During the pandemic, Milwaukee shut down most organized sports for kids.
“You couldn’t use parks, you couldn’t use gyms, you couldn’t use school facilities,” said Kate Carpenter, director of a nonprofit youth soccer organization.
But not everyone was sidelined.
“Who have been the ones that have been playing the whole pandemic?” asked Niki Wendt, recreation manager for Appleton’s parks department. “The ones that can pay the money.”
The pandemic exposed — and likely worsened — issues in the U.S. youth sports industry, in particular a growing divide between the haves and the have-nots.
The $19 billion industry — which directly affects more people than any other sector of the overall sports ecosystem — navigated the pandemic with a checkerboard of rules, enforcement and adherence by parents, coaches, officials and athletes. Some states banned youth sports, some paused them, others barely missed a beat.
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As vaccinations expand to include younger people and as the crisis recedes, club and travel sports — the industry’s fastest growing sector — could return to full force this summer, with hundreds of tournaments across Wisconsin and the country, drawing thousands upon thousands of young athletes and their families.
Jackson Gill, 14, a goalkeeper from Madison, said he’s excited to return to his club soccer team. “I really like the energy of the sport,” he said. “It’s just fun.”
The benefits of sports are well-documented: Fitness, teamwork, discipline, social skills.
The youth sports expansion, however, has also brought concerns. Among them: A decline in participation among children from lower-income families, the most vulnerable for health problems; quixotic pursuits of college scholarships; and a 148% increase in ACL injuries among 14- to 18-year-olds over the last 10 years.
Many say the model in this country is broken and that as we emerge from this health crisis, we have reached a turning point, an opportunity to reshape youth sports and address the concerns.
Tionne Irving of Milwaukee has been playing basketball since he was in the second grade.
“It’s a very important part of my life,” said the 18-year-old, who plans to play recreational basketball in college. “It keeps me … believing in something.”
But not during the pandemic, when sports in the city were shuttered.
“It created a different person,” his mom, Terrece, said. “He has been less active, just not being involved in anything.”
Terrece Irving said the lack of focus has left Tionne with “a lot more free time on his hands, which gets him into a lot of goofy trouble.”
Tionne and his two siblings have spent many hours playing and watching basketball, and hope to return to the world of sports this summer. Tionne, for instance, plays in the Milwaukee Cream Skills basketball league, which plans to reopen for in-person practices.MC
Sports was once the great equalizer. That has changed.
“COVID has shown how totally inadequate it is for so many people,” said Roger Quindel, whose nonprofit Milwaukee wrestling club, City Kids, is working to address inequities in the sport.
As for-profit youth sports grow, some community-based sports are proceeding cautiously — or struggling.
In Milwaukee, for instance, the recreation department has replaced summer youth baseball leagues with clinics. For older children, ages 14 to 18, Milwaukee Recreation will continue to offer basketball and soccer leagues, but will have fewer teams due to COVID-19 protocols.
Tony Costa, president of North Central Little League, which includes the west side of Milwaukee and Wauwatosa, said his program faces “a challenging future.”
In 2014, North Central had approximately 800 players. That dipped to 450 in 2019, and this year there are only 280 signed up.
The pandemic apparently has hurt recreational soccer more than the more competitive club/travel level.
Ben John of Rush Wisconsin Soccer Club said statewide recreational soccer leagues lost as much as 60% of their players in the last year, while the club/travel levels dropped only 10%.
John said it will likely be more difficult for the volunteer-based recreation organizations to rebuild than it will be for the for-profit clubs, many of which have full-time staff.
The disparities between for-profit and nonprofit sports existed before COVID-19. But the concern is that the gulf will widen.
Among more affluent families, youth sports participation is rising. For poorer households, it’s declining.
The Sports & Fitness Industry Association and the Aspen Institute reported in 2019 that 22.7% of children ages 6 to 12 from households earning less than $25,000 a year played a sport “on a regular basis.” That’s down from 33.8% in 2012.
Compare that to 44.3% of kids in 2019 from homes with incomes of more than $100,000 playing sports.
The 2019 numbers for the 13- to 17-year-old groups are similar, with only 28% of kids from households earning less than $25,000 playing sports, while 47.3% of kids in the category of households with incomes over $100,000 did so.
Renad Jaraba, a single mother in Milwaukee, spends many weekends at wrestling tournaments and practices with her five sons.
Finances, however, have been an issue for the family.
Her older son, Adam, 21, could not practice at the private gym when he was in high school because they couldn’t afford the fees.
“He still resents the fact that he wasn’t able to go,” Jaraba said.
Instead, he participated in the City Kids wrestling program because it was free.
Jaraba said her next oldest son, Layth, 17, had to get a job at Pick ’n Save to pay the $175 monthly wrestling gym membership. He worked five days a week for four hours a day last summer.
“I made Layth get a job to pay for it because I couldn’t afford it when Adam was younger,” Jaraba said. “I wanted to make it fair.”
“It’s a lot,” she said. “But my son is so passionate about it.”
For other families, this financial barrier can be too much to overcome.
Children 6 to 18 from low-income households are six times more likely to drop out of athletics for financial reasons than those from higher-income households, according to a survey from the Aspen Institute and Utah State University’s Families in Sport Lab.
Participation could drop even more: 30% of children who played a sport before the pandemic are now no longer interested in participating, according to Aspen’s national survey, published in October.
The concern is that those who have dropped sports will be those from lower-income households.
And some fear they will never return.
“The divide could only get worse,” said Marquette University professor Christopher Simenz. “And it’s magnified in a place like Milwaukee, which already has the segregation divide by race and ethnicity and by socioeconomic status.”
So what is lost if some kids don’t have access to organized sports?
A 2020 study from the Vanderbilt Medical Center and the Medical College of Wisconsin showed that adolescents who participate in team sports “are more likely to excel at cardiovascular fitness and endurance and demonstrate lower body fat percentage.”
The study also found that those kids have higher self-esteem, less depression and anxiety and get more social support from friends and family. They also do better academically.
Jomar Matos, 15, of Milwaukee has been playing sports since he was 8 and has been wrestling with City Kids for more than a year.
“I’ve lost 50 pounds in the past year,” he said. “Overall, it gave me a lot more strength and confidence within myself and helped me better myself health wise and mentally.”
Young athletes grow up to be active through their lives. The National Academy of Athletics reports that those who played sports between the ages of 9 to 18 were six times more likely to pursue athletics into adulthood.
Health benefits significant
The health benefits are significant for all kids, but arguably are needed more in places such as Milwaukee.
Out of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, Milwaukee County ranks 70th in both health outcomes and health factors, according to the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. Health outcomes measure length and quality of life, while health factors account for things that can improve health, such as access to education, quality clinical care, healthy food or affordable housing.
Milwaukee County falls well behind its surrounding counties. While Racine ranks 61st in outcomes and 58th in factors, the remaining three counties immediately surrounding Milwaukee — Ozaukee, Washington and Waukesha — rank in the top six in both categories.
In the city of Milwaukee, the poverty rate is 25.4%, highest in the state.
These differences are most stark between Milwaukee County and Ozaukee County to the north, which ranks first in both health outcomes and health factors.
Ozaukee has a median household income of $90,400 compared to Milwaukee’s $53,500, and a child poverty rate of 4% compared to 24% in Milwaukee. Compared to the state’s overall numbers, Milwaukee ranks significantly worse than Wisconsin averages, while Ozaukee ranks significantly better. Life expectancy in Ozaukee is 82.1 years, roughly five years longer than in Milwaukee.
Meanwhile, public school physical education classes have been on the decline nationwide. Only 3.8% of elementary, 7.9% of middle schools and 2.1% of high schools provide daily physical education (or its equivalent) during the school year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a decline of roughly 30% from 20 years ago.
“It’s not that these communities are ‘less than,’ the problem is that they are underserved and the programs are underfunded,” said Carpenter, executive director of Milwaukee Scores, an after-school program that uses soccer to help teach social skills, teamwork and academics to city kids. “So that’s a reflection of … often being sort of underserved, not on the coaching commitment side, but on equipment and environment, typically.”
For many, the benefits go beyond the physical.
Nigel Harvey, founder of Cream Skills, a Milwaukee basketball league that also teaches entrepreneurship, said he has seen the transformative power of sports.
Harvey works with many struggling kids and their families, and says the program’s discipline can improve their communities. Harvey grew up in Pittsburgh and graduated from Milwaukee Area Technical College before he started organizing basketball tournaments in West Allis.
“(Sport) provides a place for our youth to feel like they’re a part of something, especially if they’re not getting that at home,” Harvey said. “It increases their social development, their mental health, and emotional development plays a huge part.”
Zachery Lavoe, 11, has played football at Milwaukee’s Journey House, a community center in Milwaukee’s south side Clarke Square neighborhood, since he was 6. He says he values the competition, the conditioning and the coaching, but most of all he says he values the relationship.
“We consider us more than just a team,” he said. “We consider us like a family.”
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Travel sports arms race
For decades, non-scholastic youth sports were a loosely organized pursuit, with pickup games at neighborhood parks and local leagues run by recreation departments, Little League, Pop Warner and other community-based organizations.
Then, in 1997, Disney opened the 220-acre Wide World of Sports Complex on former wetlands in Orlando, Florida, drawing young athletes and their families from across the country to its tournaments — and, by design, its hotels, restaurants and theme parks.
The travel sports arms race was launched, creating a booming business that continues to grow.
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“Youth sports will be one of the very first things to come back,” said Susan Eustis of Wintergreen research, a marketing company that tracks the industry, which she estimates could be valued at $33 billion by 2022. “We predict a huge surge.”
It’s not just Florida. It’s now nationwide.
“Parents will spend an inordinate amount of money on their children because each child is going to be the next LeBron James,” said Andy Cook, mayor of Westfield, Indiana. “And if you don’t believe me, ask their parents.”
“So we took all this, put it in a pot and came up with a location and we built one of the largest youth sports complexes in the country.”
Westfield’s $49 million Grand Park campus — owned by the city and opened in 2014 — was built over 400 acres of former cornfields and features 26 baseball and softball diamonds, 31 fields for soccer, football and lacrosse as well as two sprawling indoor venues.
On a busy weekend, the complex can draw as many as 30,000 visitors.
In Wisconsin, meanwhile, there are roughly 30 public and private sports complexes that cater to the youth sports tournament market.
The biggest is Woodside Sports in the Wisconsin Dells area, which incorporates three venues that can accommodate up to 450 youth tournament teams on a summer weekend. On the second weekend of April, the complex was buzzing with soccer, volleyball and baseball tournaments that drew thousands of players and their families.
Woodside is hoping for a strong 2021, especially from June to August.
“It gets pretty crazy in those three months,” said Mikey Fadness, Woodside’s director of sports. “For families, these are more than just tournaments. They have become experiences.”
For these experiences, the price can be high. Many club teams, which often play year-round, typically charge anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 in annual fees. The overall costs can total as much as $8,000 to $10,000, depending on travel, equipment and — if a family pays for it — expensive private training.
“You have to pay so much money now to have a kid play competitive sports,”
said Tammy Krez, a mother of three young athletes who lives in Madison. “It seems if you want to have any success in sports, you’re forking out a lot of money.”
The financial differences between for-profit and nonprofit sports predated COVID-19 — one example is facilities.
While Milwaukee Public Schools and the parks department have renovated or, at least, maintained its fields and gyms, the city cannot compete with the new multi-million-dollar athletic complexes and stadiums and arenas in the suburbs and outlying areas.
“It’s almost heartbreaking to hear young kids say, when they would go play in Wauwatosa, or up at a field at a university, ‘Wow, how come they get nice fields and we don’t?’ ” said Carpenter of America SCORES Milwaukee.
Wendt, Appleton’s parks director, says she sees most players leaving recreation leagues and moving to travel teams around the fifth-grade level. And often for the wrong reasons.
“It should go back to asking the kids if that’s what they want,” she said. “And some parents aren’t doing that. And you know why? Because the parents want to do it. … They want to hang out at the hotels, partying on the weekends. That’s this elephant in the room that nobody addresses.”
Also fueling youth sports’ growth is the chase for the elusive college scholarship.
A 2019 study by Harris Poll and TD Ameritrade found that 50% of parents with kids in sports said they were “hopeful” their child would get a college athletic scholarship, while 20% of those said they were “certain” of it.
And 80% said they expected that scholarship to cover 50% or more of college tuition.
Every year, NCAA Division I and II schools award nearly $3.6 billion in scholarships.
But only 2% of high school athletes ever play college sports at those top levels.
And only 1% of those who get scholarships get full rides, primarily football and basketball players. The rest get deals that might only cover a small percentage of a college’s costs, many less than $5,000 a year.
“If a scholarship is your motivation, the economics don’t make sense,” said John of Rush Wisconsin, which is part of Rush National, one of the largest soccer clubs in the country, with approximately 45,000 participants.
At the high school level, summer tournaments across the country are recruiting showcases, and many promote their events by listing the college coaches who are scheduled to attend.
Some of these elite tournament teams are true all-star squads. Others are private club teams that travel to tournaments but are open to any families willing to pay the costs.
The bigger elite-level youth sports become, the more magnified the industry’s problems will be — and the more difficult it will be to solve them.
Look no further than how much is invested in and dependent upon the youth sports business.
Many parents — the consumers — do not have enough information to guide them when choosing a coach or a team or a league, or when deciding when the risks outweigh the benefits.
And as the club/tournament sector continues to expand, luring away more kids and families, the harder it could be for community-based recreational sports programs to succeed.
Author Michael Lewis, whose recent book “Playing to Win” examines his experiences as a father in the highly competitive world of girls softball, calls it
“a broken marketplace.”
“You can only look at it like a market for addicted drugs,” Lewis said during an Aspen Institute summit on youth sports in 2020. “The behavior of the consumer is a bit like that — endless supply of anxious parents willing to cough up whatever it takes to give their kids an edge in this hypercompetitive world in a mix of toxic and benign actors.”
About this project
Tim Bannon, an independent journalist, is examining health and safety issues surrounding the growing youth sports industry during a nine-month O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism at Marquette University.
He is being assisted on the project by student researchers Amanda Parrish and Margaret Cahill. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has been a partner in the project.
Marquette University and administrators of the program played no role in the reporting, editing or presentation of this project.