SFIA CEO: Unequal access to sports is “morally unacceptable”

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In today’s data-driven world, an elemental truth is that one cannot manage what one cannot measure. This is no less true in mobilizing disparate stakeholders around a shared opportunity. Numbers are needed to establish baselines, identify gaps, develop strategies, activate stakeholders, refine approaches, and track progress.

All of which, hopefully, leads to the telling of a good story.

The forging of an important sports story is the aim of the Aspen Institute’s Project Play, and a key agent in that change process is the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA). The trade association for apparel and sports brands, suppliers and retailers, SFIA commissions an annual online household survey on the sport participation patterns of Americans in 120 sports. The scan is conducted by Sports Marketing Surveys, which then works with the Aspen Institute to produce a deep dive on the trends among 6- to 12-year-olds, the focus of Project Play to date.

The latest data reflect that some progress is being made. The 2017 results show that most team sports have seen participation increases over the past three years, and even more reversed negative trends over the past year. Since 2014, the percentage of youth ages 6 to 12 who are physically inactive – i.e., no sport activity of any type– has fallen each year, down to 17 percent.

Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, sat down with SFIA CEO Tom Cove to get his thoughts on the data and the role of Project Play 2020 – the multiyear initiative that includes SFIA as a founding member – in helping facilitate next steps. Excerpts of their conversation are below.

Tom Farrey: Over the past three years, the percentage of kids playing in any form at least once during the year has grown in most sports, including baseball, basketball, ice hockey, gymnastics, swimming and tennis. Over the past year we've also seen growth in volleyball and track and field. What do you make of that?

Tom Cove: People are working harder to bring more children into sports. For years, people took for granted that the sports will just attract kids. We have learned that with the current generation, for a variety of reasons, sport doesn't sell itself as much. So our number one takeaway is there has been a concerted effort, and Project Play reflects exactly that, of not taking youth participation for granted. We have to reach out and create opportunities for kids to touch a sport, and have fun.

Farrey: Several sports have not improved. Football is down. Outdoor soccer is down even further, which I found really interesting – down from 22 percent of kids playing soccer in 2011 to 14.8 percent last year. Why such drops?

Cove: Let's look at soccer first. Most people in the soccer community will tell you it’s because of this change in the mandate around how soccer is organized, particularly with regard to age groups. Two years ago, the U.S. Soccer Federation began to institute a new rule that moved the eligibility of players (from ages that aligned with the school year to a Jan. 1-Dec. 31 calendar). We heard draconian stories about the numbers of teens who stopped playing because teams made up of friends were broken up. Will that be a one- or two-year drop and participation levels will come back when everyone gets used to the new way? Or is the issue more fundamental? Either way, we're losing some of the generation.

Secondly, soccer reflects some of the bigger challenges facing the youth sports landscape. One is sport specialization and competitiveness too early. Kids used to go from the rec league to the travel team at 13, 12 or 11. Now, it's 9 or 8 years old. That's really hurting recreation-league soccer. The second part is the cost. Soccer now is one of the more expensive sports. For some families, moving the cost from $50 or $100 or $125 to play, up to $500, makes no difference at all. But for a different socio-economic class, that is a complete barrier.

With football, there's a lot going on. In some regions, there's a lot more emphasis on flag football at a young age. In the Northeast or particularly the Northwest, flag is a big deal, particularly the young ages. In the South, flag is not a big deal. It's not perceived as the obvious pathway into football.

We also know in the rural areas, which have traditionally been a stronghold for football, there are simply fewer kids. There are not as not as many teams. They're going from 11-man to 9-man to 8-man football at the high school level and that's clearly affecting rural football at the youth level, too.

Farrey: The head injury issue, how much of an impact has that had?

Cove: Definitely an impact, no question.

Farrey: Another stat – the percentage of kids who are completely sedentary, meaning no sport activity of any type, during 2017 fell for the third consecutive year, from 19.5 percent to now 17 percent. However, the figure rose during that time for kids from homes with less than $25,000 in household income (from 28 percent to 30.5 percent). Same story with kids from homes with $25,000 to $49,999 in income (23.1 percent to 25.4 percent). What's your analysis there?

Cove: The fact that the overall inactivity rate has dropped three years in a row is a demonstrable success, because this has been a challenge for many of us, and for a long time it was going in the wrong direction. It was a huge concern. So it's heartening and very positive that it’s been turned around. Credit goes to all of those who have spent a lot of effort doing more on this. This encourages us as part of Project Play that there is success to be attained here, that it's getable.

On the other hand, the idea that inactivity is related directly to household income should be a wake-up call to every one of us. That is morally unacceptable, and it's socially undesirable for the country, in terms of economic productivity and what that means for the long-term impact on healthcare. Take it any which way, it's unacceptable and we should be all over focusing solutions on that.

Farrey: How hard do you think it will be to move that number?

Cove: It's going to be hard. Because as our friends at (Project Play 2020 member Johns Hopkins University) will say, this is a classic systems issue. You can't just put one program in place and hope to fix the problem. And it requires long-term commitment and resources. And we need to measure and figure out which of the things we are doing as interventions are actually making the biggest difference on the ground.

Farrey: How do you think Project Play 2020 can help in moving those numbers?

Cove: The first thing, and Project Play has already done this very well, is to drive a national conversation with the highest level of policymakers, media and advocacy organizations, government, experts and influencers. Bringing people together for the conversation is fundamental because there are a lot of challenges. The second thing is to identify and use resources from Project Play 2020 members to really push the envelope and invest in, innovate, link up with, and figure out how to scale ideas. There are a huge number of successful ideas out there but many of them are constrained by an inability to go to scale. By bringing together national partners and asking them to focus on a strategic vision, we can move further than many of us have been able to move individually for the many years we have been at this.

Farrey: How optimistic are you that progress can be made?

Cove: Pretty optimistic. We've seen some significant improvements already. If we keep at it and also focus on the most in-need communities, then we should be able – using lessons we've learned and the resources we have and the commitment and the focus we've developed – to make a difference. Success breeds success.

SFIA informs Project Play’s annual State of Play report. Read last year’s report here. The State of Play 2018 report, with a deep dive on the most recent SFIA data, will be released at the 2018 Project Play Summit.