Clubs are the key to getting youth sport back to normal

No one knows if the pandemic has changed youth sport culture yet. But if we are to get back to 'normal' then sport clubs must be recalled to life.

Useful links

This article, Retention and training age takes a deeper look at what investment means in a youth sport context.

The Aspen Institute State of Play annual report discusses some interesting pandemic sport research that may help clubs and families get back on track as things return to normal.

It's been over a year since the Covid-19 pandemic put most organized recreational activities on hold. Youth sports were paused for months only to start and be shut down again. Some areas went through several of these cycles.

We witnessed a lot of online innovation over the past year but sport is not easy to do virtually. The skeletal programs that sport clubs offered mostly benefited invested athletes. Convincing those less invested that maintaining membership in a club that worked out online was a real challenge. Consequently these families found less expensive ways to stay active.

The popularity of solo exercises like walking and cycling increased. Remember the bicycle shortage of 2020? As pandemic restrictions ease, many in the youth sport industry are hoping for a return to normal and that many of these less invested families can be lured back into club programs. The question is what will youth sport look like over the next year or so?

The short-term impact of lengthy shutdowns on the youth sport industry will be felt through fewer registered athletes, the number of clubs gone out of business, and coaches looking into other careers. The hope is that these numbers will be small and that sports will recover quickly. How clubs react in the coming months will determine the long-term sports impact of Covid-19 and perhaps reinforce the developmental framework against future social interruptions.

I've written previously about the role of clubs in national sport development. As youth sports begin to open up again, whether or not they return to previous levels of participation will depend mostly on what clubs do over the next several months.

The club itself as the financial, organizational, and sometimes social unit, that both builds sport within a country and holds it together through direct involvement with local athletes and coaches needs proper development strategies and more support from [national governing bodies] NGBs.

As unbelievable as it may sound, some NGBs act as if clubs were created to serve the national body when, in fact, the opposite should be true. A sport thrives on a solid club system and national bodies should do everything they can not only to support their clubs but to encourage creation of more clubs throughout the country.

Clubs have two options in getting things up and running again. First, they can try to build back to what they had before by doing the things they've always done and waiting for families to return. If a club was successful before the pandemic then there might not be anything wrong with this strategy, but consider that the culture in which youth sport thrived a year ago may have changed. Families who have not been involved long enough to become invested in the sport may have found something different to spend time and money on during the pandemic. Maybe youth sport is no longer on their radar.

The second option, which I think is better, is to focus on the club itself by working to make it stronger as a business, thus less likely to suffer as much if something like a pandemic strikes again.

Focus on the business

This may sound like heresy but emphasizing the technical aspects of the sport such as training, competitions, and elite performance are not the right priorities for clubs right now. Instead, clubs should focus on business practices that will encourage previous low-investment families to return to the club, attract new families, and strengthen overall business operations. This includes things that all businesses have to address:

  • Marketing. Does your club operate as if it's a state secret? Too many sport clubs rely on word-of-mouth to attract new members. This is part of marketing but it should never be your entire plan. Marketing is not free (although in some forms it can be) but it is a lot easier than many think. Remember, you're marketing primarily to families, not potential athletes. Figure out what kinds of sport opportunities families want for their children. Many new families are not looking for competitive sports, not yet anyway.
  • What is your product? Understand why families join your club. Getting invested families back i.e. those with children who have already achieved some level of success in the sports you offer is different than attracting non-invested families who may be more interested in fitness, physical literacy, or group activities.
  • Customer service. How do customers or potential customers contact you? Do you return phone calls? Emails? Is your website up to date? Clubs should maintain a reliable single source of information through their website. Note that Facebook is not a website. The key to successful use of all passive online media (websites, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) is regular updates. If visitors to your online properties are greeted by content that's old it's not doing your club any good and signals poor customer service.
  • Financial management. Unfortunately sport clubs are often the least financially healthy entities in the local business community. They see themselves as service organizations rather than businesses. Sound financial management is important for long term success and clubs should seek professional help in setting up their financial infrastructure.

Clubs create the environment where youth sport happens

Clubs are the most important link in the sport development chain. I know that some of my former coaching colleagues will disagree but without the environment provided by clubs most sport development simply couldn't take place. Of the other links, national governing bodies (NGBs) provide the overall administrative layer for the sport and coaches actually deliver the nuts and bolts of the sport. NGBs will emerge relatively unscathed from this pandemic. Many coaches, on the other hand, have lost income or jobs.

But clubs create the environment where youth sport happens. NGBs would be meaningless and coaches would find far fewer jobs without a strong club system. For our sports to survive the club system has to be recalled to life because this is where sport thrives, indeed this is how sport thrives.