At their core, youth sports are local. Granted, our children’s games may feel that way less and less lately, as the costs to play rise and year-round schedules intensify. Too many children get priced out of sports in their communities or believe sports aren’t for them.

New federal government data on sports participation showed that 54% of children ages 6-17 in the U.S. played on a sports team or took lessons in 2022, down from 58% in 2017. Just 33% of children living in poverty played sports in 2022, compared to 41% among kids whose family incomes were between one and two times the federal poverty level. Participation was higher, 71%, among the wealthiest families.

Given the physical, social, emotional and academic benefits that can come from sports, the federal government set a goal of 63% participation by 2030. Sports providers who demand more time and money from families — which creates unnecessary pressure on children — won’t accomplish this goal.

Historically, affordable, quality, and local sports programming has been the backbone for kids to play sports. And it can be again.

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The Aspen Institute’s Project Play Summit is currently in Baltimore as part of our national effort to find solutions for more children to access quality sports opportunities. Baltimore was home to our first community State of Play report in 2017 that assessed the barriers and opportunities Baltimore uniquely faces. In the years since, local organizations and leaders have taken significant steps in Baltimore to improve sports access for children.

City government invested more in Baltimore City Recreation and Parks to improve recreation centers, playgrounds and pools, and the department added new sports options. Additionally, Under Armour invested in schools and student leadership programs. Schools started a centralized middle school sports program so children are exposed to sports earlier.

Where gaps exist in Baltimore, others fill them. The Southwest Sports and Fitness Alliance, a neighborhood-based nonprofit, plans to reopen and manage Poppleton Recreation Center, which was closed for nearly 20 years in one of Baltimore’s most disenfranchised communities. The Baltimore Ravens and the Stephen and Renee Bisciotti Foundation announced a $20 million donation in 2023 to create the Baltimore Ravens Boys and Girls Club at Hilton Recreation Center.

The Southwest Sports and Fitness Alliance, a neighborhood-based nonprofit, plans to reopen and manage Poppleton Recreation Center. (Courtesy of Eric Baker)

Baltimore SquashWise is turning an abandoned building into a play hub. Unmatched Athlete allows LGBTQ+ youth and allies to play sports together. Beat the Streets-Baltimore serves youths with wrestling and individualized academic support. Leveling the Playing Field has distributed $4.8 million worth of donated sports equipment to the greater Baltimore community.

The list of organizations helping kids access sports in Baltimore goes on. While operating independently, they share a common belief: Sports should be a fundamental right for all children, regardless of race, income, gender or ability.

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Across the country, youth sports are a messy, siloed space, even at the local level. Club and school coaches don’t communicate well. Programs fight to use facilities. Efforts to reach underserved populations are hit-or-miss.

But more city and county governments are now paying closer attention to how sports in their communities are organized and made available to young people. Project Play recently released a new resource to help cities and counties better organize and support youth sports. Effective solutions for local governments include:

Some local governments are creating athletic councils to balance competing interests and close equity gaps. Some cities, such as Philadelphia, are connecting youth sports providers through funding to build a better ecosystem with collaboration.

No silver bullet exists to increase the national youth sports participation rate to 63%. Trained coaches, rational parents, transportation modes, financial costs, health and safety concerns and the quality of a youth-centered experience are all important factors.

But make no mistake, community matters tremendously. More access will happen when more leaders realize that the status quo — a highly commercialized and unregulated youth sports system — no longer meets the needs of the children they’re trying to develop as people.

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We’ve reached that tipping point. Now, it’s time for communities to reclaim what it means for children to play sports.

Jon Solomon is Community Impact Director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program and its Project Play initiative. Free registration is available here to watch select livestream sessions of the Project Play Summit on May 15.

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