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Fewer Kids Are Playing Football, But Mark Cuban Might Be Wrong About Why

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban predicted Sunday that oversaturation will destroy the NFL, citing the league’s play on nontraditional football nights. Cuban expanded his doomsaying in a lengthy Facebook post Monday. Tops on his list of reasons why the NFL will implode within a decade was a forecasted decline in youth football participation, specifically due to concerns over brain injuries.

“I wouldn’t want my son playing football,” Cuban wrote. “I’m sure helmet technology will improve over the next 10 years, but why risk it? There are plenty of sports to play.”

Cuban is right on one point: Fewer kids are playing football. Since 2008, the number of individuals between ages 6 and 18 playing organized football has fallen by 5.4 percent, according to a Wall Street Journal report from early this year on a large-scale survey by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association and the Physical Activity Council.

But if the NFL’s future talent pool is dwindling, it’s tough to prove it’s because of head injuries.

According to a 2013 study by the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council, tackle football saw the highest incidence of concussions among youth sports. But the next-highest rates belonged to ice hockey and lacrosse, both of which were among the few youth sports experiencing an increase in participation from  2008 to 2012.

In fact, kids are moving away from all three of America’s big-time sports, football, basketball and baseball (even though baseball is regarded by pediatricians as one of the safer sports for children). And among the big three, football’s decline was actually the smallest (baseball and basketball saw their participation rates drop by 7.2 percent and 8.3 percent, respectively).

The NFL’s high-profile concussion issues might be playing some role in the sport’s falling popularity among kids. But as Forbes’ Bob Cook pointed out in November, the effect is just as likely attributable to other factors, including the increasing trend toward specialization in young athletes.

Cook noted that data from sporting-goods retailers shows an increase in sales among hardcore football players ages 7 to 11 and a sharp decrease among more casual players in the same age range. In essence, players who don’t receive a large investment in their careers at a young age appear to be getting squeezed out of organized football.

All of this tracks with evidence showing that money matters in youth sports more than we’d like to think. For instance, contrary to stereotypes, basketball players from wealthier backgrounds are more likely to make the NBA. And researchers have found that high schools with more students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, on average, win fewer football games.

Cuban might be right about the NFL’s shrinking talent pool, but thus far, the evidence suggests economics and other factors may be more to blame than injury fears.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.