Youth Sports Are Back As Organizations Prepare for A Challenging Winter Season

There is some optimism among youth sports organizers as fall sports seasons have taken shape, but there is real concern as cooler weather and indoor sports approach in the age of COVID-19. But at least there has been some progress in late summer and early fall.

Those are the key takeaways from an ongoing effort to gauge the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on youth sports participation by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA). In the second of a series of webinars called  "Youth Sports’ Recovery Revisited: A Look at the Latest Data," SFIA brought together two observers – Alex Silverman, senior reporter, Morning Consult, and Evan Brandoff, CEO and co-founder, LeagueSide – to take a look at the findings of their research over the summer to gauge sports participation trends.

(Note: The data is drawn from a survey of 482 youth sports parents by Morning Consult in early July, along with a similar survey of youth sports organizations by LeagueSide in June-July of 137 organizers.)

The optimism can be found in the responses that sports organizations were a lot more confident they will ultimately be able to survive the pandemic. In the first survey in May as the impact of the coronavirus was just being felt, fully half of sports organizations were concerned they would not survive. In the research done this summer, only 29 percent still have that concern.

“Close to 80 percent of youth sports organizations returned to play for the fall season,” reported Brandoff, who pointed out that unfortunately 20 percent of organizations that were not able to return were in lower income programs. “But overall, less sports organizations are at risk of shutting down.”

The other major concern is going indoors for winter sports, which will pose an even greater challenge to youth sports organizers. “It is highly unlikely we will have sports as we know them this winter,” said Brandoff, who urged organizers to start now to get creative how they can potentially run their sports. “Maybe it won’t be the same programming as last winter, but somehow keep kids active because that is so important.”

Among the other findings:

  • It turns out that some youth sports parents have a tolerance for risk, with 40 percent agreeing that the benefits of participation outweigh coronavirus risks. Almost half (47 percent) of parents with children ages 6-12 believe the benefits of their children participating outweigh the risks.
  • Even the virus’s impact on youth sports participation has been politicized — 58 percent of Republican parents say the benefits of their children playing sports outweighed the risks. Only 30 percent of Democratic parents say the same — and 59 percent of Democratic parents say the risks outweigh the benefits.
  • Per the Morning Consult survey taken during the summer, 46 percent of parents whose children typically play fall sports planned to enroll their kids.
  • Before COVID, average time per week spent playing football decreased from 16.6 hours per week to 9.5 hours. For soccer that number decreased from 11.1 to 6.3 hours; basketball, 14 to 7.9 hours; and baseball from 14 to 7.6 hours.
  • The majority of programs are limiting attendance and enforcing social distancing among spectators — and parents for the most part agree with those efforts. Parents favor Restricting Sharing of Equipment (78 percent), Limiting Number of Spectators (76 percent) and Sterilizing Equipment Regularly (87 percent). Parents also favor Requiring Masks for Children While Playing (56 percent), although only 27 percent of organizations are mandating masks for players.
  • Among potential barriers to resume sports when restrictions are limited, according to The Aspen Institute State of Play 2020, are Fear of Illness of the child (64 percent now compared to 50 percent back in May) and parent (59 percent compared to 45 percent). This fear has increased, not decreased, over time and indoor winter sports will pose different and more difficult challenges amid the pandemic. “This is disconcerting for those who have a stake in youth sports,” said Silverman.
  • Almost all baseball and softball programs are planning on having a spring season in 2021, according to Brandoff, assuming there is no step backwards. “Fall ball has been successful and they are hoping to build off of that and now we have more data that will allow for play in the spring,” he said.

Finally, there was research in September that indicated 29 percent of kids surveyed said they are not interested in playing sports again. This is up from 18 percent back in May. It seems they have found something else to do, with e-sports and other non-athletic pursuits leading the way.

“The trend that scares me the most is the trend of children not being interested in playing sports when restrictions are lifted,” said Brandoff. “If kids don’t play sports for a year, they never get back into it.”