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Volume 23 No. 13
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Youth sports: Reset and rebuild

Youth sports can be served by supporting community-based programs and investing in infrastructure.
Photo: getty images
Youth sports can be served by supporting community-based programs and investing in infrastructure.
Photo: getty images
Youth sports can be served by supporting community-based programs and investing in infrastructure.
Photo: getty images

For sports industry leaders, never has there been a time so filled with both challenge and opportunity. Beyond the mind-bending puzzle of restarting play lies a public demanding more from sports, as is the case with all sectors in American life. More social justice. More equality of opportunity. Greater alignment with the needs of communities.

How we navigate this moment will determine whether sports rise or fall as an agent of progress and an anchor institution in our society.

The options for engagement are many, from donations to nonprofits focused on police reform to support of athlete-led protests to renewed commitments to diversify C-suites. My advice: Do all of this, but also don’t forget the proven venue for nation-building that you know best — community-based sports, where most of us got our start.

If we want to level the playing field in society, we must level the playing field in youth sports. Do the work to ensure that every child, regardless of ZIP code or ability, has the opportunity for a sustained sports experience that develops the human skills to succeed both individually and collectively. And that youth from diverse backgrounds gets to play with and learn from each other, which is so critical in addressing issues like implicit bias.

Pre-COVID, that wasn’t happening enough. Kids from low-income homes participated half as often as their peers from the upper end while dropping out at six times the rate due to financial reasons. Post-COVID, the divide appears to have only grown further, with expensive club teams returning to play a lot faster than local recreation leagues.

During the Great Recession, regular participation in team sports among children fell from 45% in 2008 to 38% in 2014, stabilizing through the efforts of many organizations but never really recovering. We easily could see another major dip as the new recession unfolds. That would be more bad news for the sports industry, given the research showing that kids who play sports are more likely to become fans. Today, only 43% of young adults (ages 18 to 34) say they are fans of professional sports, compared to 66% of adults in the next generation up (ages 35 to 54), according to a new Monmouth University survey.

However, the opposite story could unfold in the coming years as well. We have the capacity to grow participation and develop in more young people such essential life skills as teamwork, resilience and empathy. It’s just going to take stewardship and a recognition that the current model for youth sports is broken; that we need a reset to make local, affordable, high-quality sports options available to all youth.

I recently shared some ideas on how we might get there in a long piece, “How Sports Can Help Rebuild America,” on our Aspen Institute blog. Here are four ways the sports industry, specifically, can lead:

Help essential providers and disadvantaged families recover

The budgets of the more than 10,000 municipal parks and recreation departments with low-cost programs have been decimated, and more pain is on the way with impending drops in state and city tax revenue. Meanwhile, facilities maintenance costs have grown due to COVID mitigation requirements. We also need community-based providers, including YMCAs, to keep the lights on in the coming months, so kids have safe places to go and parents can return to work. 

We also need radical innovation in school-based sports, which is why last week we launched a national search with $160,000 in prize money to find models that engage the most students at the lowest cost. Invest in scaling those models as we find them, and in the interim, lobby superintendents and mayors to minimize cuts and encourage legislative relief efforts that support both working families and the unemployed.

Advocate for infrastructure

In the first two decades of the 20th century, a cross-sector coalition constructed 2,000 parks and playgrounds in urban cities, laying the groundwork for sports as a tool of nation-building. The next wave of growth was propelled by New Deal investments that brought more than 10,000 gyms, pools and other facilities online. Then, the Land and Water Conservation Act was introduced in 1965, enabling the construction of more than 40,000 recreational spaces. Now, the White House and Congress are mulling the possibility of trillions of dollars in infrastructure stimulus. Encourage the inclusion of recreation infrastructure (new and revamped parks, fields, rinks, municipal golf courses, trails, bike lanes, greenways, etc.). And agree to co-invest.

Embrace sports governance reform

Our research suggests that organized youth sports in the U.S. is now a $30 billion industry, minimum, larger than any professional league in the world. But it remains the Wild West, devoid of empowered leadership as we’ve seen since COVID arrived. Youth sports was the last cog in our sports ecosystem to halt play in March and the first to restart, with some travel team operators moving right back into tournaments in May despite recommendations to do otherwise from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee and their own national governing bodies. More accountability can help address many challenges in our sports delivery system, from improving coach quality to controlling costs to reducing injury rates. But how best to achieve that? What is the right mechanism to oversee sport development? Welcome that overdue conversation.

Develop and distribute resources that promote collaboration

Youth sports is siloed at the community level as well. There’s minimal coordination across sports, schools and clubs to organize activities in a manner that meets the needs of children and families, which leads to high churn rates and the average kid quitting sports by age 11. Even less effort goes into identifying and recruiting students who get left out. Our program is developing free, DIY tools to help communities set shared agendas and take action to address these inefficiencies. They will be made available during the Project Play Summit in October. We encourage national sports organizations and other trusted brands to create and package other free resources that can be easily deployed by parks and recs and other providers of local, low-cost programs.

Between now and the summit, we will refine these ideas in a series of virtual events — all leading to a Project Play platform for action on the four R’s (Recover, Rebuild, Reform, Resource). Sports industry leaders are invited to participate in these cross-sector conversations, help us get this right, then mobilize to build a better model for youth sports.

Serve kids and communities through sports, and we serve the nation.

Tom Farrey is executive director and founder of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program, which convenes leaders and inspires solutions to help sports serve the public interest. He can be followed @tomfarrey and reached at tom.farrey@aspeninstitute.org.