What hath Covid wrought?

NGBs want the kids back, but the pandemic showed parents what life could be like without the daily grind of transporting kids to practices, late night dinners, and long weekends.

As the pandemic winds down national sport governing bodies are hoping that participation numbers will recover to pre-pandemic levels. No NGB has gotten there yet--no one knows if they ever will--but some research has been done regarding changes to social participation that will inevitably affect participation in youth programs. This might help predict what's in store for NGBs in the next few months.

Most of the concern is simply about whether youngsters will return to youth sport now that restrictions are gone, facilities are open, and life goes on. But does a return to normality mean that things will return to the way they were?

Changes to the social fabric itself occurred over the past three years. Some of these changes were forced like remote work and being able to do practically everything online. Other changes that were already underway pre-pandemic accelerated during Covid. This included shrinking participation in organized activities in general and youth sport in particular, thus anyone expecting things to get back to the way they were before the pandemic might be disappointed.

Sport practitioners are focused on getting families back into youth sport programs, but they now have new factors to deal with that weren't present before Covid. These are different from those affecting growth and retention--the metrics that get NGB staffers out of bed in the morning--and are well outside the NGB's sphere of influence:

  • The worker apocalypse. Almost everyone is aware that restaurants and airlines are struggling to hire enough staff to fully reopen or bring services back to full capacity. But these are not the only industries having this problem. What the media called a worker apocalypse during the summer of 2022 affects businesses and companies across the economy including sport clubs. Clubs might not only be fretting over whether athletes will return but whether or not they will be able to run their programs given a shortage of dependable and qualified staff. Few positions in youth sport programs qualify as high paying and as we've seen in other industries employees are more willing than ever to walk away from low-paying, labor intensive jobs.
  • Fear of participation. There is a lingering reluctance to abandon all Covid protocols. Some people still wear masks, some are unwilling to join groups or crowds, and parents are wary of allowing their children to have too much contact with the wider community. Regardless of what these fears are based on they affect a portion of the youth sport cohort. Practitioners that maintain at least some Covid safety measures like disinfecting surfaces or encouraging social distancing might be able to allay some of these fears. Economic survival requires that providers dismiss any consideration of mask or vaccination mandates as a prerequisite for participation but by implementing unilateral, low-friction safety measures the fearful may be more at ease returning to sport programs.
  • Rising social vulnerability. Covid took a terrible toll on the socially vulnerable. Some populations are more susceptible than others to the adverse impacts of injury, disruption of livelihood or financial loss, or natural disasters. These are families with limited financial resources who may lack reliable transportation, and live in communities that offer few facilities or opportunities to participate in sports. During Covid these factors only got worse and now with the pandemic fading local economic resources that could otherwise spark a faster recovery are missing in these communities. These are likely to be the last places where youth sport participation recovers.
  • Costs continue to increase. Youth sport at all levels continues to get more expensive. This is not a new problem and it got worse during Covid. As a result of the worker apocalypse wage costs to sport clubs are likely to rise, and after two years of limited revenue facility rental costs will be going up too. Sport clubs have few options to meet these rising expenses other than to increase the cost of participation.

There's not much NGBs and clubs can do about these factors and they add to a somewhat discouraging outlook of youth sport participation that was either leveling off or dropping in 2019 according to a participation study conducted by The Aspen Institute. That study focused on parents' concerns and perceptions of what happened to their child’s sport participation during the pandemic.

Except for bicycling, golf, and snowboarding/skiing the average hours per week that youngsters played or practiced their sports dropped during Covid compared to pre-Covid.

Bicycling and snowboarding/skiing had insignificant reductions in participation time and participation in golf actually rose during Covid. These activities, of course, are notable because they are done outside and away from crowds so Covid precautions would not have mattered. (This may also help explain the worldwide bicycle shortage of 2020.) The overall average for participation in all sports went from 11.5 hours/week to just 7.2 hours/week.

The report surveyed sports across all contexts from free play to travel/elite club sport. Of interest to NGBs would be the data from the latter category. At the time the survey was taken (September 2020) only 40% of the parents reported that club sports were available to their children at the same level as before the pandemic.

When asked, What will you do when current restrictions due to COVID-19 are removed?, only 50% reported that they intended to participate in sport at the same level as before, 11% said they would resume participation at a higher level. The rest planned on lower levels of participation or not participating in sports anymore at all.

The full report gives valuable insight into what youth sport clients are thinking about returning to play. Most importantly, it's research done from the perspective of parents, those who pay the bills and who ultimately decide whether Junior plays at all. It should be read by all sport practitioners and is available here

Loss of interest?

Another consequence seems to be that some youngsters have simply lost interest in sports. Putting normal life on hold during the pandemic shutdowns forced almost everyone, including young athletes, to find different interests that they could pursue while adhering to various restrictions.

"Organized sports are starting to return for youth of all ages, though as of September, they are still half as active as they were prior to the pandemic. Parents are more willing to let their children play, and to spend money to support those activities, despite increasing concerns about the risks of COVID-19 transmission as well as transportation and scheduling concerns with school starting up again. Meanwhile, a growing number of youth have no interest in returning to the primary sport they played pre-pandemic – nearly 3 in 10 now." From the Aspen report. [emphasis added]

But is it just kids who have lost interest? Another quote from the same report is akin to what politicos call saying the quiet part out loud:

Some parents have said they enjoyed the time off from sports so much during the pandemic to reconnect with other family activities and take a break from the demands of organized youth sports. It remains to be seen if parents will carry that feeling over as the pandemic continues and into the post-COVID recovery."

So loss of interest is an issue for parents as well as young athletes. As I pointed out before in this letter, Junior is not solely in charge when it comes to his participation in sports, mom and dad have a lot to say about it. Prior to 2020 it was impossible to imagine parents mounting an exodus from youth sport, it's often assumed that participation starts and ends with the athlete. This is almost always the assumption in sport dropout research, for example. Additionally, the inertia supporting the daily grind was just too great for any kind of widespread 'parent dropout'. But for a brief moment Covid stopped the juggernaut.

There is a larger issue that is not the focus of the Aspen report and appears only between the lines: Youth sport takes up a lot of time and parents are noticing now more than ever. The pandemic revealed what life could be like without the endless routine of transporting kids to practices, late night dinners, and long weekends. During the pandemic some families discovered other ways to enjoy themselves. While some families are glad to be back in action others have new things to spend their time and money on now.

For clubs and NGBs the message is that their clients have changed. I'm reminded of a quote from the movie 'Field of Dreams' where the Kevin Costner character says, "There comes a time when all the cosmic tumblers have clicked into place - and the universe opens itself up for a few seconds to show you what's possible." Melodramatic? Maybe. But this is exactly what happened during the pandemic. Some parents now know that the way it was is not the way it has to be.