How to Bet on the Future of Youth Sports

June 28, 2021  • Tom Farrey

One of the things we try to do at the Aspen Institute is pump big ideas into the bloodstream, and see what takes. Three years ago, we introduced one not yet ready for playing time, at least in the United States: Use proceeds from legalized sports betting to fund community-based recreation. Take from the treetops enhanced interest in the results of professional and college sports to replenish the grassroots and address widening gaps in our sport ecosystem for youth.

In April of this year, the seed took root. Monica Wallace, a New York state legislator, was aware of the collective impact work being done by youth sport leaders involved with Project Play Western New York. She recognized the need to get more kids off their phones and into games. She also knew she would soon be asked to vote on whether to legalize mobile sports betting in state.

“I had my concerns about sports betting,” she said. “My perspective was, if we’re going to do this then let’s make sure some of the proceeds go to youth sports.”

She began socializing the idea. It wasn’t a tough sell. Legislators in favor of sports betting, those on the fence, and those against it all saw the logic of the argument, which had been tested in other countries. A grassroots advocacy campaign by youth sports organizations comprised of a petition and social media helped.

In short order, New York became the first state to legalize sports betting with a carve out for youth sports 1% of tax revenue in the first year and $5 million annually after that.

While the numbers may be modest, it’s a model. One that could be exported.

Now, Ohio is evaluating whether to embrace it. Massachusetts recently took testimony on the opportunity from representatives of local nonprofits and LeagueApps, a youth sports software provider and member of Project Play’s industry working group. After New York took the leap, social media posters in Kentucky, Texas and other states where sports betting is not yet legal asked, how do we bring this here?

We know the power of an idea that finds its moment. This week, NCAA athletes can start selling their name, image and likeness (NIL) to sponsors, a response to NIL legislation started in California that swept across the country over the past two years. Advocates of using sports betting to fund community-based play don’t have the advantage of college sports boosters lobbying to ensure their favorite team retains access to top recruits, but they do have a political winner. Most of the voting public understands that active kids do better in life, and the COVID pandemic has only underscored the need to deliver those benefits to all.

Goldman Sachs projects that sports betting will become a $40 billion market by 2033. If every state did as New York 21 have yet to legalize it that could be a game-changer for communities.

Or not.

Money alone does not solve problems. As an industry, youth sports are awash in cash, with families spending more than $30 billion a year on everything from club fees to equipment to travel costs, based on our research estimates with Utah State University. That’s more than enough to give every child in the U.S. an opportunity to play sports, if the total spent was distributed equitably across all kids.

Instead, we have some families spending $25,000 a year on youth sports while others must balk at the $250 pay-for-play fee of school teams. Participation rates among youth from low-income homes are half that of kids from those at the upper end, according to industry data and that of the federal government.

So that’s step one in scaling the New York model: Investing with an equity filter. That’s a matter of setting up grant criteria that sends funding to the right places.

It’s amazing what can be done when that happens. In 2017, the City Swim Project in Buffalo consisted of a dynamic leader, Mike Switalski, serving 80 children in learn-to-swim and competitive programs. The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation gave his nonprofit $145,000 over two years to more tactically recruit youth from neglected neighborhoods. Within two years, the program had grown to 362 kids, more than 80% of whom were from low-income homes. In an overwhelmingly White sport, Switalski says, “my little program has nearly 5% of all Black swimmers nationwide who are members of USA Swimming.”

Just as important, they’re led by qualified adults. As a member club of USA Swimming, the national governing body for the sport in the U.S., the City Swim Project must get all coaches trained in key competencies including SafeSport abuse prevention. All must also pass criminal background checks.

Progress also can be made by simply making program formats more inclusive. That’s what Massachusetts-based Cambridge Youth Soccer did last year when COVID hit. Travel teams couldn’t travel, so organizers invited players to join its city league and extended the age group teams through eighth grade. Like in many communities, in-town leagues classmates playing with classmates at low cost usually wither when travel teams are offered, which in Cambridge had meant sixth grade.

The result of investing more into the city league was a revelation, with a record 1,400 players signed up. In a pandemic.

“I think we all would have anticipated why the city league was so great for the kids and for the parents, but just to watch it in action was surprising even to me,” said Jason Targoff, president of Cambridge Youth Soccer. “The former travel kids were definitely as excited or more to be playing against their friends as they used to be to be playing against kids from other towns. And it was clear that the level of play, competitiveness and excitement was higher than most of our former travel teams. The kids just love coming to the field to play and then sticking around at the same fields to watch their friends’ games.”

So this fall, Targoff’s board aims to institutionalize its COVID pivot. It’s not eliminating travel teams but will ask those players to participate in the city league as well. Training and game schedules will be designed for them to do both. It’s an experiment, but one that the board hopes will reduce attrition from the sport, which structurally pushes aside kids who are late bloomers or who lack resources.

Quality coaching will be key to its success. They need adults who can teach the game well, so kids and their parents don’t see the city league as a developmental dead end.

Grants to support coach training can help drive systems-level change like that, which is what any state mulling New York’s youth sports carve-out should aim for.

The right of every child to develop through sports needs to be recognized. More to come on that in August when Project Play will release a new resource that can assist program operators, policymakers and grant-makers, such as New York State’s Office of Children & Family Services which will administer the fund and design grant criteria.

In the meantime, other states considering similar carve-outs for sports betting would be wise to use the following filters in deciding whether and how to move forward:

Health: There are lots of reasons why we want kids to play sports. Health physical and mental remains the most powerful, given the research. Children whose bodies are in motion derive immediate benefits and develop the physical literacy to engage in many activities. Coaches and program leaders who know how to guide youth, free of abuse of any kind, can develop social and emotional skills that can serve them for life. Funding should go to organizations that can demonstrate a commitment to quality.

Inclusion: This means making room for all kids, regardless of zip code, background or ability. Even better, prioritize organizations that serve kids at scale. Lifting participation rates in any state or geographic area will require engagement with the organizations that dominate local public facility space. Incentivize them to develop inclusive program formats by adjusting competition and pricing structures, as Cambridge soccer does.

Collaboration: Dynamic organizations are great, but collectives are even better. Encourage grant applications that connect silos across local communities. In King County, Washington, a refugee network has partnered with a national nonprofit and a local soccer club to re-introduce kids to the game. In other places, schools and community-based organizations are working well together. Reward them.

If the New York model scales across the country, it’s because youth sports advocates in those states rallied to the cause. In a democracy, good ideas need champions. The case gets much easier to make if legislators know any investments will deliver impact.

Tom Farrey is executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program. He can be reached at and followed @tomfarrey.

Sports Betting in the Public Interest
August 20, 2018 • Tom Farrey