NBA doubles down on youth hoops experience
The NBA continues to deepen its involvement in youth basketball as the league takes aim at increasing and improving the game at the grassroots level.
The latest — and perhaps highest-profile — effort comes in August when the NBA holds its inaugural Jr. NBA World Championship that features both boys and girls divisions, each comprising eight U.S. and eight international teams, separated into U.S. and international brackets that include round-robin and single-elimination competition. Signaling the league’s commitment to the event is a three-year deal with Fox to televise the event that is set for Aug. 7-12 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports near Orlando.
The tournament is a clear sign of the NBA’s stepped-up strategy around youth sports under Commissioner Adam Silver, who has been vocal about the league becoming more involved in youth basketball.
• Basketball is the No. 1 team sport in the United States for youth, with more than 20 million participants ages 6-17 playing the game.
• 6.1 million youth participants (6- to 17-year-olds) said they play basketball every chance they get.
• Basketball participation in the U.S. is at its highest level since 2011 (in total, nearly 60 million people 6 and older in the U.S. play basketball) and it is the top team sport in the country.
Source: Simmons National Consumer Study’s Spring 2017 release
The NBA cites statistics that show basketball is the top team sport among 6- to 17-year-olds in the U.S., with more than 20 million youth participants last year, according to the 2017 Simmons National Consumer Study, which tracks sports participation (see box).
As participation continues to rise, the league’s revamped Jr. NBA program under Silver speaks to the NBA’s approach in improving the basketball experience for players, coaches and parents at the grassroots level.
“We have always had programs that connected with kids and our focus on getting more kids to learn the game the right way,” said Kathy Behrens, president of social responsibility and player programs for the NBA. “When Adam became commissioner, we have elevated our work to try to make sure that the experience the kids, parents and coaches were having was always as positive as our influence could make it.”
In addition to relaunching its Jr. NBA program, the league, along with USA Basketball, developed youth basketball rules and health and wellness standards designed to boost participation and make the game more enjoyable for both boys and girls.
To date, some 26 million boys and girls globally are participating in the Jr. NBA program and the number is expected to climb given the league’s increased focus. But the league’s goal is not to take control over AAU and other youth basketball travel programs, but to work with those organizations to better develop and protect young players.
“For us, it’s about guiding and elevating the level of coaching and understanding about what it means to play so many games and not to specialize in one sport as kids are developing skills,” Behrens said.
To that effort, the NBA last month in Chicago held its Jr. NBA Youth Basketball Leadership Conference presented by Under Armour that drew more than 300 attendees, including representatives from NBA teams as well as program and tournament directors from various youth basketball organizations.
“We held sessions on how to build a better program, how to manage issues that affect kids in the areas of health and wellness, including mental health, and how to develop best practices,” Behrens said. “While we talked about issues at a high level, we also got granular with details on how to run a great practice, how to deal with challenging issues, and how to ensure that the NBA and USAB standards and guidelines are properly applied.”
While the NBA’s focus on youth primarily is at the grassroots level, the league is planning to become more engaged with youth basketball at the pre-collegiate, elite level.
Given the league’s recent activity in the grassroots youth basketball world, it is only a matter of time before the NBA applies the same strategy to the higher levels of youth basketball for both boys and girls.
“There is more we can do there,” Behrens said. “We are having a lot of conversations with key stakeholders and the NCAA on what more we can do in the elite space.”