DICK’S CEO: Funding gap is biggest threat to sports for youth

Ed Stack DICK's AIF photo.jpg

Over the past month, Ed Stack has huddled with prominent athletes, including NBA player Kevin Love, World Cup champion Alex Morgan and NFL star receiver Larry Fitzgerald, to help raise awareness for the issues facing youth sports today.

At the Aspen Ideas Festival in June, the longtime CEO of DICK’s Sporting Goods sat with Love and fellow NBA player DeMar DeRozan, as well as ESPN anchor Cari Champion, to explore the potential benefits playing sports has on society. The panel, How Sports Solves All the World’s Problems,” was moderated by Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program Executive Director Tom Farrey.

Then, on July 18, Stack and DICK’S shared new research from the Women’s Sports Foundation and the RAND Corporation underscoring the gaps that exist for girls and youth low-income families. Helping Stack raise awareness for the new research and continued issues around youth sports funding and participation was Morgan, Fitzgerald, Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden and ABC/ESPN analyst Jalen Rose, among others.

Away from the cameras, Farrey sat down with Stack to understand his motivation and that of DICK’S and its DICK’S Sporting Goods Foundation, a founding member of Project Play 2020 that has committed more than $100 million in recent years to address the funding challenges facing youth sports today. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Tom Farrey: How did playing youth sports impact you and shape the course for your life?

Ed Stack: It shaped my childhood significantly. Playing sports kept me out of trouble and taught me great skills: leadership, commitment, teamwork. I’m confident that I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t played sports as a kid.

Farrey: How did that personal experience impact your interest in making sports accessible and useful to all kids?

Stack: I looked at how it impacted me, and I got another dose of that when my kids started playing sports and I saw how important it was to them. A defining moment for me was when I was driving my daughter home from practice one day. She had just started high school and finished “hell week” for the varsity soccer team. And she said to me, “Dad, my soccer team … we are so tight.” At that moment, I just knew she had a place where she felt like she belonged. I realized that we had to make sure that we have this for all kids.

Farrey: What do you see as the greatest challenge facing youth sports today?

Stack: I think there are a couple. Funding is a big issue. So many schools don’t have sports programs. In fact, 24% of public high schools today do not offer sports programs. That’s catastrophic for our kids and communities.

Another issue is kids are forced to specialize in one sport and they don’t have well-rounded sports experiences. You can get burned out.

We put too much pressure on our kids. Sports are supposed to be fun and we’ve seen so many parents who think their kid will play on the World Cup team, play in Yankee Stadium, or play on an NFL team. There’s such a small percentage of kids that will actually do that.

Farrey: What is DICK’S doing to address these challenges?

Stack: On the funding side, we’ve partnered with DonorsChoose.org. If a team has a funding crisis, and can raise half the money they need, we’ll fund the balance.

Since 2014, we’ve committed about $100 million to our Sports Matter initiative to try and help kids have opportunities to play sports. We’ve also put together two movies to show how important sports are to kids. We Could Be King is about the doomsday budget” in Philadelphia in 2013 when so many schools were closed and extracurricular activities, including sports, were shut down. Another (film) was about a Native American girls’ lacrosse team in upstate New York, Keepers of the Game. We’ve continued to stay very involved and will continue to do so.

Farrey: What’s the next frontier for DICK’S in making an impact?

Stack: We’re going to double down on what we’re already doing. We have already helped over one million youth athletes across all 50 states and we just announced our pledge to provide access to sports to another million kids nationwide by 2024.

Farrey: What if we adopted aspects of Norway’s model, which I wrote about recently in the New York Times? In Norway, 93% of kids grow up playing sports and it is among the healthiest nations. They have a Rights of Children in Sports framework and the system is funded through revenues from gambling and sports betting. Are these the type of policies worth exploring in the U.S.?

Stack: I think that’s an interesting idea, but we’ve got to get the governors and mayors involved. There’s such a big request for dollars from states and local governments. The nation’s most precious natural resource is the kids. We don’t invest enough in our kids and they truly are the future of the country. Sports are a really important way to build the values kids will need to make it in the long run.

Farrey: How much help do you need from other organizations, for-profit/non-profit, leagues, media companies, and others in driving measurable progress?

Stack: Nobody can do this on their own. All of us in Project Play 2020 have the best intentions. If we can all chip away a little bit at a time and have an overreaching plan we all agree on, we can get this done. But it’s going to be a long process.

Farrey: What do you see as the role of Project Play 2020 in identifying shared opportunities and mobilizing organizations?

Stack: I think Project Play 2020 plays a leadership role and this is a monumental task that we all signed up for. We all think sports matter and all of us are heading in the right direction. Funding is the biggest issue. We call on our customers, industry partners, Project Play 2020 and all those who share the belief that sports truly matter to the development of our kids to join us in our current fundraising effort. DICK’S will match up to $1 million in donations made in our stores or online (www.sportsmatter.org) to our foundation during this back-to-school season.  

Learn more about Project Play and Project Play 2020.