Why this matters
The conversation around U.S. youth sport often focuses on how expensive, inaccessible, or overly competitive it might be. But organizations around the country are doing promising work to demonstrate a more realistic path forward.
Ten years ago this week, our Aspen Institute initiative Project Play held its first meeting, an invitation-only affair that was nearly canceled due to a massive snowstorm that made flying into Aspen, Colorado, impossible. On the eve of the event, we scrambled vans to the Denver airport, hoping that some of the 80 leaders from the sports, health, and philanthropic sectors who RSVPed yes were sufficiently dedicated to commit to another seven hours of travel, now on the slick roads that lead from the plains into the teeth of the Rockies.
Nearly all came. Introducing our event, I described these people as “smart,” obviously referring to their intellect and not their judgment. I also described Project Play as a “two-year” initiative to reimagine youth sports in America.
Complex systems involving hundreds of stakeholder groups engaging a constant churn of tens of millions of children take a little longer than that to revamp. And a system like sport in the United States, which has no national policy for the sector or a government body to guide all that cultural and financial energy in the public interest? Let’s see ChatGPT write that story.
A decade in, due to all the leaders who dug in with us for the long haul, I like to think we’ve had some impact on the landscape. We’ve helped to put access to sport on the national agenda through our data-driven insights. Shaped what good looks like in youth and school programs. Created shared frameworks to mobilize stakeholders. Inspired New York State to use sports betting to get more kids playing. Informed the development of the federal government’s inaugural National Youth Sports Strategy. More than $100 million in grant-making has been unlocked, shaped, or distributed by Project Play.
Along the way, we’ve seen what works. At the grassroots and the treetops.
And I’ve come to recognize this: Real progress depends on connecting the two.
We need to build a better sport system, one that’s more integrated. One with the capacity to coherently address the range of challenges that are now obvious to everyone: a growing divide between sport haves and have-nots based on family income level, a decline in high school sports participation, out-of-control parent behavior, struggles to recruit coaches and officials, and millions of preventable injuries.
Rocky Harris, chief of sport at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, last week declared our system “broken” and in need of a rethink from the moment that children slip on a uniform through the retirement of elite adult athletes. That’s no small call to action, coming from the organization that Congress has long tasked with getting Americans both off the couch and onto the podium.
But how to do that?
There is a pathway. Here are 10 steps, presented as thought-starters:
1. Recognize that we have a system
Given the way things are set up, it’s easy to think that youth sports in the U.S. are an ecosystem. Most providers are community-based, unregulated, and feed off resources (parks, gyms, family incomes) in the local habitat. Programs often don’t communicate with each other, even when sharing the same kids. Scheduling gets messy, burnout and injury risks grow, and parents lack tools to guide their child.
It’s also the same journey that kids in most communities are asked to follow. They usually start around age 5, at a local recreation program, in one of several team sports. By grade school, the tryout-based travel teams form, with some parents stroking four-figure checks. These are the kids around whom training and opportunity form. Many of the rest, around age 9, get the message they aren’t athletes – and start to check out of all forms of sport and physical activity. By high school, just 1 in 4 students gets the exercise they need.
Health outcomes are the worst, and sport options most limited, in low-income areas. Clubs, trainers, tournament operators, and an array of companies all seek a piece of the more than $30 billion annually that families spend on children’s sport activities, and much of that business is in the suburbs. That’s the downside of the modern youth sports industrial complex. The upside is that all that cash has created more of an interdependent network of suppliers and thus an opening to discuss policies and structures that can produce better results.
Only so much good can come from trying to close an equity gap here and there.
We need to build a system that doesn’t create gaps in the first place.
2. Empower the NGBs
When it comes to sports policy, we must start with the National Governing Bodies (NGBs), the more than 50 organizations whose job under federal law is to develop the sport with which they are affiliated. That means serving as the “coordinating body for amateur sport activity” at all levels, supporting research on sports medicine and safety, and growing participation rates with a special focus on ensuring access for female athletes and people with disability.
Trouble is, it’s an unfunded mandate. Like the USOPC, the NGBs get their authority from the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, the original version of which was enacted in 1978. But to secure bipartisan support, its sponsors stripped out annual funding to do all that. In the middle of the Cold War, the law allowed legislators to crow that, unlike the Soviets, we can win Olympic gold without government support. The mantra of we’re the only Olympic committee in the world without government funding became a badge of honor.
That decision laid the groundwork, I believe, for much of the abuse of athletes that has engulfed the Olympic movement. The USOPC and NGBs were forced to turn to sponsors to support their operations. Those companies need media stars to sell products, so money and medals became the priority. It became too easy to ignore problems in the pipeline and grassroots. There just weren’t – and still aren’t – enough incentives to get those pieces right.
One of the best things the USOPC and NGBs have done in recent years is create the American Development Model (ADM). Pioneered by USA Hockey in 2009, and later introduced across more than two dozen NGBs, ADM offers an evidence-based framework for proper athletic development at each stage of a child’s development, from pre-K through the teenage years. It recognizes the value of play, quality coaching, and appropriate competition structures.
But right now, it’s just an educational tool, with no carrots to drive adoption. The principles of ADM often don’t reach coaches, administrators, and parents, who get the message from many clubs and entrepreneurs that high doses of sport-specific training and lots of travel to tournaments are the only pathway forward.
Imagine if each NGB was given an annual “ADM Score” that reflected how well the organization did in advancing policies, practices and partnerships that promote developmentally appropriate play, coach recruitment and training, expansion of participation opportunities, programs for underrepresented populations, collaboration with schools, and abuse prevention.
The NGBs with the best scores would receive monetary rewards from the USOPC or some federal agency or entity sanctioned by the government, just as the USOPC distributes tens of millions of dollars annually to many NGBs based on the quality of their high-performance plans for elite athletes. Then, to foster alignment further downstream, the NGB would distribute some funding to grassroots providers that affiliate with them and do the best job promoting ADM.
Only with incentives can NGBs prioritize sport development in the way they want.
3. Scale community-developed solutions
One of the promising local organizations we’ve discovered through Project Play is Cambridge Youth Soccer outside of Boston. In 2013, 860 kids from first through eighth grade played on CYS teams. Since then, registrations have grown every year, bucking the national trend. This spring, 1,900 kids signed up.
How did CYS do it? By improving the quality of their local recreation league. They invested in coaching and small-sided play that focused more on fun and skill development. Some kids go on to play with travel teams starting in fifth grade, but all of them also continue to play with classmates in the local rec league – made possible by CYS switching to a travel league that hosts games only on Sundays when the rec league is dormant.
The wealthier parents in Cambridge so appreciate this model that they end up donating lots of money to cover the (already low) fees of less privileged kids.
This is precisely the kind of solution an NGB like U.S. Soccer could distill into a toolkit and encourage its affiliated organizations to adopt. Again, incentives can help.
Having said that, community leaders don’t need to rely on any national body to take such action. They just need to connect and share best practices. Local collective impact initiatives can assist. We’ve seen that in the past five years in Seattle, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago and other cities where youth sports organizations have come together to expand programs for kids from underrepresented populations.
4. Deploy the power of the permit
Another way communities can, on their own, improve the quality and accessibility of youth sports is by bolstering the criteria to rent sports facilities. Municipalities, through their parks and recreation departments, can require, for instance, that any program using its spaces get its coaches trained in key competencies.
That’s what the Cincinnati Recreation Commission did a decade ago, as author Linda Flanagan wrote about in her 2022 book. Coaches were required to participate in a four-hour session that covered first aid and basic skills plus how to run a practice, communicate with parents, and treat children responsibly. After some initial pushback, the 28 organizations using the facilities came to appreciate the intervention for reducing problems. The policy remains in effect today.
Negotiated deals can be effective, too. Youth on Course, a Monterey, Calif., not-for-profit, has secured commitments from more than 2,000 municipal courses to offer $5 golf rounds. More than 140,000 kids have benefited from the program.
5. Get clear on the purpose of school-based sports
In the 1970s, the big rivalry in amateur sports was the AAU vs. the NCAA. Each organization thought it should be the primary home for elite athletes. When the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) was stripped of its ability to select Olympic teams in 1978 (a responsibility handed to the USOPC), the AAU reinvented itself as a youth sports tournament operator. That model created an avenue for the growth of club sports that aggregate talent at such tournaments for NCAA recruiters, and the rivalry for the attention of the best teenage athletes moved downstream.
However, in high school sports today, the only sports that matter for college recruiters are football and, to a lesser degree, track and field and basketball. In every other sport, recruiters largely work through club programs. Some top athletes skip high school sports altogether. School-team coaches agonize about this, but the ship has sailed.
And that’s OK. It’s an opportunity for schools to reimagine their role in our sport system while more closely aligning their programs with the educational mission. Serving the greatest number of students with sport and fitness activities should be job No. 1 given the research now documenting the associated cognitive, mental, and physical health benefits (documented by the U.S. Department of Education). Improve the experience for the 4 in 10 students who play interscholastic sports and find new ways to engage the rest.
In Alexandria, Virginia, a large public school works with a community soccer association to make teams for students who couldn’t make the varsity. In Durham, North Carolina, a small private school creates four-year physical activity plans for students, asking not just about academic but sport interests when they arrive as freshman. In south central Los Angeles, a charter school has introduced rugby, sailing, surfing, and snowboarding to students with the help of university and other partnerships.
These are just a few of the examples of innovation that Project Play found in a national search for the most exemplary school sports programs. Points of inspiration are out there. Now, they need to be shared and scaled with the help of principals, superintendents, school boards, and state departments of education.
6. Let the professional leagues take control of their pipelines
Over the past decade, the leagues have started to engage the grassroots, recognizing the relationship between youth participation and fan development. Men’s pro basketball, football, baseball, and hockey in the U.S. are all now involved at the entry level, partnering with community organizations to offer low-cost programs.
One level up, Major League Soccer clubs now sign players as young as age 14, developing the game’s next generation of talent in academies. Clubs can later recover those costs and then some through transfers to foreign clubs, just as they do in Europe. There is immense opportunity for a similar model in basketball.
We shouldn’t resist such advances, as long as the rights of young people to education and other features of a quality childhood and adolescence are respected.
7. Rally around mega-events
Hosted primarily in the U.S., the 2026 FIFA men’s World Cup will be the biggest sporting event in the history of sporting events. The largest tournament field ever (48 teams) will play games in 11 cities over more than a month, a showcase and storytelling opportunity so huge it holds the prospect of reshaping the way the world looks at America and the way that sport is delivered in America. It’s a platform to celebrate and better engage the nation’s diverse youth populations.
Two years later, Los Angeles will host the Summer Olympics and Paralympics. By 2030 or 2034, the Winter Olympics will head to Salt Lake City. In 2031, the U.S. even gets the men’s rugby World Cup. Along the way, the annual calendar gets lit up by an array of mega-events, from the Super Bowl to big annual golf and tennis tournaments.
What if more of these events produced legacies that supported youth and school sports for generations to come? There’s precedent: The last time Los Angeles and Salt Lake City hosted the Olympics (1984 and 2002, respectively), surpluses endowed foundations that continue to serve their communities today through the funding of youth programs. Same with the 1994 FIFA men’s World Cup, which spawned the U.S. Soccer Foundation, a major catalyst for building mini-pitches in urban areas around the country. There are many ways to raise funding for (ideally ADM-aligned) sport development at the local, state, and national levels.
8. Set national goals
One of the items that advocates working with Project Play have pressed for is better data collection by the federal government that shows sport participation by youth. In 2018, for the first time, survey data was collected on the percentage of youth ages 6-17 who “participated on a sports team or took sports lessons after school or on weekends” in the past year. It’s not a perfect measure, but it’s a start.
That data allowed an interagency group led by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services to set a goal of a 10% lift by 2030, up to 63.3% participation. Since then, due largely to the pandemic, the rates have fallen. The most recent data, from 2020-21, shows a huge drop – down to 50.7%.
Post-pandemic data may show a rebound. We’ll see.
Regardless, getting to 63.3% is an eminently achievable goal if the private sector also sets that figure as a North Star. Keep an eye on the work of the Commission on the State of the U.S. Olympics and Paralympics Committee, which is reviewing the recent reforms focused on abuse prevention as well as the function of the NGBs. The Commission should look at the big picture – the optimal role that NGBs and the USOPC play in the larger sport system – and recommend a path forward that taps the better angels of the sports industry.
9. Anchor policies in the values of health and inclusion
Policy matters. See: Title IX, the 1972 federal law that greatly expanded sports participation opportunities for girls and made possible the now-explosive growth of women’s sports. See: The Americans with Disabilities Act, a platform that began to create opportunities for students with physical and other challenges. See: The Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has helped to get sports and recreational facilities built in every county in the U.S. since the mid-1960s. If you’ve played sports, you probably have enjoyed a field made possible by LWCF.
Then there’s small-p policy, driven by business. Flag football is exploding at the youth level because the NFL decided, after seeing participation losses in tackle, to prioritize as much. The league started with girls, and now it’s reaping rewards – while advocating for greater health and safety protections for high school athletes. Insurance incentives can help there.
We know too much now about the consequences of structuring sports programs in a manner that denies opportunity to some while leaving others with head, joint, and other injuries that can stay with them for life. Leaders should ask this: How do we create policies that best promote the health of the child and community?
10. Start with the end in mind
A couple of days a week, I play volleyball on the beach of the Southern California town where I now live. It might be the best experience I’ve had in sports. Our group ranges in age from 18 to 78, half men and half women – a couple of firemen, financial analysts, a city IT manager, an ER surgeon, housewives, a crisis counselor, retired football coaches, even a former Olympic gold medalist. Some people get their ideas from Fox News, others from MSNBC. But none of us really talk politics, or at least try to win arguments. That’s not why we play.
We play for joy and for connection to each other, the sand, and all that surrounds us. We compete – hard – but always in a good spirit, and a few minutes after the end of our run, it’s hard to remember who won. It’s like we’re kids again, molded by P.E. and school sports and pickup games in the park, lost in the moment, and grateful that our bodies (still) allow us to chase down balls.
Anyone who has a group like that is often reminded that youth sports aren’t really about youth. They are about fostering in our youngest people the physical literacy skills and love of game to play for life. To build friends and communities. To serve as a bridge to common cause in a divided society. And, yes, to live healthier lives, too.
Design a system built for life, and all boats in the sports harbor get lifted.
Look, I’m under no illusions about the challenge of adjusting the model. There are plenty of entrenched interests fearful of change. But this much I also know from talking with thousands of leaders at all levels in sport over the past two decades: Just about everyone thinks we can do better.
Give them a seat at the table to work on the puzzle, and let’s see what we can do.
Tom Farrey is founder and executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program, the signature initiative of which is Project Play. He is also the author of “Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children.”
He can be reached at email@example.com and followed @TomFarrey.
Young people today have a very different relationship to sport than their parents or grandparents, both in the ways they compete as well as how they consume their favorite athletes, teams and leagues.
We explore key trends among young people and their relationship to sport in this digital issue.