What Is the Future of Youth Sports in the U.S?

What Is the Future of Youth Sports in the U.S?

Sports is big business in the United States. Cities, private developers and communities are clamoring for a piece of the proverbial pie. Even during economic slumps and times of turmoil, sports prove mostly reliable. But there is a tipping point, a point at which fewer children participate and at which adults are no longer active on any recreational level. Acknowledgement of that tipping point causes so many in the industry to look ahead and worry.

With more events being created and more facilities being built, how do we attract new participants to organized sports and how do we keep the facilities full?

“There are a couple things you can’t forget and the first one is the decline of physical education in schools,” said Al Kidd, president and CEO of the National Association of Sports Commissions (NASC). “Kids are not being exposed to multiple sports and they are now left to their own devices. Physical education exposed children to all kinds of sports like wrestling, tennis, track and field … the opportunity is mitigated with any structure of P.E.”

In his youth, Kidd participated in football, basketball and baseball, and said he admired wrestlers and gymnasts because those were talents he lacked. “I admired them but I couldn’t do what they were doing because I didn’t have the stamina. But I was exposed to those sports because with P.E., you are not excluded,” he said. “At that time, the purpose of recreation and sports was to introduce children to a variety of physical activity for fun, health and wellness. One day you were playing volleyball. The next day you were running track. Exposure attracted kids to participate in a variety of sports.”

By the 1980s and ’90s, Kidd said a noticeable change in attitudes shifted to club sports mimicking the European model of pay-for-play. Where past generations played different sports every school day regardless of a child’s ability or talent, new generations began to think of sports as an opportunity with monetary value.

But what about the kids who didn’t make the all-star team? Or the ones who regularly sat on the bench waiting for their turns?

“You started seeing parents hiring trainers and paying for batting lessons when their kids were 8, 9 and 10,” Kidd said. “There’s little value at that age but parents don’t want to believe that. There has been this illusion for some time that kids will get scholarships. By high school the pressure is tremendous, so you see an increase in off-campus trainers, instructors, nutritionists and the motivation is all about winning rather than having fun.”

Parents are desperate for their children to win scholarships. Who can blame them as college tuition continues to soar? Parents receive the message that specialization is the key, so they hire trainers to coax out the athletes hidden within their kids.

But the reality is that almost 70 percent of kids quit playing organized sports by the age of 13 because of the pressure of reaching the next level. Burnout is the result.

The club phenomena continues to rise. “How do we balance club use and community need?” Kidd asked. “I don’t know. You need fields and tournaments as a result. On the surface, that worked fine but there were limited facilities, so facilities had to be built and cities like Dallas and San Diego and places in Maryland took 830 acres to build facilities. They were investing because of the economic impact and value. In the past, we had health clubs and the transition of health clubs was fads of the day, anything the current consumer wanted.”

“Some entrepreneurial spirits will form a league with other states and find a way to create long-term sustainability,” Kidd said. “I don’t know the tipping point. We have green space and the only thing that will limit us is our minds. Club sports will continue to drive us but the benefactors should be the local community, the hotels and restaurants. How big is the sports market? You have to look at tournament fees. You need fields, hotels, restrooms, gas stations, attractions, umpires, trainers, clinics, equipment. And you must consider someone has to maintain those facilities, mow the fields and clean the restrooms. Sports creates a lot of jobs around America.”

“Statistically you see key sports declining according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association [SFIA] but the decline has slowed this year,” Kidd said. “And we do know that major sports look at things like urban league baseball and the NFL uses a combine system in cities to reach in and get kids on their radar but if you look at the data you’ll see that there is a shift and the shift is to paddle boarding or the running craze in unusual events and away from marathons. The shifts are occurring now. There is no one answer. The key to getting kids in sports and keeping them playing for life may be back in the schools but there is no single answer.”

What we do know is that although clubs are developing talented athletes, the cost to parents is thousands of dollars a year in fees and expenses, amounting to tens of thousands of dollars through high school, but the cost to single-sport athletes is greater.

“The unintended consequence is injuries from single sport play,” Kidd said. “A lot of young women who are now in the 35 – 50 range who were part of the expansion of getting young girls to play are now suffering injuries later in life. There is an impact of youth sports and an impact on the healthcare system. Today, places like San Diego only allow football teams to wear pads and hit each other a couple days a week to lessen the chance of injury.”

Fear of injury, fierce competition, cost of playing and a lack of exposure to sports are starting to have an impact on how much we will play sports in the future.

According to the President’s Council on Fitness, only one in three children today are physically active every day. Not surprisingly, American adults are also more sedentary.

Kidd cited one group with the right idea. “The St. Louis Sports Commission each year presents the [Stan] Musial Awards to recognize youth sports athletes nationally. Initiatives like that are the right kinds of things for us to be doing if we hope to move forward.”

The Musial Awards honor the legacy of baseball great Stan “The Man” Musial by celebrating the greatest moments of sportsmanship in America. Past winners include baseball’s Cal Ripken for a Lifetime Achievement Award for Sportsmanship and Tamika Catchings, five-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year and founder of Catch the Stars Foundation, whose mission is to empower youth to achieve their dreams by providing goal-setting programs that promote literacy, fitness and mentoring.

The key to more sports participation may be less about winning at all costs and more about recognizing the sportsmanship and contributions to society ingrained in each athlete by sports participation.

To read more articles from the June 2017 issue of SportsEvents Magazine, click here