According to the Aspen Institute’s recently released State of Play 2023 report, kids are trying sports about as much as they did before COVID-19, but they’re not playing as frequently. The report outlined that as progress is being made in filling gaps with girls and low-income populations, kids are playing team sports less frequently than before the pandemic.

One positive finding was that children are increasingly seeing sports as a way to improve mental health, especially when it’s a good experience. The study found 42 percent of high school students today say they have experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, up from 28 percent a decade ago. While all teens report increased mental health challenges, girls fare worse than boys.

The top three participation trends identified in the report include:

Children Play Team Sports Less Frequently
This trend started before the pandemic, which may have accelerated the change even more. Core team sports participation (meaning playing on a regular basis) for youth ages 6-17 declined 6 percent between 2019 and 2022. Total team sports participation (meaning playing at least once in the past year) stayed flat.

“If this trend continues with core (participation) going down over time, that would be bad,” said Tom Cove, SFIA president and CEO, in the study. “But we really believe it’s way too early to make any kind of judgment like that. We’ve never had greater awareness at the child and parent level of the benefits of being physically active and playing youth sports. That’s an outcome of COVID.”

Elementary-age children’s departure from sports was accelerated during COVID-19 due to the inability to convene on teams. Now everybody, including children, has reevaluated how they prioritize leisure time.

“None of us should misunderstand that a lot of kids play sports less because they love a sport and more because they want to be with friends,” Cove said. “When you break up a team, a child gets into other routines and doesn’t get to be with their friends, so they figure out other ways to be with their friends besides sports.”

Core participation declined 5 percent for kids ages 6-to-12 from 2019 to 2022, but total participation increased 3 percent. The good news: in 2022, 63 percent of kids ages 6-to-12 played sports at least one day, the best rate in a decade, by SFIA’s measure. Meanwhile, 36 percent played regularly, the lowest rate in a decade. Ten years ago, the gap between core and total participation was half of what it is now.

For older kids ages 13-to-17, total and core participation from 2019 to 2022 decreased by 7 percent and 6 percent, respectively. When a teenager gets cut from travel or school teams or can’t access club sports due to costs and transportation, fewer recreational opportunities exist to play casually.

More kids could turn to other interests like video games, social media or individual adventure activities because the commitment needed to consistently play team sports requires too much time and money, believes Jason Clement, CEO at The Sports Facilities Companies, which manages more than 30 youth sports facilities across the U.S. Clement said COVID-19 allowed families to take “a chill pill,” and while some didn’t want to rush back intensively in sports, they faced fewer quality recreational opportunities.

“There’s a limit on time, which is our most important resource,” Clement said. “We’re finding more families migrating to the pay-to-play model at a younger and younger age. Even the families who say they want to wait until age 10 are getting pulled into it at 8. The collision of rec sports and sports tourism has happened, and sports tourism is winning because parents want what’s best for their child’s skills and the quality of local leagues is really watered down.”

Sports Participation Increasing For Girls, Declining For Boys
Boys, 40 percent, regularly played sports at a higher rate than girls, 35 percent, among ages 6-to-17 in 2022, according to SFIA data. But the two genders are going in opposite directions. A decade ago, half of the boys regularly played sports. Meanwhile, the latest participation rate for girls is the highest since 2013.

Between 2019 and 2022, girls’ participation for ages 13-to-17 increased three percentage points, while boys dropped one percent. Boys still comprise 1.2 million more high school sports roster spots than girls, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, primarily due to large football rosters. And separate federal government data still shows major gaps by gender through state-by-state data.

Meanwhile, youth 6-12 from the lowest-income households increased their regular sports participation rate for four straight years. It dropped four straight years for the highest-income youth, suggesting declining quality of experiences among kids with the greatest opportunities to play. The gap remains significant, with 25 percent participation for kids in homes earning under $25,000 versus 39 percent among those earning $100,000 or more.

Efforts to provide greater access to all children by schools, nonprofits, professional leagues and others may be making a dent at younger ages. However, for teens ages 13-to-17, participation from the lowest-income homes keeps declining and was down to 27 percent in 2022 compared to 38 percent in 2012.

High Attrition Rates Remain A Problem; Free Play Offers Opportunity
The churn rate, meaning the percentage of youth who stopped playing a sport each year, often exceeds 40 percent to 50 percent for sports tracked by SFIA. Tackle football (27 percent), flag football (32 percent) and basketball (31 percent) had the lowest churn rates in 2022. Track and field (56 percent), swimming (54 percent) and lacrosse (54 percent) had the highest. The more participants a sport loses, the greater the need for the sport to recruit new children.

Basketball remained the most-played sport coming out of the pandemic, with nearly 1-in-4 youth playing it at least once in 2022 (Total Participation). While Total Participation in most sports decreased or stayed flat between 2019 and 2022, basketball’s rate for ages 6-to-17 increased 15 percent. Baseball dropped 6 percent and soccer declined 1 percent. Basketball had 3.6 million more total participants than the next-closest sport (baseball) in 2022, with an increase of 2 million between the sports since 2019.

Jason Frazier, president of Skyhawks Sports Academy, a youth sports camp franchise in the U.S., attributed much of basketball’s growth to Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors. He said, “We first started seeing more interest in northern California and thought this was a local thing. It spread across the country. We asked people why, and they kept going back to the power of this one team and superstar. It’s not the only reason, of course. It’s also a sport you can play individually and at a low cost with friends on playgrounds.”

Cove said the lesson of basketball’s growth is very clear: free play. He said, “We allow them to play by themselves in basketball like everyone else around the world. There was a time in the 1950s when baseball dominated with free play. Soccer around the rest of the world is always played casually. This country has a tough time meeting that reality. If nothing else, if we could drive kids to self-form their own play and build creativity, we would increase participation.”

Basketball’s core, or Regular Participation rate, remained flat between 2019 and 2022. Swimming, lacrosse, wrestling, cheerleading, and gymnastics declined in Core Participation. Soccer was the only team sport to increase among kids 6-to-12 coming out of the pandemic. “We think we’re approaching the golden age of soccer in the U.S.,” Cove said, citing Lionel Messi in MLS, the 2026 Men’s World Cup coming to the U.S., and the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. “It’s also not insignificant that soccer made policy mistakes over 10 years (soccer changed its birth-year registration cutoff limit, preventing kids from playing with friends) that lost 1 million players, so there’s room to grow.”

Tackle football’s core participation rate jumped 7 percent among children ages 6-to-12 in 2022, blunting a 13 percent loss since 2019, according to SFIA. Flag football in that age range was about the same in 2022 as it was in 2019, with 277,000 more participants than tackle. Tackle in high schools experienced a one-year participation increase of 6 percent in 2022, nearly twice the post-COVID rebound of other sports, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations. Football is positioned for future growth with flag being added as an Olympic sport at the 2028 Los Angeles Games, along with baseball, softball, lacrosse, squash and cricket.

Other findings in the SFIA study include:

  • Private equity is flowing billions of dollars into the market. The development is causing many youth sports club programs and other providers to consolidate, increasing efficiencies within the system but also reducing program options for families. The smaller organizations are getting smaller, and the bigger organizations are getting bigger.
  • Serious knee injury rates are increasing in high school sports. Tears of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), which can send students into adulthood with impaired mobility, increased 12 percent between 2007-08 and 2021-22, according to new research by Hospital for Special Surgery and the Datalys Center. Girls’ soccer had the highest rates of ACL injury, followed by tackle football, girls basketball, and girls lacrosse.
  • Non-scholastic organizations lack basic safety policies. Among the findings from a survey by insurance provider Players Health of 685 recreational and travel sports organizations: 56 percent lack a policy governing one-on-one interactions between adults and minors and 47 percent do not require coaches and staff take abuse prevention training.
  • State governments are paying more attention. Maryland and Massachusetts invested in programs that use sports as a tool for youth development in disadvantaged communities. Massachusetts is again studying how to regulate youth sports. New York began distributing mobile sports betting revenue to youth sports providers, although accessing funds at scale did not go as originally intended.
  • Americans support youth sports funding. More than half of U.S. adults (52 percent) say such support for sports would have the most impact at the youth and school sports levels, according to a new survey by SurveyUSA commissioned by the Commission on the State of United States Olympics & Paralympics. Far fewer adults identified the Olympics (14 percent), Paralympic Games (7 percent), college sports (6 percent) and professional leagues (5 percent) as deserving of taxpayer support.

To access the Aspen Institute’s State of Play 2023 report, go here.

Photo courtesy YMCA