Sports Facility Expert: Kids, Parents Need Alternative to Travel Teams

Dev Pathik photo.jpeg

Youth sports has been transformed over the past couple decades by travel teams – the tryout-based squads that aggregate early bloomers and early movers with the aim of winning tournaments. Those tournaments anchor the estimated $17 billion youth sports industry and are hosted at a growing number of sprawling “megacilities,” as Dev Pathik calls them, designed for sports tourism.  

As founder and CEO of Sports Facilities Advisory and co-founder of The Sports Facilities Management (SFA|SFM), Pathik has been at the center of that growth and become a thought leader on the topic – featured twice in HBO Real Sports pieces last year. The firms he co-manages with Jason Clement have advised municipalities and investors behind most of the 20 largest facilities in the U.S. At the same time, Pathik recognizes the hazards and challenges created by the rising costs of playing travel sports, and he has considered how cities and facility owners can re-orient their thinking to address gaps driven by the income disparity that exists in today’s youth sports landscape.

Pathik recently talked with Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program Executive Director Tom Farrey about the state of play of youth sports in America, and the plans by SFA | SFM to make a positive contribution through the guidance and investment vehicles introduced to cities. He also discussed SFA|SFM’s participation in Project Play 2020, comprised of 20 organizations that have come together to help grow sport participation rates and related metrics among youth.

Below is an edited transcript of their conversation: 

Farrey: Why do you think the issues of youth sport are getting major media attention now?

Pathik: Two converging factors. One, there’s been tremendous growth in sports tourism, which has brought attention to sports from economic development councils, and it’s fed this boom in facilities development. While that occurred, we’re simultaneously seeing declines in sports participation rates. We don’t have programs to provide free access to sport because we’ve defunded physical education in many of our school systems, and because we defunded parks and recreation programs in the recession.

We have this dichotomy happening where one part of our society is getting access to extraordinary facilities, they’re competing more than they are practicing, and they’re specializing too early, but it’s a booming economy. On the other side, we have kids who just don’t have access to sport.  This is a major issue for our entire society because kids who play sport have lower health care costs, higher test scores, lower rates of drug use and other risky behaviors. Put simply, sport is an essential nutrient for a healthy society.

It’s also ever-present in people’s lives. When you sit at dinner with people who have teenagers or even pre-teens, their lives become consumed by youth sports. This is a real change in our society. I think the attention has come as a result of people both witnessing and being consumed by this change.   We need more kids playing sport at the recreation level and this requires a public commitment to funding youth sports for all.

Farrey: How do we address these issues, particularly access?

Pathik: I believe the only solution is to help public officials understand the value that sport and recreation and activity levels play in future health and economic outcomes. If we don’t provide public officials with data that they trust, we’ll see no shifts in how we’re allocating public resources to sport and recreation.  

It can happen at the school level, and it probably should first. It can happen with park and recs. We have to see a resurgence and commitment to funding access to sport and recreation. If we don’t, I don’t see where we’ll see any significant improvement. We are working on calculators now for the Florida Parks and Recreation Association that will allow their members to assess the economic, health, property value, and sports tourism impact of any park in the state of Florida. We will roll these out in other states starting in 2019.

At the grassroots level, I think it’s about facilities and places where people can play dedicating inventory and ensuring that that inventory is properly allocated to everyone in the community who might want to play. We see that as the call and challenge – looking at all the spaces and places and figuring out what percentage of the inventory is used for each of the various demographics that exist in the community and being intentional about dedicating and allocating inventory to kids who aren’t getting access. Facility managers need a toolkit to do that.

Farrey: Where are municipal leaders on this? Are there cities that have done this?

Pathik: Hoover, Alabama went all in with the Finley Center and the Hoover Met Complex, an $80 million community recreation and sports facility for tennis, soccer, baseball, basketball and volleyball. Their top priority is serving local youth. The economic impact is secondary to that. They set this objective first and it is producing big for local residents and for the sports tourism economy in Hoover.

Rocky Mount, North Carolina has the Rocky Mount Event Center, which is really a sports and recreation facility that can host all kinds of other events. The facility was developed in a distressed downtown as part of a revitalization effort.  It is also walking distance to a community that’s been underserved. The strategy around that facility and its location is using a census track that allowed it to qualify for special financing, fighting to keep it downtown when everyone was asking us to put it out in the suburbs, and having the discussion about its true value. The total aggregated value to the community by putting it downtown immediately raised the property values all around it immediately and we have booked more than 65 events against a forecast of 18 events. Downtown is coming to life in new ways and the community is engaged. It is a true success story.

Farrey: What is SFA/SFM’s role in facilitating access?

Pathik: We conduct vision sessions, stakeholder meetings, and market research that we run through our forecasting models. These models allow us to forecast future-use by sport, age, fee, and season. These models also forecast financial gaps, tournament use, overnight hotel stays, and other important factors that play a major role in how the project can be financed.  We then build the local and other partnerships needed to turn ideas into reality. 

When we build a financial model, we now assume that a significant percentage of the project will utilize the SFM Access Program to promote access to all income levels. We make sure that we don’t overbook or overcommit the inventory. We also have funds built into the facility budget to support the Access Program. The project is conceived, designed and financed to support these issues of access. That is a fundamental shift for most communities. It’s unique. We know we are changing outcomes in kids' lives and that’s energizing.

Farrey: What are new market tax credits and why are they useful?

Pathik: They’re one type of funding mechanism that provides resources to real estate in areas that have been underserved or are in need of revitalization. The big financial institutions have criteria to loan into projects in communities that would not otherwise receive funding. They offer advantageous interest rates or loans that are interest-only for a period of time and then totally forgiven, provided that project delivers on its promises. Projects are rated and given tax credits based on how effective the deployment of that capital was for achieving the intended social outcomes.

As an example, in Rocky Mount, we have to measure access and the health impacts. We were able to get a health clinic and some other things funded, and it’ll essentially take more than $6 million off the cost of that $40 million facility and it served to keep the project downtown where we can make the most difference.

Farrey: What role do you see Project Play 2020 playing in addressing gaps?

Pathik: Project Play 2020 should continue to elevate the national conversation. We need mass media attention on it that helps parents, and we need to think about fans as parents. I hope that our access program becomes something that’s meaningful enough that I can take it to some of the partners and other divisions of organizations and see some sponsor money. We’re not there yet, but hopefully. 

Farrey: How hopeful are you that progress can be made by all these organizations coming together?

Pathik: I think it’s inevitable that we come together. The current state of youth sports cannot stand. It can’t survive itself. It’s eliminating its own future and burning people out. Parents need to have the ability to not participate in travel teams. That’s disruptive and may piss some people off, but it has to happen. 

Learn more about Project Play and Project Play 2020.