I spend a lot of time thinking about youth sports. Most of that is in my capacity as executive editor and publisher of SportsTravel. I recently celebrated 15 years with the magazine, a journey that has been and remains a delight, and one that has brought me to plenty of youth sports events over the years.
Ironically, I don’t spend a ton of time on youth sports in my own home, even though my son recently turned 13. He’s certainly participated in his share of sports over the years: He played and enjoyed soccer for several seasons, tried some baseball, and got hooked for a while on taekwondo before the pandemic’s isolation caused him to lose interest. Now that he’s 13, he’s developing other interests outside of organized sports and we’re letting him go where those interests take him, making sure he at least gets a golf club, tennis racket or Wiffle Ball bat in his hands from time to time.
I recognize that for many families, the path to organized sports continues along — and gets more challenging as it goes. But the confluence of a recent academic conference, a tour of a youth sports complex and conversations with work colleagues has me thinking even more about youth sports. And it comes at an opportune time as we have made efforts at Northstar Meetings Group and SportsTravel to help further the conversation. A key component of that was the multi-year agreement we recently announced with the National Council of Youth Sports to partner with us at the TEAMS Conference on youth sports education and advocacy.
Our agreement with NCYS was announced days after I spent two days in Colorado Springs at the Aspen Institute’s excellent Project Play Summit, where the think tank convened youth sports experts from around the country to talk about the biggest challenges and opportunities ahead. That was followed the next day by a tour of a massive new youth sports complex under construction in the small town of Windsor, Colorado — a project indicative of the need for quality venues. And in between, I had the chance to chat with two Northstar colleagues who happen to be parents whose kids are actively traveling for sports — including one family starting its journey — which put everything else I heard and saw into perfect perspective.
‘Very Hard To Not Do One Thing’
The Project Play Summit was an exercise in numbers and emotions.
First, the numbers. At several sessions, you just couldn’t miss them.
The Aspen Institute put out a challenge to the audience of youth sports experts: to have 63.3 percent of kids playing sports by 2030, the standard that the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services has set.
On the surface, the trends look good. According to Utah State University Professor Travis Dorsch, who presented at the conference, 90 percent of kids will participate in sports at some point. But those stats can be misleading. Only one of four kids currently meets weekly physical activity goals, he said.
And City University of New York Professor Bruce Y. Lee offered some auxiliary benefits of youth sports participation: If 63.3 percent of kids were active in sports, there would be a 4.2 percent reduction in obesity, 157,700 fewer cases of coronary heart disease later in life and $23.8 billion in reduced medical expenses.
The stats all point to the need to get even more kids active in sports. And if they can get active and involved in organized sports, there is no doubt they will benefit from participating.
One of the most compelling sessions of the entire conference was a panel of kids talking about what they love and don’t love about organized sports. It’s a simple concept that came up again and again: We should be listening — really, actively listening — to the perspective that youth have not just on the experience of playing but what’s working and not working for them in the ecosystem, even if the word “ecosystem” is one they’ll never utter or think about when they play.
Pepper Persley, a 12-year-old aspiring journalist who participates in multiple sports (basketball, softball, plus a black belt in taekwondo) hit on one of the main challenges in youth sports: How do we encourage kids to try different things and not feel pressure to specialize in only one sport at an early age, a phenomenon that research and anecdotal evidence suggests can lead to injuries and burnout? The problem? The youth sports ecosystem, including the time requirements for practice or pressures to make a traveling team, can make it hard not to specialize.
“I have a lot of things on my plate,” Persley said. “It makes it very hard to not do one thing. I would love it if teams see that there were other options. It’s important for kids not to be selective.” At the end, she added: “We’ve struggled to find a team that supports everything I do,” meaning that it’s hard to find a league in one sport that will give her the space to try another one.
Future Legends as the Future?
I had Persley’s comments in the back of my mind the next day, when I took a tour of a massive new youth sports complex emerging along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, about an hour north of Denver in the small town of Windsor. From miles away, you can already see the enormous inflatable roof of the complex’s indoor venue at the Future Legends complex. But it’s a sign of what’s still to come.
When it’s finished next year, the 118-acre Future Legends will have 12 baseball diamonds, 12 multi-use fields, a 6,500-seat stadium that will host a professional baseball and soccer team, a 2,500-seat stadium, 16 outdoor pickleball courts, four sand volleyball courts and a Miracle field. That’s on top of the four-acre domed indoor complex that can accommodate 16 volleyball courts and four basketball courts. There will also be a 10,000-square-foot esports arena with seating of up to 1,000 in the final phase. But of particular note are the parts of the development that are not fields: Two hotels are under construction (a Hilton Garden Inn and a Hampton Inn the complex will own), as well as a dormitory that can house 64 traveling teams. And perhaps most important, there will be 14 restaurant pads on site, 13 of which have already been contracted.
Casey Katofsky, the executive director of the complex, took me on a tour of the site, which is a work in progress. The inflatable dome is already hosting indoor events (more than 500 people, mostly adults, are already paying a monthly fee to play pickleball on the indoor courts). The smaller of the stadiums has opened as well, serving as home to the baseball and soccer teams until the larger stadiums opens. But you can see the eventual scope and the efforts being made to give players a complete experience.
“Our main goal is to provide a newer, unprecedented type of experience that combines the tourism and hospitality element with the actual sports themselves,” Katofsky said.
The hotels and the restaurants caught my eye as much as the incredible fields of play that will be built. For some context, the entire town of Windsor, which sits east of I-25 south of Fort Collins, currently has only one hotel. Soon it will have three — with two of them part of the sports complex. And the restaurants will allow teams and families the options to have a complete experience without needing to leave campus.
“Having the dormitories, the hotels on site, the restaurants on site, you’re building a mini city for youth sports,” Katofsky said. “People don’t have to travel 40 minutes away to the nearest hotel or the nearest restaurant. So all this combines into creating a newer, unique experience that we hope becomes the new norm for the youth sports travel market.”
Katofsky and his team also seem to have the right perspective on the youth sports experience, knowing when it comes to wins and losses, most of the kids and families who come to play at his venue will be in the latter category.
“If parents have two to three weeks of vacation an entire year, they’re spending it all here or they’re spending it all in another complex just like this,” he said. “So it has to be fun. If we have a 64-team tournament, I have 63 teams walking home not winning the tournament. They need to have a good time.”
Youth Sports From the Parent’s Perspective
This notion of needing to have a good time was a good reminder that we are of course talking about kids, and they don’t all need to turn into professional athletes.
This point was underscored a few days later in an enlightening conversation with two Northstar colleagues, Sally Braley and Michael Shapiro. Sally and Michael are both longtime Northstar Meetings Group editors and — for the purposes of this story — parents with kids actively involved in youth sports. It dawned on me to chat with them after seeing a social media post Michael had made about his son’s first sports-related travel experience at a soccer tournament and knowing that Sally’s two children — one of whom is in college now — have played for years with her help along the way as team manager and travel consultant.
How would they describe their experiences at different points along their families’ youth sports journeys?
Let’s start with Michael, who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His 14-year-old son recently competed in his first travel soccer tournament, which had his team playing games about 40 minutes away in the towns of Novi, Wixom and Milford.
It was the family’s first time traveling for a tournament and it wasn’t exactly what they anticipated, at least for this first time out. For starters, it was surprising to them that the games in this particular event were played in three different cities and on fields that lacked the atmosphere to suggest this was an actual tournament.
“I did assume there would be a large complex with a few fields where we would play,” he said. “I was surprised that wasn’t the case.”
Another immediate observation having followed his son to this point: The inconsistency of coaching as you move from team to team. “From what I can tell so far, it’s not incredibly consistent in terms of the quality of coaching. It depends on what you get. These are the things I’m learning now.”
Sally, however, has seen it all. Her daughter, who is now 20, started playing club soccer when she was 7. Her son started traveling at age 7 as well on a U8 soccer team. He’s now 17. Over the years, Sally, who lives in New Jersey, has played a number of roles, including master scheduler and hotel booker, a process made easier with Team Snap and other similar apps. Her kids have been playing for years and never had serious interest in anything other than soccer.
“If one of them had asked me, ‘Could I stop playing soccer and play something else,’ and if they had really meant it, we would have said sure. But they’ve been so gung-ho playing soccer.”
Michael is just entering those discussions with his son, who has talked about playing travel baseball as well. “It’s very difficult,” he said. “They’re both extremely demanding on time and schedules.”
Issues With Overzealous Parents
Another point they brought up: The unsightly parts of youth sports when it comes to overzealous parents.
Sally has seen some parents at their absolute worst at events. “As a manager,” she said, “I took it upon myself to calm parents down. We’ve had some parents that are very vocal. Some don’t come anymore because they know they’re too volatile at this point.”
It’s a topic that came up at the Project Play Summit, which included the announcement that the U.S. Center for SafeSport was launching an Emotional and Physical Abuse Toolkit to identify and respond to such behavior. A panel discussion with the center’s chief executive officer, Ju’Riese Colon, and US Youth Soccer Chief Executive Officer Skip Gilbert underscored the severity of this issue.
I know that life in the stands has been rough over the years and getting rougher. But this anecdote that Gilbert offered was a jaw-dropper: “At our national championship alone, I was spit on, I was slapped and luckily I was quick enough to dodge a punch,” Gilbert said. “Three soccer moms were involved in altercations after the game. It’s systemic.”
“At our national championship alone, I was spit on, I was slapped and luckily I was quick enough to dodge a punch.”
—Skip Gilbert, US Youth Soccer
The cost of youth sports, Gilbert said, is also contributing to the problem: “Given the costs of playing, parents often confuse that they are the general manger, they can dress down the kids in the car, they can go after the referee, they can go after the coach, they can do whatever they want so their kid at the age of 8 can get a Division I scholarship.”
Colon’s advice on diffusing this particular negative of the youth sports experience was to do what Sally has done — intervene. “The one piece we don’t focus on is the bystander,” she said. “A big part of how we change systemic culture is more people need to stand up and say, ‘Don’t do that.’”
The Benefits of Youth Sports
The need to reverse the course on unruly parents and coaches was one of many areas the Aspen Institute is focused on resolving. And there are plenty of other challenges with the youth sports ecosystem. The cost remains prohibitive for too many, raising equity concerns. Injuries are up in many cases (Sally’s daughter can attest — she’s one of many youth athletes that has already had an ACL injury). There remains a disconnect across the ecosystem about how to coordinate basic components of youth sports to benefit kids, from discouraging them to specialize early to taking the pressure off too many to ascend to the professional levels.
And yet the benefits of youth sports are out there in the open for all to see and hopefully to experience.
Katofsky at the Future Legends complex sees those benefits, even though the venue’s name itself might imply some lofty standards for the kids who play there. Whatever the situation, the complex, he said, will have something for everyone. “We want to have tee-ball, we want to have people that have never picked up a bat before. We want to have people that are parents that want to learn how to play pickleball and beach volleyball and adult softball and whatever that might be. We want to be as accessible to everybody as we can.”
For Sally, the positives of her kids competing in youth sports have far outweighed any negatives, which for her, when asked, have included rising hotel room costs, the costs of entry to tournaments and the risk of injury. “My support for them doing it comes naturally,” she said, noting she played tennis growing up as well. “I think for them or anyone who plays, it’s so formative. I love the friends they’ve made. I love what they’ve learned about people from the whole process. I loved how their skills enhanced and how their confidence changed. Overall, I think it’s been a magnificent experience.”
And while his family is just starting the travel experience, Michael feels the same way. He sees the positives for his son playing organized sports and learning how to be part of a team.
“I’m seeing those benefits and I’m glad we’re doing it,” he said. “In terms of what’s next, it’s constant evaluation about what you’re getting out of the experience.”
“In terms of what’s next, it’s constant evaluation about what you’re getting out of the experience.”
—Michael Shapiro, Northstar Meetings Group
Indeed, the experience is key. For parents, that includes listening to their kids and paying attention to how they can make that experience the most positive one it can be. For organizations, it’s a lot of the same. And for venues like Future Legends, it’s finding ways to allow for opportunities and create experiences for everyone, not just the teams that can afford to be there.
And at SportsTravel and our TEAMS Conference, the notion of constant evaluation is top of mind as well. It’s one of many reasons we continue to put a spotlight on the issue of youth sports through partnerships like the one with the National Council of Youth Sports.
There is no questioning the benefits of youth sports. But for them to continue to be beneficial, it will take considerably more thought and cooperation to get as many kids having as many positive experiences as possible.
Jason Gewirtz is vice president of the Northstar Meetings Group Sports Division and executive editor and publisher of SportsTravel.