The Fate of Post-COVID Youth Sports Reform Hinges on the Collapse of College Sports

Photo by Alyssa Ledesma on Unsplash

This guest post comes our way from Dr. Matt Bowers, my colleague on the sport management faculty at the University of Texas at Austin. Matt is a leading researcher in the field of youth sports, serving as the research director of the Aspen Institute’s Healthy Sports Index, and is a member of the science board of the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition. He was recently named a research fellow of the North American Society for Sport Management. Our consultancy, Hook and Ladder, serves organizations throughout the industry, including those in the youth sports space. You can find him on Twitter, @mattbowersphd.

College football in the Fall. As a kid, I remember thinking that, in their infinite wisdom, the powers-that-be must have decided to schedule football to be played in the Fall as the only thing to make going back to school tolerable. For millions of fans sitting at home enduring a sports-less COVID-19 quarantine, the thought of college football returning in any form in September represents hope for a return to a sense of normalcy. And, in spite of the reservations I’ve developed over the years about the safety issues and the money flowing through the sport, I’ll confess that a big part of me is desperate to see my Longhorns and my Gators take the field. College football is far from perfect – in fact, it’s a complicated mess that requires some level of cognitive dissonance to allow yourself to play along. But it’s our complicated mess and it’s been woven into the fabric of our American sports DNA.

Here’s the thing, though: it might take college football not coming back this Fall to save youth sports in America. That’s possibly a hyperbolic claim, but it’s also, quite possibly, not.

As a researcher who studies youth sports in the United States, I spend a good deal of my time pondering big, system-level questions about how we’ve arrived at the current youth sports landscape: one characterized by a growing chasm between the “haves” and “have nots”. One where both business models and athlete development models have forced parents and kids into paying more money to focus on playing fewer sports at younger and younger ages. One where sandlot and neighborhood sport experiences have been replaced by year-round structure and training. I’ve been fortunate enough to ponder these questions with folks much smarter than me through some ambitious projects, like serving as a co-research director for the Aspen Institute’s Healthy Sport Index, a first-of-its-kind attempt to create a customizable decision-making tool to help parents evaluate the relative benefits and costs of specific sport experiences, or serving on the newly-reinstated Science Board for the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition, as we look at ways to help implement the first-ever National Youth Sports Strategy.

Like researchers across any sector or industry, my thoughts over the past few months have turned to the question of “what [insert industry] will look like after COVID-19” and I’ve read so many thoughtful – hopeful, even – analyses about youth sports. The most nuanced take I’ve read thus far came from Tom Farrey, who I consider to be the most important voice in youth sports today. If you haven’t read what Tom wrote, you should stop and read it right now, both because it is objectively a better overall vision than what I am going to articulate and because the brief thoughts I’ll offer below serve more as an addendum to his ideas than as a standalone analysis. Tom lays out a sweeping blueprint for how stakeholders in all sectors of the youth sport ecosystem can contribute to a charting a more sustainable path forward.

What I don’t think Tom – or virtually anyone whose ideas I’ve engaged with on the topic over the past few months – does aggressively enough is confront the role that market forces play in incentivizing and reinforcing the behaviors we are hoping to evolve away from in a post-COVID youth sports revival. We can yearn and hope for a better future for youth athletes all we want, but unless the incentive structure that drove these undesirable outcomes shifts, we are going to coalesce right back into the same system as before. Or, in a worst-case scenario, the hardships wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic may actually exacerbate the disparities related to access for low-income families, the predominance of private clubs (who will be better-capitalized and more agile in their response) over affordable public options, and creating an even more of a zero-sum game for college scholarships and professional opportunities.

This brings me back to where we started: college football. For those of us associated with high-level FBS Division-I college athletic departments, we have been hearing athletic directors and conference commissioners sound the alarms about the financial devastation that would befall college athletics were football somehow not able to be played this fall. If the revenue shortfall brought on by the cancellation of March Madness signaled a brewing storm, the loss of revenue from the cancellation of football would be a full-blown hurricane. And, like a hurricane, it might leave a trail of destruction in its path in the form of non-revenue generating varsity sports getting cut from programs across the country. We’ve already seen a small preview of the potential effects. These trickle-down effects would be, without a doubt, heartbreaking for generations of current and future scholarship athletes in the ill-fated sports.

But.

The sudden and far-reaching withdrawal of potentially thousands of college scholarships might be the only shock to the system substantial enough to reverberate broad-scale change capable of disrupting the youth sports economy. For the past few decades, the economy of youth sports has operated through the exchange of hopes+dreams of a college scholarship for an exploitative and suboptimal youth sports experience. (Remember: I am talking at the system level, not about your kid, per se). The market inefficiency here comes in the form of parents (and kids) being complicit in misrepresenting a lottery as a high-yield investment bond. And anyone who has stood on the sidelines and watched their kid score a goal can fully understand how this can happen.

However, if the trickle-down doomsday scenario occurs, there could be a major jolt to the market. While logic might suggest that reducing supply will only drive up demand – and, in turn, the undesirable behaviors that come along with that demand – there’s also some hope that the removal of thousands of “carrots” (in the form of scholarships) might fundamentally shift the development pathways of thousands of athletes. Or, it may mean that competition gets even more cutthroat in football, boys and girls basketball, baseball, and a few other borderline revenue-generating sports, but I don’t foresee participants of all other sports shifting en masse to pursue these few sports. There may be opportunity for thousands of kids to pursue sports in a healthier form where they are more likely to accrue the benefits that can come with a healthier sport experience. Or, pessimistically, it could just mean that new “carrots” arise and that our pursuit of youth sport excellence cannot resist the power of these extrinsic reward structures.

We just don’t know. What I do know, however, is that the hopes for a re-envisioned youth sports system in the post-COVID landscape are likely dead-on-arrival unless we see some fundamental upheaval to the market forces that have shaped the current landscape, something that even COVID-19 has failed to do thus far. And what I also know is that there are perilously few paths to systemic change in the United States as a result of our institutionalized preference for market-based solutions. Could empty football fields in the fall, the ensuing financial crisis they bring about, and the collapse of college athletics as we know them be the only path to positive change in youth sports? Could that be the Big Bang that sets a new course for future generations of youth athletes? I don’t know, and I don’t know if I want to find out.

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