I know plenty of young parents who, somewhat jokingly but also very seriously, began encouraging their babies to say “Go Dawgs” as soon as they began talking. Generational transfers of fandom don’t take for everyone—kids, Wann noted, love to rebel—but childhood is key to determining whether someone will follow sports later in life. And that doesn’t just mean watching sports growing up: “The best predictor of being a sports fan as an adult is having played that or another sport as a child,” he told me. Youth-sports participation is more closely correlated with fandom than any other trait he’s looked at, including gender and personality type and even whether you’re a good player. Spending just a season or two in Little League makes a person more likely to eventually become a sports fan—even if the eventual gateway is a Patrick Mahomes–obsessed college friend, and the result is an NFL habit rather than an MLB one. For generations, these factors played to sports franchises’ advantage. Teams sewed themselves into the social fabric of their cities until they seemed closer to a civic organization than a corporation owned by a local baron. Their product was also difficult to avoid—a few generations ago, most families had a single television, and it got just a handful of channels, one or two of which probably ran sports on any given night or weekend afternoon. Kids had fewer activities to choose from, and most boys were expected to play sports—if not on organized teams, then to pass the time with their neighbors before dinner. Virtually everything about how children entertain themselves has changed. Youth-sports participation has been declining pretty rapidly as playing has gotten more competitive, expensive, and time-consuming. If you’re a working- or middle-class kid with no real chance of a profitable athletic future, playing a sport might not make sense. For football, still the most popular spectator sport in the United States, fears about the game’s safety have contributed to a particularly steep decline in youth involvement. Where sports have receded from childhood, other sources of entertainment have flooded in. Video games and social media are popular bogeymen in tales about the laziness of Kids These Days, but they are a much less expensive way to keep your children occupied than travel soccer. Parents are also less likely than those before them to send their kids out to roam the neighborhood and put together pickup games themselves, a change precipitated by the various panics—satanic, stranger danger, gang—of the ’80s and ’90s. As children who lack much firsthand experience with sports reach adulthood, Wann said, converting them into sports fans will be difficult. “How can you grow a fan base,” he asked, “that has already spent all of their life basically telling you that they don’t care about your product?” Unless something changes, a self-perpetuating cycle is likely to set in: Kids who feel little connection to sports that are too expensive to play and too boring to watch grow up to be adults who don’t take their own children to baseball games or give them team-logo hoodies on important link their birthdays. Everyone involved in big-time American sports knows that something must be done. They have invested in developing large audiences on social-media platforms, in creating real-life “fan experiences,” in tying themselves to social values that might shore up their shaky reputation as cultural leaders. During last season’s playoffs, the NFL simulcast a game on Nickelodeon, which overlaid slime graphics onto the field while announcers, some of them kids, explained the rules and answered questions about the action.


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