Why Children Are Abandoning B̩isbol in Cuba РWall Street Journal

Two children play soccer on a street in Havana.
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Havana

For seven decades, Cubans have streamed through the gates of Estadio Latinoamericano to watch baseball. Nestled in a neighborhood of narrow streets and pastel homes, it is the country’s largest stadium, with room for 55,000 fans. But these days, one of the gates behind home plate serves another purpose: makeshift soccer goal.

On most weekday evenings, when the ballpark is idle, children gather on the street beside the closed entrance for a half-field, pickup soccer game. Most play in sneakers, others in sandals or bare feet. All take aim at the rectangular gate, scoring only when the tattered ball hits the metal bars.

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“You can start a soccer game anywhere,” said Xavier Toledo, 24, during a quick break in play.

On an island where baseball is as embedded in the culture as rumba and cigars, soccer is more than just banging on the gate. It is emerging as the sport of choice for young people, a generational shift that highlights the global nature of the threat to baseball’s future.

While baseball remains a national passion here, the game’s ubiquity in public spaces and on television is giving way to soccer to a degree that was unimaginable even five years ago. Throughout Havana, casual soccer games occupy streets, sidewalks and parks that have long been the near-exclusive domain of informal variations of baseball. FC Barcelona and other European club stickers adorn the backs of cars and pedicabs.

“Cuban people are, by default, baseball fans,” said Joel Chacon, a 38-year-old sommelier at a cigar shop in Old Havana. “But there is a generation under 30 that doesn’t care about baseball.”

Even at the city’s Parque Central, where men famously gather daily to engage in high-decibel debates about baseball, soccer is creeping into the conversation. On a recent afternoon, a few dozen men split into two huddles. While one group talked baseball, the other shouted about soccer topics ranging from the Champions League final to the poor quality of fields in Cuba.

Standing off to the side between the two groups, 37-year-old Michel Hernandez said, “The old people prefer baseball because it’s a tradition, but the young people prefer soccer.”

The extent of the change is difficult to quantify. Officials from the Cuban government ministry that oversees sports and recreation declined to comment. But even Cuban baseball aficionados don’t deny that the sport has lost some of its traditional grip on young people. And it isn’t strictly a Cuban issue any more than it is an American one.

Children play soccer in downtown Havana.
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In Japan, another traditional hotbed of the sport, the number of boys playing baseball for their junior high school teams—a primary outlet for casual participation there—fell by 28% between 2009 and 2014, according to official figures. Japanese amateur baseball officials say the game is losing the casual young player to soccer. And with its audience skewing increasingly older, the Japanese professional league is making a bigger push to promote the game among young people.

From the outside looking in, this would seem like a boom time for baseball in Cuba. Since 2012, Major League Baseball teams have spent more than $400 million on Cuban free agents. Last year’s All-Star Game featured five Cuban-born players, the most in 40 years, including Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig and Chicago White Sox slugger Jose Abreu. Eighteen Cuban-born players appeared on MLB rosters at the start of this season, the third-highest total among countries outside the U.S. As the U.S. and Cuban governments work to reestablish diplomatic ties, MLB is hoping to play a spring training game on the island in 2016.

By contrast, the island has produced few notable soccer players. Its national team hasn’t appeared in the World Cup since 1938.

But in a country where most people don’t have Internet access—according to the White House, Cuba has an Internet penetration of about 5%—television is the primary means by which they connect to the world. In that regard, Cuban-born MLB stars might as well be playing on Pluto.

Cuba’s state-run television network shows a recording of one MLB game every Sunday, typically a few days after it is played. But before the recent thaw in relations with the U.S., games involving so-called defectors were never shown. A game last month featuring Cuban-born Kansas City Royals slugger Kendrys Morales was the first such game broadcast on state TV.

Meanwhile, the network shows several European soccer matches a week. The difference in exposure has given soccer stars such as Lionel Messi, the iconic Barcelona forward, more cachet than any Cuban MLB player.

“There are T-shirts and banners and everything for soccer,” said Leonardo Arias, a 50-year-old Havana restaurant manager. “You don’t see anything for baseball.”

Baseball in Cuba dates to the 1860s, when it was introduced by visiting American sailors. Fidel Castro, the retired Cuban leader, is an avid fan of the sport. And for most of the past century, young Cubans have played it by any means they could devise. Outside the network of state-run academies geared toward more serious players, it has taken on various forms as a neighborhood game.

A child kicks a soccer ball in the streets of Havana.
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One is called four corners, which requires neither bats nor gloves. Players smack the ball into play with their bare hands. In another version, batters swing at a bottle cap with a stick. These informal games make baseball accessible far beyond the boundaries of actual baseball fields.

But such traditions are increasingly being eclipsed by makeshift soccer games, some of which use a pair of rocks to mark imaginary goal posts. And organized baseball is suffering from a shortage of equipment.

Ihosvany Gallego, an 81-year-old former pitcher in the Cuban winter league who has been coaching youth baseball for nearly 50 years, said bats, gloves and other gear traditionally provided by the government have become scarce.

“Nowadays, for kids to be involved in baseball, their parents need to have some money or work somewhere where they have access to equipment,” he said. “It’s easier and less expensive to play soccer.”

Even without competition from other sports, Gallego said the children he coaches are quicker to lose patience with the slower pace of baseball than past generations. To keep them engaged, he is increasingly working other sports into their training, such as volleyball and swimming.

“They get bored,” he said.

Like many older Cubans, Gallego believes baseball will forever remain the island’s premier sport. He dismissed the soccer fixation as a cult of celebrity, in which children wear the jerseys of European players whose field positions they can’t even name.

But for some younger Cubans, the nuances of the sport are beside the point. To them, baseball is an emblem of a fading era of Cuban nationalism. Soccer is a vehicle for them to feel more a part of the wider world. “It’s a generational thing,” said Humberto Garcia, 24, standing on the sideline of an evening soccer game at Ciudad Deportiva, Havana’s sprawling recreational sports park.

Garcia recalled his childhood. Back then, the area of the park where he stood was used for baseball. His favorite sports team was the Seattle Mariners. His idol was Ken Griffey Jr. He played the game until he was 13. Then, he started watching soccer on television. It has since replaced baseball as his primary sports fixation.

“When I have a son,” he said, “I’m going to buy him a Messi shirt.”

Follow Brian Costa on Twitter: @BrianCostaWSJ. Write him at brian.costa@wsj.com