How Sports Can Help Rebuild America

June 1, 2020  • Tom Farrey

Sports is dead.

I don’t mean for the moment, this COVID-19 shutdown phase where sports from the professional to college to high school levels have gone dark. I’m talking about the viability of the model most of us have grown up with that sits at the base of our sport system, in our communities.

The one introduced around 1980. As cable television arrived, transforming the economics of sports. As the Amateur Sports Act was applied, reshaping governance in the grassroots. As Title IX took hold, making more room for girls and women. As the Supreme Court both expanded and constrained the power of the NCAA, igniting a manic chase for the athletic scholarship. As funding from the Land and Water Conservation Act was gutted, limiting outdoor recreation options for future generations.

Apologies for the wonkiness of the above paragraph. It’s my job.

Since 2011, our Project Play initiative at the Aspen Institute has convened leaders from every sector in American life, including all of the major organizations in sports, identifying opportunities to build healthy communities through sports. We started by mobilizing around access to quality sport activity for all children, regardless of zip code or ability.

The fundamental flaws in the prevailing model have been laid bare by COVID-19. Recreation options for lower-income kids, already minimized by a shift in recent decades toward expensive travel teams, are threatened. And there is no coordinated governance in how or when to return to youth sports, the last cog in our sport ecosystem to halt play and the first to restart. The Amateur Athletic Union announced plans to host a volleyball tournament in Orlando in June for up to 15,000 athletes, coaches, and spectators from 34 states, only to reschedule when 70% of teams pulled out.

Sports parents are feeling pressured, and many are scared. Half worry that their child, or they, will get sick when organized play resumes, according to a survey our program conducted with three universities. Fears run deepest among African Americans, the population hit hardest by COVID-19 and the economic fallout. Only 58% of black parents expect their child to resume sports at the same level as before.

Then there is perhaps the most telling stat: 1 in 5 parents say that since the shutdown, their child has lost interest in playing sports again. That’s an indictment of a sport model that has failed to meet a kid’s needs.

Desperation reigns. More than 3,000 of the more than 100,000 sport organizations serving youth signed a letter asking Congress for $8.5 billion in stimulus aid to cover anticipated losses through July, citing the possibility of canceled tournaments and programs. The YMCA is lobbying for $60 billion for non-profits. Another petition asks for $100 billion. It’s uncertain any of these efforts will gain political traction.

More than any entity, Project Play has sounded the alarm about the deep challenges that await. In March, we noted that regular participation in team sports among kids ages 6 to 12 fell during the last economic downturn, from 45% in 2008 to 38% in 2014. Since then, I’ve asked Jon Solomon, our editorial director, to treat youth and school sports like a beat, reporting out the myriad impacts of COVID-19. Read his reports and you realize, this could be a lot worse than the Great Recession. Ripples from the urban unrest of late May could make solutions even harder to put in place.

We know the research on the myriad benefits that flow to children who play sports. We also know that the less they play, the less they become fans. Cracks develop in the foundation of the business model for professional, school, and Olympic sports. Among the vulnerable are the 45 National Governing Bodies (NGBs) charged with selecting national teams and guiding the development of their sport down to the grassroots.

Many NGBs rely heavily on youth membership and event hosting fees, and since COVID-19, both revenue streams have been gutted. More than 8,000 events have been canceled, and staff are being laid off, with youth programs being one of the first places that gets cut.

“Start pulling people out of that, it’s like a giant game of Jenga,” said Max Cobb, CEO of US Biathlon and chair of the NGB Council. “You hope the whole thing won’t collapse.”

Worse, communities and families everywhere could suffer.

Or — just the opposite could happen. Among the bright spots of the past couple of months has been the reemergence of free and family-based play. The dad and son who now play lawn tennis in their postage stamp backyard, separated by a string that runs from porch to fence. The grade school siblings treating sprinkler heads at the neighborhood pocket park as golf holes. The 2 v 2 soccer games with dropped hats marking goals. Virtual PE classes, at home. Runners, everywhere. Bikes, everywhere. Heightened appreciation, everywhere, about the value of physical activity.

A more balanced model for sports could emerge from this crisis. Call it the Era of Sustainable Sports, less vulnerable to financial and other disruptive shocks, and more aligned with the needs of communities.

Let me offer a path forward.

The Vision

Start with the end in mind, as hard as that may be with so many near-term medical, financial, and civic challenges facing the nation. It’s the year 2028, the Los Angeles Olympics are here, and we collectively — everyone who wants sports to help build the good society — have a story to tell about our state of play. We know the story the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) and local organizers aim to tell, as part of the Games legacy: Significantly increase youth participation in sports across the country.

But why stop there? More results are in the offing if we get this right.

Improved access to sport for kids from lower-income families. Better coaches dialed into their social and emotional needs. Less physical and sexual abuse. Lower rates of overuse injuries. More nearby places to play, and wiser use of existing venues. More sport options. More room for pickup play. Better integration of community, club, and school sports. Less undue external pressure on kids to perform, and more joy. Lower athletic development costs, and even better emerging elite athletes.

Let’s create the Era of Sustainable Sports, aligned with the needs of communities.

Greater fidelity to the educational mission of schools and colleges. More community cohesion. More adult beer leagues and Saturday morning 10ks. Safer cities. Greener cities. More livable cities, attractive to employers. Potentially, the enhanced capacity to address the social determinants of health, including poverty.

That would be the greatest sports story ever told, especially given where it started, in the year 2020 amid the carnage of COVID-19.

But we have to commit to the three pillars of a sustainable model:

Local, affordable, quality sports options available to all kids

Local means activities based in the community. It’s classmates playing with classmates at sites easy to access by bike, car, or another mode of transportation. Reintroduce Free Play is one of the eight strategies in the Project Play framework, recognized by the experts we work with as a key opportunity to grow participation. So is Revitalize In-Town Leagues, which ask less of families than travel programs. These remedies have never been more needed, with 21% of parents saying in our survey it “will be difficult to transport my child to play sports” and 23% saying it “will be difficult to fit sports into our schedule again.”

COVID-19 has expanded our idea of what local means to include at-home activities. Charitable organizations such as the LA84 Foundation have recognized the need, delivering balls and gear to low-income families during the shutdown phase. We should continue to think about how to simply get equipment to kids, who, let’s remember, have found a way to play on their own for millennia.

One level out from the home are neighborhoods, where municipal parks and recreation departments — there are 10,000 of them around the country — can innovate to meet the needs of families.

Some inspiration: In 2015, the Tacoma (Wash.) Parks and Recreation Department had 256 kids enrolled in soccer. This year, 1,400 kids signed up — a 450% increase. There’s been exponential growth as well in basketball, baseball, volleyball, and flag football. The key? A true partnership with the school district. Instead of requiring families to ferry their kids to nine parks and rec facilities, the department now delivers programs at 36 elementary school sites around the city. This year, program administrator Mary Tuttle told me, “We also intentionally targeted pilot sites with higher numbers in free/reduced lunch. So far, we have seen an increase in soccer at those sites by 78% and basketball by 50%.” At 10 sites, kids are offered meals and transportation home, made easier because they often live nearby.

Parks and recs can play a major role in improving retention rates, as well.

Along with YMCAs and Boys & Girls Clubs, parks and rec departments are often the first entities to engage families. They are well-positioned to educate parents on the questions they should ask their child, themselves, and local providers as they advance through sports. They also own most of the recreation spaces in a community, so they hold the power of the permit to set the conditions under which outside organizations access fields, gyms, pools, and other venues. Often, cities just ask for proof of insurance. They can expand the checklist to include coach training and safety protections. They can add filters prioritizing programs that are inclusive or abide by best practices in athletic and child development.

“One reason youth sports has been privatized is because [many parks and recs] forgot who the consumer is,” said Jessica Berman, deputy commissioner of the National Lacrosse League. “They didn’t care about your experience. They just worried about satisfying the mayor, so the quality of programs is episodic — it all depends on how motivated a parent volunteer is. There’s nothing systemic, and no accountability.”

COVID-19 presents an opportunity to carve a new path. Give parents the confidence to send their kids back out there, as local officials allow, by requiring the applicant to meet a set of “COVID-19 Safe” training and sanitation standards. Then add criteria from there, as tools are developed and staffing allows. “Create the standards and outsource the execution,” Berman said.

Grant-makers can help by tying the funding of non-profit providers to clear Key Performance Indicators (e.g. retention rates) and preconditions (e.g. coaches trained, a minimum percentage of participants from local zip codes). Entrepreneurs can be more entrepreneurial, introducing programs that engage more kids at less cost—instead of trying to pry more money from families with means through the creation of early-forming travel teams. There’s ample room for growth, with fewer than 4 in 10 kids playing team sports.

There will always be a place for travel ball and private clubs. We want formats where emerging talent can test themselves against peers. Competition is good. But it’s unwise and unfair, and thus anti-competitive, when these teams are formed during the grade school years before kids grow into their bodies, minds, and true interests. Sorting the weak from the strong before puberty arrives favors the early bloomer and the child from the upper-income household, who is six times less likely to quit for financial reasons.

Since COVID-19 hit, 54% of sports parents tell us their family finances have been hurt. Unless providers innovate in service of all children, the divide between sport haves and have-nots will grow.

Little League players

School sports formats that meet the interests of all students

Organized sports were stitched into the concept of schools at the start of the 20th century, a uniquely American experiment. Today, some schools do a better job than others at providing all students with an opportunity to be active, by preserving intramurals, forming as many interscholastic teams as they can afford, rewiring the delivery of P.E., treating sports as co-curricular, or, again, just partnering smartly with community providers.

That’s what the Wichita (Kansas) Catholic Schools did, working with a local group to introduce all students, grades K-8, to judo as part of the school curriculum. Among those served are 400 low-income youth. More inspiration: a partnership in Loudoun County, Virginia, between schools, parks and recs and an area volleyball organization that donates equipment and organizes a recreational league for students in exchange for gym time. “We also pay them an amount per participant, and with over 1,500 participants, they end up greatly benefiting from that as well,” said Rodrigo Gomes, president and CEO of the Northern Virginia Volleyball Association.

We need to find the models best aligned with the educational mission, then inspire superintendents and principals to adopt them. The research on the cognitive, academic, and mental health benefits of sports is just too persuasive now for schools to limit opportunities to the best athletes or those trained up early through clubs. The needs are too great as well with so many students suffering during the crisis.

“We have to say it’s OK to not be the best athlete,” said Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). “Kids grow at different rates and we should have programs that accommodate all of them. (Make it easier) on parents.”

Create a supply of sport experiences that meets the demand for them, at every age level. Give parents the confidence that their grade-schoolers will have a place to play in high school, and we release pressure on them to spend money or time that they may not have.

Accountability built into every level of our youth sport system

The NFHS sets the rules for school sports. The NCAA does the same with much of college sports, and thus the recruiting of athletes. The USOPC also plays a key role in the grassroots, chartered by Congress in the 1978 Amateur Sports Act to “coordinate amateur sports activity in the United States” and “promote and encourage physical fitness and public participation.” That’s a lot to ask for in an unfunded mandate, but it is what it is. The USOPC certifies and supports the NGBs with their dual responsibility that includes guiding sport development down to the youth level.

Except at the youth level, many providers just do their own thing, often untethered to best practices in athletic or child development.

Or public health.

On April 28, the USOPC issued detailed guidance on how organizations can return to training athletes and hosting events. For an entity that has taken a beating for its role in abuse scandals at USA Gymnastics and other NGBs, the documents were, I think, an act of true leadership, placing the health of athletes and the public at the forefront. Written by new chief medical officer Dr. Jonathan Finnoff, the resources called for a phased return to play, with individual and small-group training prioritized at the outset, and a decision tree that could be used to determine when to bring back events.

The next day, the US Specialty Sports Association, a major provider of travel team tournaments whose CEO makes $1 million a year, lifted restrictions and issued guidance to its members that largely ignored USOPC considerations. Then, a baseball tournament operator in Missouri gathered 50 teams and 600 children and others to participate in a sport the USOPC had identified as medium-risk for virus transmission with game activity advised against “until the risk of COVID-19 can be eliminated.” News photos show many violations of physical distancing guidance among attendees.

Why host a travel tournament, the kind of sport activity health experts say should be the last to return due to its mixing of people from across communities? Because USOPC guidelines are merely advisory. So are those of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which issued its robust “Considerations for Youth Sports” in late May. All that any operator need is a green light from state and local officials, who have wildly varying ideas on how to restart sports locally during an international pandemic.

Even within a given sport, there are no governing standards. On June 1, the US Soccer Federation issued recommendations calling for a slow return to games and tournaments. Its largest member, US Youth Soccer, promptly said thanks but no thanks; its already had at least 22 tournaments scheduled in eight states in June alone. “Every organization is going to have a different spin on it,” said CEO Skip Gilbert. “We have 55 different state soccer associations and 55 different levels of return to play.”

That’s not how other countries are bringing back sports. In Germany, perhaps the world leader in containing the virus, the nation’s Olympic Sports Confederation developed a set of 10 guardrails on April 14 that each NGB customized by sport. Those transition rules were then distributed to the 90,000 sports clubs that offer local programs. They create clear, consistent criteria to guide clubs and health officials. Outdoor exercise and modified forms of training went first. By mid-May, under tight controls that included no fans on site, Germany even found a way to restart the Bundesliga, its professional soccer league.

More accountability is key to addressing many other challenges in our sports delivery system as well, from improving coach quality to controlling costs for families to reducing ACL and brain injury rates.

In 2014, the USOPC and NGBs began putting in place the American Development Model (ADM), describing best practices for programs engaging youth at each stage from the preschool through teenage years. Universal access to sport and multisport play are principles, as is carving out room for free or “deliberate play.” But ask the ordinary parent or even coach about ADM, and they are likely to look at you quizzically. Grassroots providers just aren’t required or even given incentives to promote best practices.

“We need to redefine the NGBs to be less about winning medals and more about developing the sport,” one senior executive at a major professional league told me. “But they have to have some lever to pull. We can’t just tell them to make sure all coaches are trained. There needs to be some guiding mechanism through government enforcement delegating the USOPC to play that role.”

Parks and recs and other youth-serving community providers tell me they cannot deliver at scale, working alone. They need free or low-cost resources for coaches, administrators and parents that are either created or endorsed by NGBs and professional sport leagues, and are packaged up in a single guidebook or portal for easy – and ideally mandatory – adoption.

We can do all this, with COVID-19 as our catalyst.

Next Steps

Crisis has always been a catalyst to develop better sports models. Indeed, it’s been the only catalyst, back to the start of the last century when sports were introduced at scale as a tool of nation-building.

At the time, the future of the United States was very much uncertain. Urban centers were choked with pollution, disease and, with unemployment high, boys and young men roamed the streets, stirring up trouble. A coalition of doctors, capitalists, Muscular Christians, military recruiters, and educators came to see sport as a solution to build livable communities. They carved out room in cities for 2,000 parks and playgrounds and the world’s first municipal golf courses. Team sports such as basketball, volleyball and football that balanced the values of competition and cooperation were promoted with the goal of grooming future generations of soldiers, business leaders, and workers.

During the Great Depression, we doubled down. States and cities built or refurbished more than 10,000 gyms, pools, rinks, ski jumps, tennis courts, handball courts, stadiums and even rodeo grounds with the aid of the federal government’s Works Progress Administration. Volunteer-led, community-based organizations emerged, such as Little League and Pop Warner. After World War II, high school sports grew its physical and cultural footprint — proving grounds for boys and increasingly, with the advent of Title IX, girls. Matching grants from the Land and Water Conservation Fund got 40,000 fields and recreation spaces built, most of them by 1980, in every county across the country.

Crisis has always been a catalyst for developing better sports models.

It’s fair to say these efforts helped lay the groundwork for what became the American Century. They also provided a foundation for the explosive growth of college, professional, and Olympic sports.

So, in our new time of need, who will step up? And how?

Since the release of the Project Play framework in 2015, hundreds of organizations have mobilized to shape strategies and develop mutually reinforcing actions aligned with its eight strategies to make sports accessible to all children. The members of Project Play 2020, a roundtable of industry leaders and foundations, alone have invested tens of millions in grant-making, an integrated media campaign, and free tools such as How to Coach Kids and the Healthy Sport Index.

I have no doubt our cross-sector network of 18,000 leaders will dig in further. Others will as well.

Some advice, as stakeholders move forward:

1. Allow the Reset to Occur

I understand why the youth sports industry in the US is more eager for a quick return to organized games and tournaments than are most parents. There’s habit, mortgages to pay, and a lot of cash on the table. An estimated $19 billion, according to Wintergreen Research. That’s more than the annual revenues of the NFL, NBA or any professional league.

Project Play research suggests the number is greater, between $30 billion and $40 billion. Our nationally representative survey with Utah State University’s Families in Sport Lab last year found that families spend an average of $693 per child, per sport annually. Other data suggest the average child plays two sports. That’s $28 billion just on the 20 million core participants in team sports, and does not include spending on casual play, the kid who picks up a tennis racket or golf club a few times. In all, 36 million youth participated in some sport, pre-COVID, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.

Some jobs will be lost if organized sports does not return in full this summer. But the hazards of moving too fast are real as well, public health experts say. We risk triggering subsequent waves of virus infections that, beyond contributing to a rising death toll, could jeopardize high school sports and future non-school seasons.

What kids most want is to play and compete with friends. The safest format to do that is pickup sports, given that fewer children have been hospitalized than adults. It’s kids with kids. The risks of spreading the virus also can be minimized by programs adopting the phased approach, starting with modified practices.

Taking that approach will save many jobs by giving parents the confidence to put their kids back in sports. Meanwhile, other jobs will be added if sports stay local. Think of the private hitting coach who gets extra gigs, the software engineer for the newly hot at-home training app, and the companies that make bicycles, trampolines, skateboards, and fitness gear.

We can ease into the new model, baking in new insights and features. More room in schedules for neighborhood games and family dinners. More room for bikes in central cities, as mayors around the world are planning. More innovation, like ball hockey programs that scale easily than those on ice. More free hours to get youth coaches trained in key competencies.

More time for young athletes to recognize what’s right for them.

Recently, I received a thoughtful note from a NGB executive:

“Today I’m writing you as a parent. My son is a gymnast and has been for a number of years now. In gymnastics, just like many youth sports today, children are put on this hamster wheel that never seems to end. If as a parent you don’t participate, then your child is left behind in that sport. When Covid hit and all sports ceased, it was the first time we as a family stopped moving around for the first time in years. I’m a single mom and didn’t realize how tired I was of all of it. About three weeks into Covid, my son told me that he wanted to quit gymnastics.

As a parent who has spent thousands of dollars and hours on gymnastics, I was obviously concerned and more so just incredibly shocked. He said he’s tired of everything being about competition and working just to win. He said that he wants to try tennis and see where that goes. I know the Project Play report like the back of my hand. All I kept thinking was, ‘This is what Aspen has been talking about all along.’ I remembered the survey of kids that mentioned competition in the bottom of reasons to participate in sport and fun at the top.

I asked my son to think very carefully about his decision and that I would support him no matter what. After a week of discussions, he chose tennis. I spoke to a coach who doesn’t believe in the hamster wheel and believes children will be life-long lovers of sport if they are allowed to have fun. Today was his first lesson and he loved it. I haven’t seen that spark in his eye in years.”

In the months ahead, if guided by patience and empathy, we can rebuild from a more organic place, aligned with the needs of youth.

2. Advocate for Infrastructure

Each of the bailout asks being made of Congress is for help getting through the summer. The YMCA, which provides camps for kids that are key to get parents back to work, advocates for non-profits. The PLAY Sports Coalition focuses on the youth sports industry, includes for-profits, and requests a grab-bag of items including loans, grants and indemnification from lawsuits if organizers don’t take proper COVID-19 safety measures. It’s a tough sell, especially since some groups received checks in prior stimulus bills.

Any additional emergency relief dollars that can be scratched up should go only to organizations that offer local, low-cost, inclusive programs that engage kids at scale. That includes parks and recs, whose budgets have been slashed 20% since the shutdown. Tacoma, for all its exemplary work, has laid off 80% of its work force. Just 8% of departments plan to offer leagues this summer. Some cities have closed their facilities into the fall, unable to absorb the cuts or the new, unanticipated costs to disinfect equipment and train staff on COVID-19 risks.

More pain is on the way, as mayors address drops in tax revenue. But so is the prospect of a transformational opportunity: the inclusion of community recreation in any upcoming infrastructure stimulus bill.

Congress and the White House have expressed interest in reviving the economy through trillions of dollars in infrastructure investment. By including the construction or rehabilitation of bike paths, gyms, pools, fields, rinks, courts, municipal golf courses, and other facilities, we address multiple problems at once, from workforce development to the greening of cities to giving more kids places to play near their home.

“We have shovel-ready projects ready to go,” said Kristine Stratton, CEO of the National Recreation and Parks Association.

Advocates of youth sports should focus on that opportunity, as it could pay dividends for generations while also generating program support.

“Infrastructure funding is one of the most important things sport needs right now,” said Craig Morris, CEO of Community Tennis at the US Tennis Association. “Parks and recs can never get ahead because their facilities just get run down from a lack of funds directed toward maintenance. Kids need safe and welcoming environments to play.”

These environments are easily sacrificed in times of crisis. The city of Los Angeles is converting 42 of its recreation centers to interim homeless shelters to help contain the virus. An understandable move. But some wonder: Will the homeless remain, given the lack of other housing solutions? If so, where else can youth in the affected neighborhoods play? Los Angeles, where more than 4 in 10 kids are obese or overweight, has less than half the park space as other dense US cities.

Policymakers need to appreciate the hazards of disinvestment. And the benefits of investment, from higher home values to the economic productivity of workers, reduced medical costs to fewer opportunities for teens to get in trouble. As then-First Lady Michelle Obama warned at the 2016 Project Play Summit, if we don’t give kids a ball to pick up, they may just pick up something else. This isn’t just a Democrat thing. Ninety-one percent of Republicans also value parks and recreation as an important public service. What else in American life today do 91% of both tribes agree on?

Investing in recreation infrastructure might not be top of mind for mayors, with city centers having been set on fire during protests of police brutality. But it’s part of what society needs to move forward. We need more than ever community institutions to bring people together from all backgrounds, and sports does that as well or better than any when designed for health equity. Want to level the playing field in society? Start by leveling the playing field in sports and recreation for children, and pair them with coaches who can teach life skills such as resilience, teamwork and empathy.

Here’s another potential piece of the puzzle that has bipartisan support: national service. Today’s young people face a tough job market. So recruit more of them to be coaches at local agencies and non-profits via stipends funded by the federal government and the private sector. AmeriCorps has shown what is possible. Maybe develop a program with the NCAA to offer training to its 500,000 athletes, so they can return to their communities with skills that will build them.

Girl playing golf

3. Empower All Families

Parents are the sleeper agents in driving progress. Not the ones who Kobe Bryant challenged in our #DontRETIREKid campaign last year. I am referring to the great majority of level-headed parents who love their kids and just want sports in their lives to develop friends and skills — parents going with the flow, taking what their kids are given by programs, hoping they beat the average and don’t quit by age 11.

We can help them by making sure their kids gets a qualified coach.

The government of Canada requires that all youth coaches get certified in minimum competencies. The package includes a background check, abuse-prevention training, and sport-specific knowledge provided by the national federation of the sport. Similar modules are now online in the US. The next step is to bundle them and require adoption by program providers, starting with the NGBs.

The federal government could assist by providing the USOPC and NGBs with the resources to do the job it asks of them, or by creating a new entity to coordinate youth sports development. We are the only nation in the world that lacks such a mechanism, which can be effective in growing participation, producing better athletes, and building communities. One potential model is the US Anti-Doping Agency, funded in part but not controlled by government.

Another way to empower families: recreation vouchers.

Like some youth sports providers, many parks and recs try to help kids in need. But the process is cumbersome, often requiring documentation of financial need. That can be daunting and embarrassing to low-income parents and kids. One way to address these barriers would be to cover the cost of all sports programs for youth in low-income areas, as the US Department of Agriculture does with food through its summer meals program.

An alternate idea was pioneered in Iceland. Twenty years ago, teens there had the highest substance abuse rates in Europe. Researchers knew the youth who did best had participated in sports or other activities three or four days a week. So, cities gave families a Leisure Time Card worth $382 in US dollars per year, per child, for use on approved programs. Parents log on to a city website to find the list and redeem the vouchers.

Investing directly in families ensures that all children can participate. It’s a more equitable approach than that put forth in May by Rep. Max Rose (D-NY), who introduced a bill proposing to allow families to write off youth sports fees as tax credits and also pay for them with Health Savings Accounts. Low-income families have less access to both mechanisms. The unemployed have access to neither.

Today, Iceland has among the lowest teen substance abuse rates in Europe. Its cities are bursting with sports activity, led by well-trained coaches at often modern facilities. In sports like soccer, the nation of 364,000 competes well with countries 10 to 200 times its size.

Alfgeir Kristjansson, a University of West Virginia professor, has helped implement the program in several cities around the world and recently received a CDC grant for a pilot in his state. He said vouchers could work in US cities, if youth surveys can identify the true sport interests of teens. Elevating youth voice is key.

“I have no doubt the vouchers would be wildly popular here, helping kids who need [sports and physical activity] the most,” he said.

A few months ago, ideas like these might have seemed way out there — as way out there in the North Atlantic as Iceland itself. COVID-19 changed everything. Now, government sends $1,200 checks to workers because 70% of all spending comes from consumers. Schools teach online only. Sport camp providers will deliver their modules virtually, at home. We are addressing new problems in new ways.

I have been analyzing our disjointed sports system for two decades, back to the start of my research on the book that led to the creation of Project Play. In the past three weeks, I’ve heard things from leaders that I never heard before, recognizing what’s at stake:

League and corporate execs inquiring about policies to advocate for. Olympic leaders welcoming public funding. Parks and rec officials inviting national sport organizations to get more involved. A for-profit program CEO offering to share revenues with municipalities. A large grant-maker in organized sports arguing for more free play. An organizer of national sport organizations arguing for more kid voice. A soccer leader calling for local and regional play only before age 12. Coalitions building advocacy muscle. A software exec mulling how tech can encourage adoption of participation-based business models. A state school sports director making the case for more intramurals.

The leader of one team sport NGB observed to me how, as the reset unfolds under budget pressures, NCAA athletic departments are dropping more non-revenue sports. He wondered, maybe it’s OK if more college teams go club? Without the carrot of the elusive scholarship or preferential admission, might more kids dial into the intrinsic joy — and deepest benefits — of playing the game?

Some ideas in this piece need further exploration and refining, of course. The essay also does not represent the full universe of the achievable. Among leaders in the Project Play network, there’s just a sense that a better model awaits on the other side of this moment, if silos can connect around community-based play as the anchor.

“I keep thinking of the bumper sticker ‘COEXIST’,” said Niehoff, from the NFHS. “We have to start to coexist. We haven’t done that well. When [club sports] started to grow, schools said, ‘Wait a minute, you’re taking our kids and our talent.’ That was the wrong reaction. It led to the proliferation of misinformation for families. We became territorial but shouldn’t have. We’re education-based, so if a kid plays club we need to say ‘Ok, that opens up a spot on our team for another kid.’

“We all have to be less offended by one another and more invested in the appreciative inquiry [on how to get more kids playing]. When we talk about ’28 and the Olympics, what will we have for all kids at all levels, as well as adults and even fans, so we’re all involved in sports?”

Sports, more alive, and more valuable to communities, than ever.

In the coming months, Project Play will shepherd a national conversation about how to put in place a more sustainable model for sports. Learn more at and sign up for our newsletter for opportunities to join our network and share ideas leading up to, and through, the 2020 Project Play Summit.

Tom Farrey is the executive director of the Sports & Society Program at the Aspen Institute. He is also the author of Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children. He can be reached at

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