Coronavirus and youth sports – what the future holds

A crisis and an opportunity. 

This past week I participated in a superb webinar on the impact of COVID-19 on youth sports and communities. You’ll find the results interesting and worth knowing. The four person panel was a who’s who of youth sports and the webinar was attended by 3000 sports leaders, club representatives, coaches, and others.

The sponsor, Aspen Institute, is an international nonprofit think tank founded in 1949 as a nonpartisan forum for values-based leadership and the exchange of ideas. Their sports and society segment launched Project Play on ESPN in 2017 – which focuses on helping leaders build healthy community through sports.

Project Play is backed by the US Olympic Committee, ESPN, Major League Baseball and Hockey, Center for Disease Control (CDC), American College of Sports Medicine, Nike, Under Armor, and Dick’s Sporting Goods – just to mention a few. During the last Super Bowl, maybe you saw their “Don’t Retire Kid” campaign ads, designed to make parents aware of their role in  the staggering decline of youth in sports – 62% now “retire” by age 13.

The opening message from the webinar is that COVID-19 is a significant emergency for youth sports for at least the rest of 2020, but there is opportunity amidst the crisis.

Before I get to the three takeaways, let’s highlight the role of youth sports in communities.  

Youth sports is not just exercise or a luxury. Instead, it builds community, relationships, and habits that serve youth into adulthood. For many, it is the center of community. For some, their sports team is their lifeline and only “safe place.” Youth team sports force different social and economic groups to interact, bonding communities.  

Additionally, youth sports is a dollar proposition for society. It affects the nation’s expense structure by keeping kids healthy and ingraining patterns of exercise that favor long term national health. Some of us remember the Presidential Physical Fitness Awards in public elementary schools in the 60s, 70s, and 80’s. Those date back to an initiative by President Eisenhower based on research in the 1950s that American youth fitness was in decline compared to our European counterparts. The relevant fear was lack of US draft readiness to fight Russia if needed during the Cold War.  Older adults still do some of the calisthenics they learned from that program in elementary school. 

Three takeaways from the webinar:

  1. Organized and youth sports won’t return until May at the earliest, maybe summer, and quite possibly not until the fall. Most believed that when school resumes, that’s when most parents and others will agree that it’s ok to go back to organized sports.
  2. When virus restrictions are lifted, we will see greater demand for organized sports, but less supply, and ironically less participation. And we may see a shift away from contact sports.
  3. As sport recovers, the misalignment between demand and supply could foster new models of youth sports that benefit communities, children, and families.

Kids are itching to play outside with their friends again.  But sports will resume slowly, near home, with grass roots and local free play in small groups where people know and trust who their kids are with – which will overcome some of the discomfort with congregating.  That will be followed by a return to recreational and local leagues.  Travel leagues will be last in line.  

League sports will need to up their game on sanitation protocols, and coaches will need to up their game on relationships, because some kids rely predominantly on coaches to model and parent; those kids will need better listeners to help them overcome the trauma from loss of parents and relatives in the COVID-19 battle.

Many club sports organizations will fail – many already have.  There will be significant consolidation of those that survive.  Millions of families who lost jobs and wealth will be priced out of club sports altogether.  

There will be increased demand for recreational sports and informal “pick-up” sports in neighborhoods and local communities. While rec sports will be in higher demand, there will less supply because many rec league directors and employees have already lost their jobs and more are soon to follow.  

Public funds previously available to support recreational leagues, facilities, and staff will nosedive as public money will be redirected almost exclusively toward “getting the economy rolling again.” Community and public leaders will continue to lack understanding of the economic value proposition of youth sports and continued good health, putting many programs on the chopping block.

Yet it’s not all negative! Local pick-up play is expected to return to the glory days shortly, because parents will be ok with their kids playing with their friends; plus it’s cheap, easy, and nearby. Pricing out of some families will cause demand for new models that allow access without $3,000 club fees. Once rec sports recovers, it will thrive along with local leagues. Club sports is expected to recover to about 75% by the fall.

There will be increased pressure to return sports to elementary schools and middle schools – which is where youth sports was born in this country in the 1920s.

You can view the webinar at this link

Don’t Retire Kid (60 seconds) TV ad (boy)
Don’t Retire Kid (60 seconds) TV ad (girl) 

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