The Fall 2017 season of the Howell Soccer Club is currently running with 475 players between the ages of 4 and 18. Three years ago, there were 650.

The senior baseball division of the Manalapan Baseball and Softball Association used to be split into the majors and minors, featuring six teams each. Most recently, the division had just five teams total.

Little League Team
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Similar stories are unfolding throughout the Garden State as participation in youth sports continues its steady decline.

According to data released in early September by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association and the Aspen Institute, about 37 percent of children ages 6 to 12 played team sports regularly in 2016 — down from 41.4 percent in 2012 and nearly 45 percent in 2008.

"The reduction in participation is alarming," Kevin Foley, president of the Howell Soccer Club, told New Jersey 101.5.

It's been a hot topic among coaches, parents and past players, Foley noted. And the conversations have uncovered a few common themes that appear to be playing a role in the participation plunge, including the proliferation of competitive travel programs.

Springing up in towns across the state, the leagues compete for players who would typically participate in recreational or club programs.

"We have entered into the realm of paid coaches and paid trainers who are focused on wins and losses rather than player development and enjoyment of the game," Foley said. "Players may make the team but their playing time is limited unless they are performing well."

Foley also pointed to a lack of quality volunteer coaches who can keep players interested in the game and wanting to come back for future seasons.

"The coaches we have do a tremendous job with the kids and we couldn't survive without them; we just need more to step up and participate," he said.

The president of the Manalapan Baseball and Softball Association, who preferred his name not be used in this article, said the decline in participation — mostly among older players — has been playing out over the past seven to eight years, with the greatest drop during 2014 and 2015. The overall pool of players sits at about 800 right now, compared to about 1,250 in 2014.

"Perhaps baseball is not as central to the American psyche as it was back when we were younger," he said.

Manalapan resident Lee Rubin, an author and speaker on the topics of leadership and team-building, said kids today have "so many distractions" keeping them away from the field, court or rink. But playing on a team, he said, helps kids develop behaviors and attitudes that can't be taught just anywhere.

"For us, it was you do well academically and you do well athletically. There weren't too many other options to choose from," said Rubin, former captain of the Penn State football team and a three-sport scholar athlete at Manalapan High School.

At the same time, parents today are stretched thin in terms of time and finances, Rubin added.

According to Foley, the Howell club over time has been forced to impose higher fees on players due to insurance, equipment and field maintenance. But registration fees are in the same spot for the fourth year.

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