’t fish said they were considering taking up the sport, compared to 43% of those 45 or over.

    Unsurprisingly, the outdoors seems to be deemed less cool the older a child gets. Among kids ages 6 to 12, 44% say outdoor recreation is “cool,” compared to 34% of 13- to 17-year-olds. Nearly half (47%) of first-time adult fishing participants said they perceived the sport as “exciting,” but significant numbers also described the sport as “time consuming” (25%), uninteresting (16.5%), and “not for someone like me” (12%). The poll doesn’t reveal such perceptions with regard to children or teenagers specifically, but presumably an above-average portion of easily distracted, smartphone-addicted teens think fishing is too boring.

    The insights of an outdoors recreation analyst quoted in 2007—when a study showed the number of fishing participants had dropped 16% over the previous 10 years—seems to hold up well: “Thirty years ago, people would get up and go fishing,” he said. “Now you get up and you have a soccer game at 9, a baseball game at 11, a team picnic at 1 — it’s much more structured time. Video games also are part of it.”

    It’s understandable why the fishing industry is so eager to encourage kids to give the sport a try: 84% of adult participants say they were introduced to fishing by the time they turned 12. Of course, it helps if you actually catch a fish: 40% of men said the most enjoyable thing about fishing was (what else?) catching a fish, and 37% said the worse thing about fishing was (what else?) not catching a fish. Yet 19% of survey participants who fish said they caught nothing on their most recent fishing trip.

    National Fishing & Boating Week, held the first week of June each year (June 6-14 in 2015), provides families a good excuse to give fishing a try. On one or more days during this week, most states allow fishing on public bodies of water without the requirement (or fee) of a permit.

  • Baseball

    As part of a season-long program titled "Calling All Kids", the players of the Boston Red Sox were accompanied by children during pre-game introductions.
    Jim Davis—Boston Globe via Getty Images As part of a season-long program titled "Calling All Kids", the players of the Boston Red Sox were accompanied by children during pre-game introductions.

    Studies have shown participation and interest in baseball has fallen year after year among children. Between 2002 and 2013, the number of children who played baseball dropped 41%. Polls indicate that teens identifying themselves as “avid” baseball fans are on the decline, while the fan base in professional soccer and basketball have been rising. (The NFL has the highest percentage of avid teen fans, overall.)

    Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has been on a mission to win over younger fans, which seems like an essential move because the future of baseball as a business relies on it. “Our research shows the two biggest determinants of fan avidity are did you play as a kid? And how old were you when your parents took you to the ballpark for the first time?” Manfred said at the start of this season.

    Hence the proliferation of family ticket deals and kids clubs offered by virtually every MLB team. The promotions include free tickets and team swag, with the hope that playing up to kids now pays off down the road.

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