What’s Next for Youth Sports?

September 20, 2018  • Tom Farrey

Let’s start with the end in mind. Ten years from now, the US will host the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, and two years prior our nation will have hosted the men’s World Cup. By then, sports betting likely will have been legalized in most of the country, generating at minimum $5 billion a year in revenue for states — and perhaps the federal government if it gets involved — to distribute. If the trends of today continue, the sports industry could be twice the size, in revenue if not cultural influence.

Barring major missteps, it’s fair to assume the top of our sports pyramid will be categorized as somewhere between robust and very robust.

The bottom? That’s entirely TBD, depending on how much stakeholders commit to building healthy communities through sports, starting with quality experiences for all children regard­less of ZIP code or ability.

There is a great story to be told. But it will take vision, leadership, and systems-level adjustments in the provision of sport opportunities.

The next year will be critical in designing that future, with new chiefs setting new courses at key governing bodies (US Olympic Committee, US Soccer Federation), leagues such as the NBA taking more control of their youth pipelines, the introduction of sports betting in more states, and industry-aligning grassroots efforts via Project Play 2020.

Here are five questions that the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program plans to keep in mind as we help stakeholders identify opportunities:

What are we as a nation trying to achieve here?

There are lots of reasons Americans are drawn to sports. The desire to be entertained. To wit­ness the limits of human physical expression. To have something to talk about with the in-law who annoys you or your neighbor on the other side of political divide. Common cause, even if it’s around something as superficial as a favorite team, has value.

But what people want even more is to live in vibrant communities that foster the well-being of their families. The most desirable communities are active communities with ample bike paths, recreation spaces, and sport activities (both organized and unstructured) for kids through seniors.

Developing more policies and partnerships that place health and inclusion — the core values of Project Play — at the center of our sport system will be essential in aligning the interests of stakeholders and addressing myriad other issues, including the health care crisis.

Who gets defined as an athlete?

One of the key developments of the past year was the National Federation of State High School Associations embracing e-sports. Other traditional sport entities are investing in competitive video gaming as well, and as they chase the dollars, the public will be asked to expand the notion of an athlete to include those whose body move­ments are largely limited to a few fingers. The argument has been proffered: That’s a couple more fingers than are used in riflery.

That is true, though there are hazards in adjusting our common cultural understanding of sport as activity that involves physical activity. We know that good things happen when bodies are in motion. By the week it seems, the research grows about the physiological, mental, aca­demic, social, and emotional benefits of being active and/or playing sports.

More essential is expanding our scope of the athletes served by key institutions. The US Olympic Committee (USOC) is a critical player. In 1978, the Amateur Sports Act placed the USOC in charge of developing our sport system for athletes at all levels, including youth. Since the 1990s, and increasingly over the past decade, energies have shifted more toward the tippy-top of our sport system in an effort to turn Olympic hopefuls into Olympic stars.

There is a great story to be told. But it will take vision, leadership, and systems-level adjustments in the provision of sport opportunities.

That extreme focus on medals laid the groundwork for the abuses that emerged in USA Gymnastics and which have caused deep soul-searching at the USOC and the sport-spe­cific national governing bodies it oversees. Moving forward, there will be a push to redefine Team USA as inclusive of any athlete playing on any surface anywhere; new USOC CEO Sarah Hirshland has signaled as much in early comments, though what that means practically is to be determined.

What’s the role of schools?

This year B. David Ridpath, a professor of sport business at Ohio University, published Alternative Models of Sports Development in America, in which he examined the model for school sports in the US that has been in place for more than a century. He compared it to the model favored in Europe, in which clubs provide most of the sport development oppor­tunities for youth and schools are focused more exclusively on academics, plus some physical education.

The influence of club sports has grown in the US with some even prohibiting athletes from playing for school sports teams. Ironically, it’s driven by the chase for college athletic scholarships. As that trend marches forward, it presents a nice opportunity to reim­agine the role of sports in schools. Given the body of research showing the cognitive and other benefits of physical activity, what school-based models best serve the broadest array of students? How can schools partner with community organizations to share resources? Do we need to rethink the role of the P.E. teacher, from provider of sport experiences to connector to local sport options?

School sport is a treasured American institution. But there’s room for innovation, and we will encourage conversation that inspires solutions.

What’s the role of the federal government?

The United States is one of the few nations in the world without a sports ministry or similarly situated body that can guide, coordinate or facilitate sport development. Some argue this is a good thing, skeptical that the federal government, especially amid the partisan warfare of today, can get anything done that is smart or sustainable.

President Trump is diving in anyway, asking his renamed President’s Council on Sports, Fit­ness, & Nutrition to develop a national strategy on youth sports. Progress to date has been slow; his nominees to the council, from Bill Belichick to Lou Ferrigno, still were awaiting confirma­tion as of early September, more than 17 months after Trump took office. The council remains buried within the Department of Health and Human Services, with a small budget and staff. Efforts to raise money from the private sector to support Trump’s agenda are underway.

Time will tell if the marketplace responds, or if Trump can get more done by focusing on the levers that the White House controls. Federal agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could be tasked to gather better data on sport participation so states can create their own “state of play” reports that will mobilize leaders. Grant criteria across federal agencies could be adjusted to align with youth sports needs. Proposed legislation, infrastructure bills or otherwise, could be reviewed with an eye toward the impact that the language may have on community sports.

How do we pay for it all?

This is a major question — but with a major opportunity before us. That would be legalized sports betting, which the Supreme Court opened the door to in May by ruling that the federal government could no longer prohibit states from authorizing (and taxing) such activity. New Jersey was the first mover, but no less than two dozen states are now taking steps to allow gam­bling on sports events. Within five years, that market could generate between $3.1 billion and $5.2 billion per year in annual revenue, according to one projection.

In Norway, revenues from sports betting are used to fund community sports and recreation. In 2016, $330 million was pumped back into communities for new projects, from facilities to equipment purchases. The support has played no small part in making Norway one of the most active and healthy nations in the world, with more than its fair share of elite athletes emerging at the top of the pyramid. At the 2018 Winter Games, Norway finished atop the medal count — not bad for a nation of 5.2 million people.

Further inspiration comes from Colorado, which has used lottery revenues to fund recreation projects. There, 24 cents of every dollar spent on the lottery goes back to the state, which since 1992 has generated $3.1 billion to build 900 miles of trails and 1,000 parks, skate parks, pools, and ballfields. The funds have improved facilities at some underfunded schools and preserved more than 700 miles of rivers. Small wonder Colorado has among the nation’s most active citizens and the state is one of the fastest-growing in the nation.

In September, our Future of Sports series put the question on the table of whether US states should use sports betting to fund the base of our sport system. It’s a conversation we’ll stay with as states make their plans.

Tom Farrey is executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program. On October 16, the Sports & Society Program will host the 2018 Project Play Summit, the nation’s premier gathering of leaders at the intersection of youth, sport, and health.

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