Project Play Aims to Increase Youth Sports Participation

Just over half (54%) of children ages 6 to 17 in the U.S. played on a sports team or took lessons in 2022, down from 58% in 2017, according to federal data. That decline has driven the Aspen Institute to issue a call to action for its network of more than 20,000 leaders engaged with Project Play to get at least 63% of youth playing sports by the end of the decade, which would meet the target set by government agencies as a Healthy People 2030 national public health goal.

Established in 2013, Project Play, the flagship initiative of the Aspen Institute's Sports & Society Program, has provided insights, ideas and opportunities to build children's and communities' health through sports. This is the first time the initiative has adopted such an ambitious target for youth sports participation. 

"Kids need sports more than ever given the challenges facing them and our society," said Tom Farrey, executive director of Aspen Institute's Sports & Society Program. "Members of the Project Play network recognize as much, so we're building the dream team to take the big swing."

To help reach the 63% target, the Institute will convene and provide support for a roundtable of leading sports, health and philanthropy organizations called 63x30. Partner organizations include: The DICK’S Sporting Goods Foundation, ESPN, Gatorade, the Hospital for Special Surgery, LeagueApps, Little League Baseball and Softball, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, National Basketball Association, National Recreation and Park Association, Nike, PGA of America, Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, Stack Sports, TeamSnap, Under Armour, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, and U.S. Tennis Association.

Members of the roundtable commit to taking actions that can get and keep more young people playing sports, from creating affordable programs in underserved neighborhoods to promoting multi-sport sampling to developing more coaches to serve children’s needs. The curated group is well-positioned to contribute, with strong networks within basketball, baseball/softball and soccer--the three team sports with the greatest youth participation, as well as tennis and golf, the top two individual sports.

The 63X30 national roundtable will build on the work of the Institute’s previous roundtables Project Play 2020 and Project Play 2024. Members of those groups introduced an array of mutually reinforcing activities that supported grassroots organizations. They also partnered to create the How to Coach Kids coach development platform, built the award-winning Don’t Retire Kid awareness campaign, and launched the Children’s Bill of Rights in Sports, a framework endorsed by more than 500 leading organizations, athletes and government entities.

Members recognize the opportunities to drive progress that lie ahead over the next six years. The United States will serve as host to the 2026 FIFA Men’s World Cup, the 2028 Olympics and Paralympics, and major annual events that can help rally stakeholders around the 63% target. The Institute will help track progress and connect activations of the national roundtable to efforts being made at the state and local levels where it also supports organizations through Project Play.

The mental and physical health benefits of playing sports are profound--benefits that have been denied many youth, whose participation rates have fallen since the pandemic. Reaching 63% participation could deliver more than 1.8 million quality years of life, plus $80 billion in societal benefits from direct medical costs saved and greater worker productivity, according to a study published in February in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine by researchers from the Institute, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and leading universities.