Many millions of adults today probably remember their first Little League game, or their first time tying on a pair of cleats, or participating in any other sort of sport. Today, various studies examining the participation of young fans between 6 and 17 in organized sports teams put the total number of young fans as low 21.5 million and as high as 28.7 million, and that number only continues to grow. This statistic does not even account for those who start before the age of six. Indeed, 60% of boys and 47% of girls are already on teams by their sixth birthdays.
And while there is certainly some agency on the parents to get their children involved in organized sports, that certainly does not mean that young fans do not care deeply about sports. Don Sabo, a youth-sports researcher and professor at D’Youville College in Buffalo, found that 61% of boys and 34% of girls across all grades say that sports are a large part of who they are. Yet as the grades progress and children get older, there is a natural winnowing effect that cuts out those not good enough to make the increasingly competitive squads. Youth and introductory teams become travel teams. Travel teams become high school teams. High school teams are cut down further still to become the best college teams, and from those college teams only the very best are lifted into the professional leagues – fewer still are polished into the sports stars we know today. From ages 12-17, the four most popular sports played by young athletes – football, basketball, baseball, and volleyball – all decline in participation by 4 to 5%. Part of this is simply not making the team, but another major facet is that the 39% of those who stop playing report that they are not having fun.
Enter Dude Perfect, a YouTube channel with millions of subscribers and many more millions of views. Combining sports like basketball or football with interesting “trick shots” or humorous sketch pieces, Dude Perfect brings a new type of fun entertainment to sports that goes beyond the simple highlight reel or athlete interview and makes the six “Dudes” sports celebrities in their own right. One example, their video “NFL Kicking Edition,” which brings on pro NFL kickers to do interesting trick shots with a football, has garnered over 8 million views on YouTube. This and many other popular videos like it, produced by similar YouTube channels and content creators like Frisbee legend Brodie Smith and the Harlem Globetrotters, have created a new genre of sports content through which young fans can interact with real players and stars in a medium right at their fingertips. The creators of Dude Perfect went to Texas A&M, and although they may never have played football for tens of thousands of Aggie fans, they can still play the sports they love for millions of people online.
This is the unique opportunity that sites like YouTube have been able to create for young people still interested in sports but unable to either make a highly competitive team or find a proper organized sports niche in which they can do what they love. Take Indi Cowie, for example. Indi Cowie is a freestyle soccer player – meaning that she does not play soccer for a team, but rather prefers “to combine sport and art,” performing interesting and difficult tricks with a soccer ball. It is a sub-genre of soccer that as of yet has no well-known, central organization, and it is not as focused on winning as regular soccer. Rather, in the words of Indi herself, “it’s a sport that allows you to express who you are, to learn more about yourself…there is no right or wrong way to freestyle.” Like Dude Perfect, Indi is a sports star in her own right, and her success and the fan-base she has been able to find online prove the point – one she tries to drive home with every video – that every kid can be a superstar.
Just because you don’t have a place on the team doesn’t mean you don’t have a place in the sport, a fact that is becoming more and more apparent as this new faction of sports media – driven by groups like Dude Perfect – continues to blossom.
Editor's note: This article originally appeared on Aug. 28, 2014, in Engage:Men.