Declining populations will affect national sport development

The effect of falling fertility rates on sport may not be as dramatic as that felt from the pandemic but it's real and already underway. The smart money is on sports that can adapt.

It's not exactly out of the frying pan and into the fire but the decline in population growth -- in many countries the population is actually shrinking -- is not what anyone was looking for in these tenuous stages of pandemic recovery. Some may actually cheer a smaller number of people living here on Earth due to the climate benefits but the real and more imminent economic and labor force effects are concerning governments worldwide. Population decline is like a slow moving tsunami; we know it's happening, we can't prevent it, but there is time to cook up mitigating strategies.

Among the various metrics affecting population size -- fertility, death, immigration, and age -- the main culprit responsible for the current shrinkage is a decline in fertility rates. As reported recently by the BBC, the global fertility rate is dropping, and has been for some time. In some countries it's dropping well below the rate demographers call the replacement rate, which is the fertility rate necessary to maintain current population levels. Although it varies slightly by region, 2.1 is the currently accepted replacement rate. This means that women of childbearing age must produce 2.1 children to maintain a country's population level. An overall decline in population is one thing, but when the fertility rate falls far below replacement levels trouble lies ahead.

Below is the sex and age distribution of the United States population in 2018. These types of charts are traditionally referred to as population pyramids that show larger numbers of people at the bottom (younger ages) and smaller numbers near the top as the people age. Since the fertility rate in the United States is around 1.7, well below the 2.1 replacement rate, its sex/age distribution no longer looks pyramidal. This is what a shrinking population looks like on paper.

An even better example of this is Japan, whose fertility rate is 1.3. Japan's population shows an increasing dependency ratio, which occurs when smaller numbers of younger persons must support larger numbers of older persons. This affects numerous social, health, and economic factors in a society.

All of this foreshadows future problems not only for sport but for societies as a whole. Countries with fertility rates above 2.1 will have growing populations that are getting younger i.e. more people are being born than are dying. Countries with fertility rates lower than 2.1 have decreasing populations that are getting older, as people die fewer people are born to "replace" them, so the average age increases and the total population gets smaller, thus creating a more ominous dependency ratio. Both scenarios can result in significant economic challenges.

As the number of elderly in a society increases, the tax base that supports their retirement and care must be provided by the decreasing number of working age adults. Theoretically there should be more workers than retirees but this has shifted. When the U.S. initiated its Social Security system in 1935 it was designed to remain stable if there were more than three workers for each retiree. In the beginning there were a lot of workers and only a few retirees, so funding was not a problem. In 2019 though there were only 2.9 workers per retiree. Because of this dwindling base of support and the many additional costs added to the program over the years the system is straining. And the same thing is happening in other countries with social insurance schemes.

Shrinking and aging populations strain government budgets and slow overall economic growth. This only amplifies the negative effects of current economic conditions. And it's occurring in both developed and developing countries. The effects of shrinking populations and increasing dependency ratios spell trouble for all social institutions, including sport.

Effect on sport

It only takes a minute to understand what happens to the so-called youth sport industrial complex if there are fewer young athletes, or, to put it in more economic terms, what happens if the market shrinks. The entire youth sport system depends on a steady supply of youngsters to fill up sport development programs. So just like any other social institution, sport will feel the effects of this decline and they will be felt first at the developmental level.

In what we remember as normal times, sport practitioners attribute success to solid developmental programs and good coaching, but external factors like economics, national health, social movements, and demographics have all had recent ramifications for sport. During the pandemic, for example, athletes in some sports found it hard to train if facilities were closed, and practices and competitions weren't allowed. And the disruptions occurred immediately; there was no time to plan for how to wrap up the season early or even finish a tournament. Everything just stopped. Contrast that with the slow but steady decline of global fertility rates and sport will soon be faced with an existential crisis of another kind, fewer athletes. In some sports this is already happening.

Smaller numbers of athletes make retention even more important to national governing bodies as I wrote previously:

Just like education and healthcare, sport is a social institution that depends on a delicate balance of demographics to function effectively in a society. If a country's population drops then the dwindling tax base creates economic challenges that force governments to adjust schemes that fund national healthcare, retirement, and sport development programs. In sport it also means that the potential pool of athletic talent shrinks.

Changes that might occur as a result of declining population:

  • Countries that have not created sound development schemes for their sport programs will find it even harder when the potential market for these programs shrinks.
  • For countries with well-developed, commercialized youth sport infrastructure some contraction is ahead, but some sports may do better than others as expensive activities will become less attractive to families.
  • Convenience will remain a factor at the developmental level. As I wrote before the rise of early specialization is a combination of both wanting to get a head start in a sport and the fact that it's easier to commit to one activity than to sample many. Regardless of what you think about early specialization, clubs should understand that convenience of participation is paramount for new athletes and their families.
  • Governments that fund sport programs will find it increasingly hard to do so when more consequential social support schemes become strained.

The effect of falling fertility rates on sport may not be as dramatic as that felt from the pandemic but it's real and already underway. The smart money is on sports that can adapt.