Project Play at Five Years: Progress, Next Steps

By Tom Farrey

Tom Farrey announced the release of the  Sport for All, Play for Life  report in 2015, after two years of roundtables.

Tom Farrey announced the release of the Sport for All, Play for Life report in 2015, after two years of roundtables.

Five years ago this spring, Project Play was launched. We invited more than 80 leaders from sport, health, media, philanthropy and other sectors to the Aspen Institute’s campus in Colorado to take measure of how well children were being served through sports and to consider ways to improve the state of play.

The impetus was a growing sense that youth sports had become a runaway train, untethered to the needs of many youth and communities. Obesity rates were climbing, as were the percentage of kids who were physically inactive. Earlier than ever, children were being burned out, pushed out or locked out from sports. No national plan had been developed on how to collectively address these problems.

On the eve of the meeting, Aspen got pounded with snow. Flights were cancelled. We scrambled a fleet of vans to retrieve dozens of attendees stranded at the Denver airport – six hours away on slick roads. We worried that many might just turn around and go home, rather than double down on the arguably ridiculous proposition that stakeholders could come together to reverse the above trends.

Nearly all of them came anyway, and here we are.

With progress to report, and new challenges to confront.

First, three pieces of good news:

More kids are physically active. The primary focus of Project Play to date has been on children ages 6 to 12, who form the base of our sport system, with a shared vision of “an American in which all children have the opportunity to be active through sports.” One of the key downstream metrics we follow is the percentage of kids who are sedentary – those who participate in none of the 120 sport and fitness activities tracked by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), which commissions an annual household survey.

The latest SFIA data, shared with the Aspen Institute this month, shows that 17 percent of children in that age group engaged in no physical activities in 2017. That’s too high, but still a major advance. That figure has now fallen for three consecutive years, from 19.5 percent in 2014. In total, that’s roughly 700,000 more kids who are off the couch and now doing something, even if it’s just one day a year.

“This has been a challenge for many of us and for a long time it was going in the wrong direction,” said Tom Cove, CEO of SFIA, a member of Project Play 2020 (read my extended Q&A with Cove here). “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.”

Sampling of most major team sports is up. Over the past three years, the percentage of children participating in any form at least one time during the year has grown in baseball, basketball, ice hockey, field hockey, wrestling, flag football, gymnastics, and swimming on a team, as well as tennis. In the past year, volleyball and track and field have also rebounded, and bicycling (road, mountain, BMX) has stabilized.

Flag football saw the largest jump over the past three years – up 38.9 percent – and was no doubt influenced by parents troubled about brain damage risks associated with tackle football. Flag is now the preferred form of the game among children 6 to 12 (5.2 percent playing), surpassing tackle (4.1 percent) in 2016 with the gulf widening last year. One of the eight strategies in the Project Play report is “Emphasize Prevention” in recognition of injury concerns, and groups including USA Football and the NFL, while still supportive of tackle football for little kids, have increasingly promoted flag.

Jumps in other sports also coincide with aggressive moves by professional leagues and national governing bodies to drive participation. Since Major League Baseball and USA Baseball launched its “Play Ball” initiative with mayors across the country, kids’ participation has grown 17.2 percent. Basketball participation rose after the NBA and USA Basketball introduced its first-ever youth basketball guidelines on developmentally appropriate play. Ice hockey has long been a leader in adjusting policies and practices to get and keep kids in the game.

Multisport play is making a comeback. In 2017, children in our age group of focus played an average of 1.85 team sports, according to SFIA. While slight, that’s the first improvement in four years. That number had been stuck at 1.81 in each of the past three years and brings it back up to the 2013 level. It’s still well below the level of 2011, when the average child played at least two sports (2.11), but represents progress in the era of early sport specialization, when families are often under pressure to focus their child on one sport as a means of gaining access to college or even high school opportunities.

Multisport play has been a major focus of Project Play and organizations that have engaged with it. In 2015, more than 40 organizations – including each of the largest professional leagues, dozens of national governing bodies of sport, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation – formally endorsed multisport play for children through age 12, at a minimum, in a public service announcement placed in the Sports Business Journal. The Aspen Institute also created a resource to help community providers build programming models that encourage multisport play.

To help stakeholders take next steps, “Encourage Sport Sampling” has been selected as one of two initial priorities of Project Play 2020, whose 20 members include many of the most influential organizations in sports. On May 29, we announced that ESPN, National Hockey League, U.S. Tennis Association, and Amazon have joined the initiative, which, among other actions, will create resources to promote participation in more than one sport.

Now, three new or growing challenges:

The poorest kids face increasing barriers to participation. While inactivity rates for the overall population are down, most gains are among kids from middle-class and upper-income homes who can better afford the growing fees associated with youth sports. Over the past three years among kids from homes with less than $25,000 in household income, there’s been an increase in those engaged in no sport activity (from 28 percent to 30.5 percent). It’s the same story with kids from homes with $25,000 to $49,999 in income (from 23.1 percent to 25.4 percent).

“For some families, moving the cost from $50 or $100 or $125 to play, up to $500, makes no difference at all,” Cove said. “But for a different socio-economic class, that is a complete barrier.”

Costs go up from there with travel ball, which has only expanded in recent years with cities competing for sports tourism dollars. It’s not uncommon to charge $2,000 or more to join private club teams, which increasingly are being formed during the grade-school years. The trend is reflected in a drop in the number of kids who are “core” participants in team sports. Only 37 percent of kids played a sport on a regular basis in 2017, down from 41.1 percent four years earlier.

Nina Locklear, 11, of Baltimore, told 2017 Project Play Summit attendees about the importance of coaches.

Nina Locklear, 11, of Baltimore, told 2017 Project Play Summit attendees about the importance of coaches.

Most youth coaches are still winging it. The percentage of adults trained in key competencies to engage kids remains stubbornly low, even as the value of having a trained coach has generally grown in the broader culture. The latest SFIA survey shows that less than four in 10 youth coaches say they are trained in any of the following areas: sport skills and tactics, effective motivational technique, or safety needs (CPR/Basic First Aid, and Concussion Management). The best-trained coaches are in ice hockey, lacrosse and volleyball, where no more than half say they have been trained in any of the key competencies.

Research long ago established that kids who play for qualified coaches are far less likely to quit a sport. But many barriers exist to training the nation’s 6.5 million youth coaches, most of whom are volunteers. The churn rate is high, with most parents cycling out once their child leaves the sport or moves to a club. Parents also are pressed for time, and organizations are reluctant to ask them for more of it to get trained. Then there’s the cost – even an online course can run $25.

The Aspen Institute and Project Play 2020 members recognize these challenges, and over the next year plan to create sport-agnostic resources that can help organizations grow the quality and quantity of youth coaches.

Kids have more non-sport options to entertain them. The percentage of kids ages 8 to 15 who report using the internet “many times a day” has grown rapidly over the past few years, to 64 percent, according to KidSay Research. Smartphones, tablets and video games continue to get better in providing experiences that attract kids. What this means is the competition for a child’s attention is increasingly less about, say, a soccer program keeping a child from moving into baseball, and more about providing an experience that meets  needs of children and families as expertly as technology does.

“That’s especially the case with working-class families,” said Rich Luker, a consultant who has advised many sports. “For them, technology can be a more attractive babysitter than youth sports. It’s not just a resource problem but a time problem for lower-income parents. But there’s an opportunity here as well. Kids are getting tired of tech. It’s not new to them anymore, like it was 10 years ago. They want to do more things offline. They’re looking for someone to say, hey, do you want to play catch or shoot a basketball? And let it grow from there.”

Soccer is now paying a heavy price for underestimating kids’ desire to play with friends. In an effort to develop better prospects for its national teams, the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) two years ago began mandating that affiliated organizations down to the community level stop forming teams based on birthdates that fell within the school year. Instead, teams at every age level were reorganized based on calendar year birthdates, in which kids are less likely to play with same-grade peers. That broke up teams who have been playing together for years. Only 14.8 percent of children played soccer last year, down from 17 percent in 2015.

During that period, soccer lost more child participants than any other sport – about 600,000 of them. Or enough to fill every stadium on any given match day during the 2026 World Cup the USSF will co-host with Mexico and Canada. 

A downturn in a sport as large as soccer, in turn, depresses number of kids who are “active to a healthy level” through sports. That’s another key SFIA metric that we track, one that reflects the percentage of the population (in our case, 6- to 12-year-olds) who engage in high-calorie-burning activities a minimum of 151 times during the year. In 2017, that number fell for the fifth consecutive year, to 23.9 percent. In 2011, 28.7 percent were considered active to a healthy level.

The theory of change for Project Play started with a long listening exercise. After the 2013 launch meeting in Aspen, our program hosted 10 roundtables around the country on a range of topics with 300 thought leaders – from academia, sport policy, coaching, medicine, business, journalism, government, and tech. We heard from child athletes, as well as elite athletes such as Kobe Bryant, Herschel Walker and Allyson Felix. We then surfaced the best ideas, both shared and provocative, and in 2015 published Sport for All, Play for Life: A Playbook to Get Every Kid in the Game, the nation’s first-ever framework to engage youth through sports, with eight strategies for the eight sectors that touch the lives of children.

Among the 20 members of Project Play 2020 is Major League Baseball, whose commissioner, Rob Manfred, spoke at the 2017 Project Play Summit about efforts to introduce kids to the sport in more casual forms.

Among the 20 members of Project Play 2020 is Major League Baseball, whose commissioner, Rob Manfred, spoke at the 2017 Project Play Summit about efforts to introduce kids to the sport in more casual forms.

Along the way, various metaphors were used to describe youth sports. Runaway train is one. An oil tanker is another, given that more money now flows through youth sports in the U.S. -- an estimated $15 billion minimum -- than the NFL, NBA or any other league globally. But neither is exactly right. Trains and oil tankers are monolithic entities moving in single direction. Youth sport, in the U.S. at least, is more like a busy harbor with a thousand pleasure craft and a few large ships all moving at different angles. Decisions about the shape of youth sports are still largely made at the community level, by volunteer boards and entrepreneurs.

Within Project Play, we recognize the need to empower parents as agents of positive change. It’s why we created Project Play Parent Checklists, 10 questions parents can ask of themselves, their child and local sport providers that will help build an athlete for life. As we move along, we’ll develop more resources for that set of key stakeholders who, if they come to more fully understand best practices in athletic development, can change the game from the bottom up.

But one of the lessons of the first five years of Project Play is that top-down leadership from the most influential national organizations matters as well. We see that in the shifts in sport participation, up and down, by leagues and sport governing bodies that introduced new policies or grassroots initiatives. We’re hopeful that more progress can be made through Project Play 2020, as competitors (leagues, corporations, tech and media companies, foundations) come together to think about ways they can help give every kid the childhood they deserve, one that includes access to quality sports.

Moving numbers at a population level is never easy, even with the engagement of organizations of great influence. So much cannot be controlled – national and state economies, government policies and budgets, the next paradigm-shifting technology. So many tidal waves in the broader culture matter. All that any organization can do is its best, to take actions or shape strategies in a manner that align with the interests of children, as reflected in the framework of Project Play.

Hundreds of organizations already have.

Hundreds more will be needed, as the best story possible gets told.

Tom Farrey is executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program. On Twitter, follow Tom at @TomFarrey and the program at @AspenInstSports. A deep dive on the latest SFIA data, plus additional insights, will be included in the Aspen Institute’s annual State of Play 2018 report, to be released at the 2018 Project Play Summit. The State of Play 2017 report can be found here.