Pandemic Challenges Access to Youth Sports

A new Aspen Institute survey of youth sports parents during the coronavirus pandemic revealed that about four out of 10 kids who previously played sports are facing reduced services from their previous community sports provider or travel sports organization, a development that could have a profound impact on the quality and accessibility of programs, if enough new programs did not emerge to fill the void.

Taken in September, the survey showed that 15% of travel sports providers and 13% of community teams and organizations closed during COVID-19. Some parents reported that their provider merged with another league or club, or returned with limited capacity. Parents of kids who play middle or high school sports were the most likely to indicate that their child's sports provider resumed at a normal level.

The results of the survey were released in State of Play 2021, a report issued annually by the Aspen Institute's Project Play initiative, which examines the latest data and trends in youth sports. The report showed that many kids are back playing sports as families feel more comfortable to return, but there are still significant challenges, especially since so many more children became physically and mentally unhealthy during the pandemic. Some 22% of children and teens have been classified as obese during the pandemic, an increase from 19% before COVID-19, according to the CDC.

Some of the key findings of the survey include:

  • Kids are increasingly resuming sports at pre-pandemic levels: In September, 47% of youth sports parents said their child has resumed sports at the same level as before the pandemic; that's up from 40% five months earlier. Seventeen percent of children resumed playing at a higher level than before COVID-19.
  • Wealth still factors into who plays: This was true before the pandemic and true today. In September, 24% of parents in the highest-income bracket ($100,000 or more) said their child had resumed sports at a higher level than before COVID-19. Only 13% to 14% of kids from the two lower-income brackets returned to sports at a higher pre-pandemic level.
  • Parents are adjusting to COVID-19 fears: Half of all youth sports parents view their child getting sick as a barrier to resume play. Yet parent comfort levels with travel sports, community-based sports and school sports are the highest they have been in the Aspen Institute's four surveys conducted during the pandemic.
  • Many kids are still losing interest in organized sports: When Project Play and Utah State conducted their first COVID-19 survey in June 2020, 19% of youth sports parents said their child was not interested in playing sports. By September 2021, that figure was 28%. The more money a family has, the less interest a child has in sports these days.

State of Play 2021 includes a Call for Leadership section, which provides an update on four recommendations from 2020 to build affordable, quality, community-based programs that can engage more children. Among these developments, Project Play released the Children's Bill of Rights in Sports, a resource to help stakeholders grow access to sports while establishing minimum conditions under which youth are served.

"The good news is there's been major progress made in putting in place key pieces that can turn historic challenge into history-making opportunity for more kids to access a quality sports experience," said Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program. "The challenge: The opportunity is now, and the window will close."