What does a declining population mean for sport?

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 ability shrinks.

Changes to population size are signaled primarily by a country's fertility rate i.e. the average number of children born to a woman. This rate ignores immigration and other demographic phenomena that might affect population size. Demographers calculate that for a population to remain the same a fertility rate of 2.1 to 2.3 is required (currently Malaysia's population is around 29 million). This is called the replacement rate. A higher rate than this indicates a growing population, a lower one indicates contraction. As of 2013 Malaysia's overall fertility rate was 1.98, below the replacement rate. This rate indicates that Malaysia's population growth will eventually level off if it hasn't already, and then begin contracting.

How the replacement rate works

For sport this can be a troubling statistic. It means that fewer youngsters will be available for sport teams and that sport programs in general will be less robust. Malaysian sport is already in a chronic state of under-participation due to artificial limits placed on 'select' teams and a general lack of youth sport choices. Since the effect of the negative replacement rate will first be felt at the youngest end of the population fewer youngsters will be in schools and smaller numbers of those youngsters will participate in sports. Over the long-term sport associations will have fewer athletes to choose from when selecting national teams.

Efforts should increase now so that the largest number of athletes can be recruited into sport programs nationwide. The current emphasis on elite level coaching, sport science support, and foreign technical advice may be appropriate at the high performance level but is meaningless at the developmental level. To truly develop sport youngsters need opportunities to learn and play. The larger the number of young athletes that can be created by sport associations the higher the probability that some of them will emerge as truly elite performers.

If current demographic trends continue Malaysia will soon have fewer youngsters overall. Working now to create as many athletes as they can will benefit sport associations in the years ahead.