Youth Sports Is Dead. Long Live Youth Sports
When we started working on this report, we set out to highlight the many problems facing youth sports—a $30 billion global industry that was on pace to be worth $75 billion just a few years hence—and propose ways to guide various components of this juggernaut toward positive future scenarios.
Then, as we neared our publish date, COVID-19 shut down sports around
Through the spring, summer and fall of 2020, even the most lavishly funded professional leagues and college conferences scrambled to salvage improvised seasons, making “bubble” the hottest buzzword in sports. Youth sports organizations everywhere tried bravely to push forward but as a group they became rudderless, with a far less coherent “path to college” story to sell their customer base (parents) and a haphazard drip of ever-shifting local and state-decreed guidelines on how to resume play.
So we went back to the chalkboard to work up a different question: what if, now that we understood the cultural, technological and economic forces that had created the barely tenable state of affairs before the pandemic hit, we took this opportunity to imagine a better version of youth sports? That’s one silver lining to the devastation: with the coronavirus stripping the industry down to the studs, we have a chance to start fresh.
But as we work toward a better version of youth sports, we must keep in mind that the field of play has changed dramatically, shown in a series of recent Gallup polls:
The sports industry is losing its once-hallowed position in our culture.
In August 2020, only 30 percent of Americans polled by Gallup said they viewed the sports industry positively, while 40 percent saw it negatively, reflecting a 30-point net loss in a single year. The industry plunged 44 points in 2020 in the eyes of people between the ages of 35 and 54, and 46 points among Republicans.
Perceptions of the value of college as an institution were souring even before universities entered the stormy waters of COVID-19.
At the end of 2019, just 51 percent of Americans between 30 and 50 considered a college education “very important,” down from 70 percent in 2013. The numbers were even worse for those between 18 and 30, with only 41 percent regarding college as “very important” compared to 74 percent in 2013.
The era of enforced amateurism in sports is over.
The revolution started a decade ago, when Ed O’Bannon, a former college basketball champion, noticed his digital doppelganger in a video game—a use of his likeness for which he wasn’t being compensated. The NCAA fought tooth and nail against the push to pay college athletes until 2019, when the convergence of social media–empowered players, court rulings and social justice movements crystallized the cause into regulations in several state legislatures, followed by Congress and finally by the NCAA itself. By the end of 2021, new “name, image and likeness” rules will allow college (and, consequently high school) athletes to be paid for promotional efforts.
In short, the traditional pathways connecting youth sports to college, and college to success in life, are breaking down. New pathways are forming, shaped by emerging technological and social forces. Our future scenarios, both dystopian and utopian, take place in a very different world from the one we’ve known.
As the creators of this report, we play the role of futurists and would-be reformers. But many of us, as sports parents ourselves, wear other uniforms as well: the chauffeur’s cap, the investor’s suit, the coach’s jacket, and on game days, for many of us otherwise reasonable people, preferably a straitjacket. Not only are we the first architects of our kids’ life paths; we’re also their most obsessed superfans. At an instinctive level, we want nothing more than for them to win this weekend’s game. At a parental level, we want them to have fun and to learn lessons about perseverance, character and resilience out there. At an aspirational level, we want to create a better world for them to grow up in.
For all these reasons, we hope and believe that this work will spark the conversations, shared visions and plans that create a better youth sports experience, better humans and eventually, that better world.