Revitalizing in-town leagues that provide affordable, inclusive sports opportunities give children a better pathway in sports than ‘up or out.’
Challenge //   Rising costs, commitment
Revitalize in-town leagues.
Just as most after-school programs play a role in providing physical activity for the 1-in-5 children who flow into them,(22) so do the sport-specific local leagues that supplement and sometimes integrate with them. Historically, these leagues have provided the foundation for sport participation in the U.S., as venues where classmates compete against classmates. It’s been a setting where kids of all skill levels and backgrounds play at the same local field or gym, rarely roaming beyond the town borders. But today, house leagues can be stigmatized as inferior, a casualty of tryout-based, early-forming travel teams that cater to the “best” child athletes.
The flight to travel (and to for-profit club) teams thins rosters and the number of teams that can be created. The kids left behind can get the message that they’re not good enough, and start checking out of sports.(23) By the end of grade school, in some areas, in-town leagues in sports like soccer and basketball have lost enough participants that they are no longer viable. That’s a major loss, especially as local play is the only affordable option for many families.
CHILDREN NEED A BETTER PATHWAY IN SPORTS THAN 'UP OR OUT'
Little League Baseball has fought to preserve the community-based model, requiring that all kids in a local league come from the area. Major League Baseball has partnered with after-school programs on its Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities initiative (RBI), reaching 160,000 boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 12. Still, participation in baseball and softball nationally continues to decrease. Targeted interventions like RBI are overwhelmed by the prevailing culture of youth sports, which, in the era of travel ball, costs a family $800 a year on average in fees, equipment, and other items.(24)
Revitalizing recreational leagues depends on improving both the quality of the offering and the quantity of available kids. Parents with means must be given a reason not to flee early for travel teams, through programming that develops their child’s skills and provides opportunities for advancement, with fewer impacts on family time. Sport providers need to develop business models that wring less money out of more participants. And organizers must look in new places to grow the pool of players. The success of Mo’ne Davis at the Little League World Series reminds us that there’s no evidence-based reason to separate girls from boys before puberty, given the same training.(25) Combining boys and girls could better sustain recreational leagues, if researchers can help identify a gender mix that works best for each.(26)
Inclusion is not just a philosophy. It’s a commitment to new traditions.
Income Impacts Sport Participation
Percentage of core participants, by household income
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“Everybody I knew when I was young played team sports. Everybody. There were church leagues for basketball so people like me who couldn’t make the (school) teams could play. That’s really important because the benefits flowed to everybody.”
The leadership of Special Olympics embraces the theme of competition, while developing competition formats that do not promote exclusion. One of its fastest-growing programs is Unified Sports, which pairs students with and without intellectual disabilities on teams. Unified Sports in Illinois alone grew 184 percent in 2013, with programs in 94 schools. To support the development of physical literacy, a “sports readiness” program is also offered for kids ages 2 to 7.