A Changing Environment and the Business of Youth Sports

Little players, big business

Summer’s here, and with the warm air come the exuberant screams of kids of all ages making their way down to the soccer field, basketball court, or a football sideline or two. Some are probably picking the dandelions of America’s outfields as well.

It should come as no surprise that youth sports involvement continues to be one of the most popular summertime activities, helping kids get together with their friends and their favorite coaches. In fact, 60 percent of kids play sports outside of school, and that number is expected to jump in the near future. The United States Census Bureau projects the number of children under age 17 will grow to record levels in the next 15 to 20 years. With that projection comes an increase in the potential for youth sports participation, an already staggering market that currently exceeds $9 billion by recent estimates, with nearly 42 million youth athletes across 14,000 different organizations.

Traditional youth sports may be flawed

Unfortunately, with growth come hiccups for the typical town league. Anyone with a ball and a whistle can offer a sports league, and plenty of organizations offer mediocre programs because a lack of incentive to provide better. Often with these programs, families face disorganization, a lack of communication, and inconvenience, with over-scheduled young athletes required to attend multiple practices each week and parents serving as no more than a glorified shuttle service.  

Perhaps a bigger issue is the destructively competitive, highly political culture that sometimes accompanies youth sports. These behaviors turn sports into a negative experience for kids and erase the potential positive life skills like self-discipline, determination and teamwork instilled by youth sports participation. Not to mention the pressure put on kids to specialize in one sport with the hopes of an athletic scholarship and a big payday. In fact, of the 42 million American kids who play sports each year, research suggests that more than half drop out by age 12 because it’s no longer fun or has become a negative experience.  

The problem is not with the kids; it’s with the adults. Put simply, youth sports have evolved from a simple way for kids to have fun and build athletic skills into adult sports played by those kids that consume time and money while causing immense stress and frustration for children and parents alike.

Offering an alternative

The time is ripe for the reinvention of local youth sports. This reinvention starts with a format that puts the athlete and his/her family at the center of a more service-oriented model. To successfully change the culture of youth sports leagues, organizations that operate as a business (versus a non-profit or association), have a distinct advantage because they survive and grow based completely on the degree to which they meet the needs of those they serve.

The key in this changing environment is to pair potential financial returns with a core purpose for the people operating the programs. The combination of financial incentive with the ability to make a difference in the lives of others is incredibly powerful.

The youth sports experience itself must be radically transformed. The number one reason kids play sports is to have fun, so it’s not surprising they quit because they stop enjoying it. This requires a transformation of the adultification of youth athletics from programs that offer hyper-competitive, win-at-all-costs cultures to those offering better age-appropriate instruction that’s fun for kids and convenient for today’s busy families. To do so, programs should be built around teaching skills, good sportsmanship, and healthy competition, instead of focusing solely on who plays what position and the final game score.

The experience should start and end with those core values, but it’s also important to understand that coaches and those operating the leagues must be provided resources to truly deliver a topnotch experience. For example, technology is an essential element in the new youth sports league model. Surprisingly, software is the underpinning of the reinvented youth sports model because of the efficiency it provides in roster building, scheduling, and league communication. When the headaches of league operations can be taken away with the touch of a button, everyone can focus on enjoying the experience with the kids and making memories that truly last a lifetime.

There’s no doubt the business of youth sports is booming. But, with tremendous growth has come consequences. To leverage the opportunity while preserving the core values that youth sports are built on means walking away from the stale, outdated youth sports mindset and prioritizing instruction, fun, and safety over the “win-at-all cost” mentality that dominates many programs today. Youth sports were created to serve the kids that play, but it’s up to the adults to change the game. It’s time to reclaim youth sports for the kids. See a league parent that’s raucous and toxic? That’s old culture. Notice a lack of core values in a league? That’s bad management. It’s time for a change – there’s a better way. Commit to betterment for the sake of our children, and let’s play ball.

Brian Sanders is one of the original architects of the i9 Sports Experience, and is the president and CEO of i9 Sports. Brian is responsible for setting the company’s vision and strategic direction and working with the leadership team to translate the company’s vision into system-wide growth strategies that increase customer registrations and help make each franchise more successful and profitable.


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