Creating systems level change in youth sports requires operating under a collective impact model, featuring a common agenda, shared systems, reinforcement, continuous communication and a central support organization.

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
Peter Drucker, management guru

1. Common Agenda


Every movement needs a vision shared by all stakeholders. We hope this report helps create that vision by aligning the interests of various sectors, starting with the two historical competing interests within sports: those who aim to expand access to sport for the sake of child development and those more focused on improving elite-level athletic performance at the teenage and adult levels. We can achieve both outcomes, creating a holistic, integrated sport system that does not operate at cross-purposes. We need to aspire to do both, while serving the larger health needs of the nation.


Not every group is going to agree with each strategy or idea in this report, or the individual mission of other entities engaged in the process, and that’s OK. More important is that stakeholders begin moving toward a socially inclusive model of Sport for All, Play for Life communities, with a fundamental understanding of what all children ages 12 and under need to get and stay engaged in activity that leads to physical literacy. 


2. Shared Measurement System


Every common agenda needs a way of measuring success. Government data are lacking among preteens engaged in sports. But we do have the SFIA annual household survey capturing participation rates by sport, age group, gender, income level and other relevant criteria. There’s value in that. The data help inform the sport bodies that create key policies and practices, and their leaders can all see benefits if more kids get and stay involved in sports.


Ideally, we would also see the development of tools that could measure the quality of a sport experience, including the physical literacy and health benefits derived. Some sports simply provide more physical activity than others. In 2013, 28.3 percent of children ages 6 to 12 were engaged in high-calorie-burning activities at least three times a week, according to SFIA. Ambitious target goals could be set through 2030, with the ultimate goal being sport for all that helps kids lead active, healthy lives.


Leaders of each sport and organization should set their own vision-level goals, and their own metrics, that people can rally around. The era of big data in youth sports needs to begin now. 


3. Mutually Reinforcing Activities


Though youth sport is a fragmented space and largely organized at the community level, most of the providers of opportunities affiliate under governing bodies or trade associations. Stakeholders need to work together in a manner that recognizes and leverages the respective assets and expertise of each group. Every organization at the intersection of sport and health has its role, and can take meaningful action. It’s just a matter of knowing where an organization’s strengths lie in supporting the holistic vision.


Our advice: Define your interests broadly. Get out of your silos. Create partnerships. 


4. Continuous Communication


Project Play has provided a venue for leaders from disparate sectors to share ideas, create a common language, and collaborate on issues of mutual interest. Events spawned working groups to develop a plan around physical literacy, as well as more targeted strategies for underserved populations. The work on the latter will continue through our partner, the Clinton Health Matters Initiative, which will develop messaging strategies, a clearinghouse for best practices, and a research agenda to further address the needs of five populations: children from low-income families, girls, first generation and Native Americans, kids with physical and intellectual disabilities, and children who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ).


Additional in-person and digital communications on the full range of opportunities explored in the Project Play report will be necessary to develop trust, discover resources, and forge partnerships. The Aspen Institute will continue to assist as an independent convener, a facilitator of dialogue that identifies opportunities to take action. Among other activities, the program will host a Project Play Summit in February 2015, then gather leaders again a year later to measure progress, celebrate successes, and identify gaps. 


5. Backbone Support Organization(s)


All social movements benefit from having an organization that wakes up each morning with the responsibility to advance the collective effort. Otherwise, even the most engaged leaders of stakeholder groups can lose focus.


One model that has worked well at a regional level is the LA84 Foundation. Spawned with surplus funds from the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, the foundation uses its $160 million endowment to do many of the things that Project Play has identified as important. It trains coaches, conducts research, convenes leaders, creates community partnerships, and makes sports affordable for underserved populations. The $4 million it distributes in grants annually has been used to drive best practices and safety reforms.


A national foundation could take on some or all of those functions, within a mission of growing participation. One idea offered at a Project Play roundtable was to focus such a foundation on setting coaching standards, a model the United Kingdom used to improve the quality of community sports over the past decade. The foundation could also work with the U.S. Olympic Committee to meet the requirements established under the Amateur Sports Act to support research and encourage opportunities for women, minorities, and athletes with disabilities. It could help federal agencies coordinate the funding of existing grants tied to physical activity, using criteria consistent with program design we know will attract and retain children.


A lot could be done if more funding was available. But where could that come from? In most other countries, it comes from the government. In Canada, the sports ministry has helped a group of academics and sport leaders come together to reshape the nation’s sport system based on the concepts of physical literacy and sport for life. The Australian Sports Commission also gets dedicated funding. In Scandinavian countries, which have the highest sport participation rates in the world, designated sport entities get a share of the profits from national lotteries and legalized sports gambling. Scandinavian policies make it such that placing a bet on professional sports supports grassroots sports.


In the coming years, the U.S. sports industry will evolve and grow. New revenue streams will emerge. Sport leaders would be wise to look for opportunities to support a not-for-profit entity that will ultimately support their business interests. One idea floated at a Project Play roundtable is the creation of a “1% for Play” effort, modeled on the “1% for the Planet” initiative created by outdoor industry leaders in 2002. Since then, 1% for the Planet has become a global movement, with more than 1,200 member companies donating at least 1 percent of annual sales—at a whole-company, brand, or product-line level—to initiatives that sustain the environment. So far, it’s generated $100 million in support. Imagine the impact on sport and play in the United States with a similar effort.


Still, it’s important to remember that youth sports are primarily a bottom-up exercise. Parents make most of the decisions. It is essential to empower them to demand child-first policies and practices as well as a menu of options to engage all kids. A backbone organization could help coordinate those resources; so could local or state organizations that share a mission of helping stakeholders deliver universal access to quality sports.


Reimagining youth sports in America is just the first step in building Sport for All, Play for Life communities. The century-old model of school sports begs for a re-look as well, given falling participation among teens and emerging questions about the role of collision sports within the educational mission. The recreational options available to adults also need attention, given that sport participation rates dive dramatically as soon as teens cycle out of the school varsity.


The first opportunity, though, is getting it right for kids ages 12 and under. 


The future of youth sports in America – and the health of the next generation – is up for grabs. What will it be?


PROJECT PLAY SUMMIT: Leaders explore how to build a movement, react to question, "What works in building local coalitions?"