In the late 1980s, the Illinois High School Sports Association created a file about the growing lack of interest in high school sports like basketball, football and baseball. Struggling to understand the empty stadiums and gymnasiums, they labeled the folder The Lost Generation.
Back in 1987, Phil English was a sports reporter for the Northwest Herald. He covered the situation in a four-part series. Here were some of the key facts he reported:
- The role of the family as primary spectator was lost. (In 1987, the parents and grandparents of the Gen-Xers playing sports were Baby Boomers or Traditionalists — often referred to as the Silent or Lucky Generation.
- 20- to 30 year-olds did not attend high school games. (In 1987, this included late wave Boomers born between 1957 and 1960 and first wave Gen-Xers born between 1960 and 1967.)
- Students (in 1987, exclusively Gen X) were pulled in a multitude of directions and did not attend high school games with the same frequency or fervor as the generations who came before them.
- More girls participated in sports, which divided spectators and possibly contributed to declining numbers at the all-boys games. Also, more kids specialized in sports outside of school.
- For the first time, high school sports competed with a wide availability of professional sports on TV.
- More students worked part-time jobs, which may have contributed to smaller fan-bases.
- A growing number of alternative forms of entertainment such as cable TV and movie rentals lured fans away.
- People were no longer energized or entertained by the games.
- A lack of leadership from local and state sports associations may have contributed to the problem.
Although English did a good job reporting on the problem, there was a large gap in his research. He never mentioned the low birth rate of the so-called lost generation (Generation X). The wide availability of oral contraceptives coupled with the legalization of abortion in 1973, contributed to a dramatic decline in births between 1965 and 1975. This created a shortage of teenagers in the 1980s and 1990s. With fewer players to cheer for at games the adult-fan base also dwindled.
The other thing English didn’t explore about the lost generation was the lack of parental guidance and/or parental participation during the “teen shortage.” After all, these young people were members of the Baby Bust generation of latchkey kids. A lost generation of children adversely impacted by divorce.
Fathers left. Mothers worked.
The Illinois High School Sports Association regarded the lost generation of high school athletes as a serious problem that threatened the future of high school sports. They created special products and events to bolster attendance. They elevated high school bands, pom pom squads, etc., at games. One official with IHSSA saw mothers as the primary solution to the problem:
“If somebody was really crafty, they’d get the mothers organized, explain to them how different sports worked and how they can get involved.”
Because mothers back then didn’t know how sports worked. Ha. But, I digress.
Were you part of this lost generation of athletes?
I’m curious what you think. How did homes broken by divorce contribute to the lost generation of high school athletes? Did you play sports in high school? If not, how come? Thank you in advance for sharing your story.