Batter up!

The Angels play the Marlins during the second inning of a Pacifica America Little League game at Ortega Middle School in Pacifica in May. Adam Pardee / Tribune

It was 2008 when DiMitri Fabiani-Wyatt first geared up and took to the field for the Pacifica Tigersharks Pop Warner football team. He was just 5 years old. “Back then every team was filled, and sometimes we had multiple teams for each age group,” Fabiani-Wyatt recalled.

Soon after, participation started to drop.

“By the time I realized that what I was a part of was really special, I started to see that we weren’t as big as we used to be,” said Fabiani-Wyatt.

His eighth-grade football season with the Tigersharks was canceled due to a lack of players. This year, the Pop Warner program has folded altogether.

It’s not just football. Similar trends have been occurring in local baseball and hockey leagues. Joel Farbstein, who ran the North Coast Hockey League for 10 years, reports a 30 percent decrease in participation between 2020 and 2021. Half Moon Bay Little League has experienced a similar drop.

Diminishing numbers were intensified by COVID.

“We had flyers going in every kid’s backpack in English and Spanish, but COVID has presented a huge challenge with less kids being in school,” said Farbstein.

During the pandemic, there has been less athletic activity in all forms. Stay-at-home orders have led kids to hunker down on couches. Practices stopped, gyms shut down, school teams postponed or canceled seasons.

According to a study conducted by the Aspen Institute called “Project Play,” the average child spent about 6.5 hours less per week on sports during COVID-19. Time clocked at practice declined by 54 percent, and hours spent at games were down 59 percent.

“The pandemic was a moment for everyone to stop and think, ‘Do we really want to be doing this?’” said Brian Colluci, a father of three whose children have played in various Coastside youth leagues. Colluci is also a former board member for Half Moon Bay Little League and current board member for the Half Moon Bay Pirates travel team.

“We are caught in a tenuous moment and everything in the Bay Area is only getting more expensive. Spending time and money on sports may not be people’s priority,” he said.

Lower rates of participation preceded the pandemic. Nationwide, participation in youth sports fell among kids ages 6 through 17 by roughly 7 percent from 2012 to 2018, according to Project Play.

Speculative reasons for this decline are diverse and extensive.

According to an ESPN poll, nearly 9 out of 10 parents have concerns about the risk of their child being injured playing a sport. A study conducted by the Hospital for Special Surgery revealed that concussions ranked as the No. 1 injury concern for all parents, especially in football.

“Even my parents, who let me play since I was 5, have thought twice about putting me in the program again,” said Fabiani-Wyatt. “The reality is, I have gained more from football than any injury from the sport has ever taken from me.”

Throughout the time that the Tigersharks program was running, efforts were made to reduce the potential for injury among players.

“Our league made changes in the way we taught the game. Football has never been safer,” said Dave Mercurio, who was involved with the Pacifica Tigersharks for over 25 years.

“We learned to teach kids heads-up tackling, which kept their heads out of it. We eliminated kickoffs, which were dangerous because you had players running downfield from 50 yards apart and crashing into each other. And we even had helmet sensors that would blink if a kid hit their head too hard so we could take them out and test them for a concussion.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data reveals that more than half of all sports injuries are preventable. Overuse injuries account for nearly half of all sports injuries to middle and high schoolers.

Specializing in a single sport too early often leads to higher injury rates. In an area like the Coastside where the population of children is declining, specialization also prevents different sports from fielding more players.

“I think the pressure comes from parents who want their kids to excel at a sport, more than anyone else,” said Colluci. “The leagues used to be pretty good at staggering their seasons, but at some point that stopped.”

Sports have become more serious at an earlier age. Pressure to perform, from parents and coaches, can make for a toxic environment.

“What I see happening today is parents fighting in the stands, coaches being ejected, and people in it for the wrong reasons,” said Mercurio.

Though there is no shortage of open space along the Coastside, the number of recreational facilities in the area are few.

“A lot of people want the only active recreation in the area to be hiking, and recreational park land is scarce,” Farbstein noted. “The city has done a disservice to youths in that there are not enough active recreational opportunities here. There is no pool, but the football field has been redone twice, and the track widened. When you have facilities, people use them.”

Organizers hope the decline in kids sports will reverse alongside the conditions of the pandemic. However, the sudden financial downturn from coronavirus could have a long-term impact on opportunities for kids to be involved in sports. Both the North Coast Hockey League and the Half Moon Bay Little League have tried to minimize the potential financial burden. The NCHL offers scholarships with free or reduced fees, and the Little League offers financial aid.

Despite omnipresent barriers to success, many players persist out of sheer love for their sport.

After DiMitri Fabiani-Wyatt’s eighth-grade Pop Warner season was canceled, he was a member of the last freshman football team that Terra Nova High School had the numbers to field. Though he has witnessed the decline of youth sports firsthand, his love for the game of football has not faltered.

“The things that have been instilled in me throughout the sport, throughout the years and through the people I have encountered, the things that I have pulled away from that have a huge value,” he said.

He will try to walk on to the football team at Colorado State University next year.

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