Monday, August 29, 2016
The Internet can be a wonderful thing. If you enter keywords into a search engine, up pops thousands of possible connections to those words. Occasionally you become unpleasantly surprised by a discovery that you want to delete from your browser history immediately, but in general taking a journey through the offerings can lead to some interesting outcomes. That’s what happened to me last week when I was researching an entirely unrelated topic and an enticing article appeared from ESPN magazine. The authors, Bruce Kelley and Carl Carchia, were attempting to uncover what they soon realized up to that point had been a complete mystery: what are the full demographics of youth sports? Certainly, various data has been explored and published but the authors never found it in a cohesive study, and in general that data was not collected in a scientific manner but haphazardly often anecdotally. Therefore, Kelley and Carchia decided to try to collate all the actual scientifically generated information they could find and publish it. I was mesmerized by the results. Here is the link to the article: www.espn.com/espn/story/_/id/9469252/hidden-demographics-youth-sports-espn-magazine. I think it is worth perusing, but I want to focus on interpreting some of the data they compiled, especially as it relates to youth soccer.
There were three major revelations that I either hadn’t even consider as significant factors in youth sports or didn’t know had so much impact. The first would be the important role that income plays in so many arenas of youth sports. The second is how the range of opportunities affect participation. The third is how much sports defines a child’s life. These revelations span several of the demographic results that the authors collected, so I wanted to examine them as groups rather than as separate statistics.
We all know how expensive soccer can get. It starts out relatively affordable but once players get more involved and advance they begin to travel, require better equipment, and join teams with higher level coaching. As sports go, soccer probably has some of the lower overhead. It requires minimal equipment and can be played on any open surface with or without nets. Nevertheless, membership costs to be on a team can top $2,000 which don’t include travel expenses. What Kelley and Carchia found was how many ways cost can impact the participation of youth players. This wasn’t just the intuitive aspect of those with lower incomes not being able to continue playing a sport. Those from families making $100,000 or more a year enter sports at the mean age of 6.3 and the age increases as income decreases to the point that those families earning less than $35,000 a year don’t have children starting sports until age 8.1. Children who begin a sport earlier in life have a leg up on learning skills, developing team friendships, being part of a community of players, and experiencing several different sports when the pressures are less. I saw this play out with my grandson who attended a basketball camp for the first time when he was nine and was so far behind the other campers. He felt awkward and like a failure. Even if he might have developed into a good player, he never tried because of his frustration and discouragement. The experience also affected his overall interest in participating in other sports, being wary of further embarrassment. I believe that income has a stronger impact on youth sports than just not being able to continue in a sport. It actually affects the matter of entering a sport in the first place. Furthermore, income shapes a child’s exposure to sports. The data collected by ESPN shows that 34% of girls from household incomes greater than $65,000 a year are more likely to be involved on three or more teams, which implies being involved in multiple sports. While, 27% of boys from families earning less than $35,000 a year are least likely to be on three or more teams. Finally, the total percentage of children from urban areas participating on at least one team is generally less than those percentages from suburban and rural areas. Suburban children had the greatest participation and they come from communities with higher incomes. Rural areas have the second highest rates and, even though one could argue that rural kids may have farm responsibilities that conflict with organized sports or fewer teams available, they still have a greater participation percentage than children in urban areas. This indicates a troubling statistic since urban areas hold 81% of the total US population. This means that a huge percentage of our children are missing out on organized sports due in part to economics.
Another issue that affects participation in youth sports are the number of opportunities available to young athletes. This ESPN article points out that the problem isn’t just teams available within the community, but also the exposure to sports in school. In a Robert Woods Johnson Foundation study, they concluded that for the poorest schools in the country 8th through 12th graders had only a 25% participation in sports. For the 2009-10 school year, 15% of high schools had absolutely no sports due to budget constraints with the majority of these in the poorest school districts. More importantly, struggling states have cut way back on publicly supported sports programs. In these cases girls are more adversely affected than boys. The data shows that 31 states have enough slots on high school teams for 50% of all boys to be able to play compared to only 18 states where there are 50% roster spots for girls. Some interesting graphics in the article show that North Dakota has roster positions for 104% of boys and 79% girls, while Florida can only accommodate 30% of boys and 23% of girls in high school sports. My sons, Robbie and Bryce, attended a high school where every students was expected to participate in either competitive or intramural sports, which was certainly not the norm at many other high schools. Amazingly the top five states offering the greatest percentage of high school sport positions to their students were states that were primarily rural: North Dakota, Iowa, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. This may be reflective of the difficulty to run organized sports leagues with vast distances between communities so the emphasis is on high school teams. States with large urban populations had the lowest rates: California, D.C., and Florida. The other factor to note is the gender gap; in all cases girls had fewer high school roster slots than boys. If girls come from a single-parent household, 59% of them have never participated in an organized sport. Overall 3.5 million kids will lose high school sports in the next four years, which is 500,000 more than the total number of registered youth members in US Youth Soccer. These statistics clearly point out how unfairly sports opportunities are distributed across geographic, economic, and gender groups.
A lack of opportunity further impacts the significance that sports have on a child’s developing self-image. Kelley and Carchia uncovered surveys indicating that 34% of girls and 61% of boys reported sports were a huge part of how they identified themselves. This means that kids who are disenfranchised from playing sports may see themselves as less significant than their sports-playing peers. When self-esteem is so closely tied to sports participation, it makes the lack of organized sports for children who come from poorer families and neighborhoods even more significant. They may feel isolated from the America they see in commercials and movies, but especially from the culture of sports. Every kid sees how America reveres its sports icons, and when these same kids misses out on the opportunity to play sports they may feel they are missing out on being successful. It shouldn’t be surprising that when asked what they want to be when they grow up, many kids will cite an athletic ambition.
How does this directly impact youth soccer players? It points out the need for more outreach by local clubs to bring in as many players across socio-economic and geographic groups. Likewise, youth players could be seeking out summer and indoor leagues, giving them a chance to engage with players within the spectrum. Encouraging your soccer club to open up more recreational teams coached by parents might offer opportunities to underserved youth and provide some pools of talents from which to draw for the select teams. On occasion, clubs can be awarded grants to cover programs where they open up their membership to youth who couldn’t afford the club without scholarships. There are hours when club fields are not being used, so a club could offer those times to teams that don’t have a place to practice or play. Every state’s youth soccer association can offer help in identifying communities in need of assistance and providing access to association membership which would include insurance coverage.
Growing soccer participation can only help our players moving forward. It will mean increased opportunities for competition, more monetary support in school athletic budgets, and greater access to schedule public field time. Likewise we parents can encourage our schools to increase opportunities within the community. We all need to address the gender gap that still exists in sports. Parents should ask for data on their high school to discover how many roster spots are available in sports to both boys and girls. It’s possible that we may need to fight to add slots or even add sports to increase participation. We can also encourage schools to increase their support of intramural sports that don’t require the strict guidelines, scheduling, and coaching that the competitive sports require. Opening up gyms at all age levels during lunches and after schools to allow kids to play pick-up games of basketball, field hockey, dodgeball, and indoor soccer might have some minimal increased costs to cover insurance, utilities, and oversight staffing but the benefits could outweigh the costs. Expenses might be covered by a small fee to participate, finding money in athletic budgets, and through parental volunteers.
Boys primarily play football, basketball, baseball, and soccer. Girls play basketball, volleyball, softball, and soccer. It shouldn’t be surprising that these four sports rank in the top – with the exception of football they all are played across gender lines. However, basketball is the only sport that sustains and even increases its youth participation numbers as kids get older. We should look for ways to make that true for soccer as well. The statistics for soccer are that participation is around 55% for boys and 45% for girls. It would be great if soccer could boost the girls’ involvement since there is great power in having strong female participation. Numbers equate to monetary power and access to facilities. Soccer is also a sport that enjoys world-wide attention. With a concerted effort we should be able to sustain the participation in soccer through 12th grade. Finding players in nearly any community should be easy and recommended, but that requires making the sport more available to underserved populations. We can work to boost membership through affiliation between urban and suburban clubs and by reaching out to female players. Soccer doesn’t need to be expensive, and other than college showcase tournaments, teams can get competitive and play close to home with little travel expense. Since 81% of the population lives in urban areas, it makes sense that spirited competition can be found within driving distance of most club teams. Therefore, it might be a good idea for clubs to field not just travel teams but also teams that play within defined geographic perimeters. The addition of these types of teams can only strengthen a club’s reputation and abilities. Locating grants to provide scholarships or to underwrite travel costs should be pursued. Finding local businesses willing to provide small sponsorships in return for the club promoting their services to the community can help expand the membership. We don’t have to accept the data that the ESPN article uncovered as a final pronouncement of youth sports in America and in particular of youth soccer. We can use these figures to challenge the status quo and move the sport forward not only for our own children but for their peers and for children yet to play.