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Volume 23 No. 24
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Sports stakeholders join forces in effort to stem decline in youth sports participation

Major League Baseball, the NBA, U.S. Olympic Committee, Nike, NBC Sports Group and a dozen other industry stakeholders will work together on a coordinated strategy to stem declines in youth sports participation as part of a three-year initiative set to be announced this week.

Project Play 2020, to be coordinated by the Aspen Institute’s Project Play and rolled out at that group’s annual summit in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, represents the first time a broad coalition has come together to address falling youth sports participation rates in almost all sports, driven largely by increased specialization among middle and upper income children and decreased opportunities for lower income children.

Each member organization has committed to a monthly call and two face-to-face meetings annually, along with a five-figure membership fee to cover staffing and research as the group pursues eight strategies recommended in a seminal report issued by Project Play two years ago.

Others signed on are the PGA of America, New York Road Runners, the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, Target, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Hospital for Special Surgery, the American College of Sports Medicine, the National Fitness Foundation, the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, the Global Obesity Prevention Center at Johns Hopkins University, Sports Facilities Advisory and Ketchum Sports & Entertainment.

Among the hurdles they face: reversing trends driven largely by a shift away from volunteer and school-based community sports in favor of club-fueled travel sports.

“This is becoming a bigger and bigger problem as the (youth sports) space further privatizes,” said Chris Marinak, executive vice president of league economics and strategy at MLB. “What we’re gradually realizing is that this is an issue we can’t solve on our own. … We don’t have a big enough reach or wide enough audience. But, collectively, we can reach the masses. We’re trying to turn a steamship here.”

In its latest report, Project Play will roll out updated SFIA data that shows regular participation in a team sport by children 6-12 has declined to 36.9 percent, down from 38.6 percent last year and 41.4 percent five years ago. While the percentage of physically inactive children has fallen from 19.5 percent to 17.9 percent in the last two years, that’s been driven entirely by families with annual incomes above $100,000. Among children whose families make less than $25,000, inactivity has risen to nearly 30 percent.

The initiative’s origin tracks back to last year, when then first lady Michelle Obama used her Project Play keynote address to challenge sports industry stakeholders to come together to tackle that vast gap. As Project Play organizers followed up with properties, they found an appetite to coordinate efforts.

“Almost everyone we’ve been speaking with is already doing something, but there’s no coordinated action,” said Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sport & Society Program. “I can’t tell you specifically what’s going to come from this because we’re just starting and this has never been done. But it’s bringing everyone together behind a commitment to set shared goals and take action.”

In its first year, the group will focus on two Project Play strategies: Improving training for youth coaches and increasing sampling of multiple sports. Many point to specialization as a reason for declined participation. When a family chooses to focus on one sport, it abandons others.

“If we can reiterate the message that playing multiple sports is good, we’ll start seeing that turn around,” Marinak said. “With all the privatization, local coaches are boxing kids in. They’re saying that if you don’t play on our spring, summer and fall teams, you’re out. If we drive home the message with parents, using our logos and brand name and players as a model, it starts to drive out that practice.”