Youth sports participation is up, but many kids still can’t afford to play or aren’t good enough to make travel teams. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Coaches, professional sports officials and academic researchers from around the country are gathering Tuesday in Washington for the Project Play Summit, an effort by the Aspen Institute to examine and fix what isn’t working in the increasingly high-pressure world of youth sports.

As part of the day-long conference, Project Play released a draft of its annual State of Play report, analyzing participation trends and highlighting innovative ideas to address rising costs, increased specialization and access to good coaching. Below are some highlights.

(You can watch the conference, including an appearance by first lady Michelle Obama, at 11:40 a.m., here.)

Participation levels


(Courtesy of Project Play and the Aspen Institute)

Good and bad news here. The percentage of children ages 6 to 12 who regularly play team sports increased nearly 3 percent in 2015, to 40 percent. But that’s still below 2008 levels, when participation was 44.5 percent. The chart above shows year-over-year increases in baseball, flag football, wrestling and field hockey. Soccer and lacrosse declined.

Experts say it’s too soon to know what’s driving the increases — the economic recovery, increased outreach efforts from professional sports organizations, or just more kids reaching playing age. It’s not even clear that the recovery is real. The chart still shows deep, longer term declines in basketball, baseball, soccer and football, a result of systemic problems that haven’t been fixed, including:

Money, money, money

What keeps kids from playing sports? This: $. Or maybe it’s more appropriate to say this: $$$. Here’s a sobering stat from the report: “In 2015, only 38 percent of kids from homes with $25,000 or less in income played team sports, compared to 67 percent of kids from homes with over $100,000 or more in household income.”

Why is money so important in youth sports these days?

The primary reason is the boom in travel teams, which can cost more than $2,000 a season in tournament fees, salaries for coaches, fancy uniforms and lodging. Many experts blame travel leagues for declining recreational participation rates. Kids who aren’t good enough get the message to go play video games. Kids who have ability but not the money to play on travel teams get bored in rec leagues, where the play and coaching can be uneven.

The rise of e-sports

If kids aren’t playing hoops, perhaps they are inside watching LeBron James and Stephen Curry — just not the real versions of James and Curry.

This might totally baffle anyone over 35, but kids these days (says grumpy old man) watch professional video gamers playing each other online or even on big screens in professional sports arenas. Some 51 percent of males and 20 percent of females ages 12 to 19 call themselves fans of e-sports. “E-sports aren’t really sports,” the report says, “as there’s little to no physical activity involved, but they’re branded that way, and over the past year these streamed and televised competitions have gained the attention of media companies because of their ability to attract the eyeballs of the young.”

Everyone wants to be special

Specializing in just one sport — a trend pushed by parents, hoping it increases scholarship chances — shows no signs of slowing. The report cites data showing “that the average kid between the ages of six and 17 played less than two team sports (1.89) in 2015, continuing its downward slide in recent years.”


(Courtesy of Project Play and the Aspen Institute)

Even more data has emerged showing that specialization is dangerous, causing excessive wear and tear on the body. “A 2016 University of Wisconsin study of more than 1,000 athletes at 27 high schools found that 49 percent of specialized athletes sustained an injury compared with only 23 percent of multisport athletes,” the report said.

If they could replay their youth sports days, most college athletes say they wish they had played more sports growing up — not just for injury prevention but also to be more well-rounded athletically.

The Project Play report noted numerous positive developments last year that could increase youth sports participation and reduce injuries.

Less pressure, more fun: The U.S. Tennis Association is pushing Play Days, which are short, low-pressure matches without results or rankings. Schools, parks and youth centers host the matches.

$$$ for fun: Major League Baseball is spending $30 million to introduce its Play Ball program in 140 cites around the country. “Whiffle ball, stickball, skills competitions like Pitch, Hit & Run, home run derby, and just playing catch in the backyard are at the center of the effort,” the report said, “a response to the sport increasingly being dominated by organized leagues and travel team ball that can ask a lot of families in terms of financial and time commitments.”

Sample more sports: More than 45 national sports groups, including the USTA, MLB, NFL, PGA, and NHL, signed an endorsement to encourage multi-sport play through a public service announcement.

Closing the have-not gap: Nonprofits that distribute used sports equipment to those in need are growing, the report said, citing a recent Washington Post piece on Leveling the Playing Field, a Maryland organization that has donated nearly $1.5 million of equipment to 250 sports programs. Also, the NBA relaunched a program to provide free gear and other help to community based leagues.

Targeting urban areas: The U.S. Soccer Foundation committed to build 1,000 mini-pitches by 2026, transforming vacant lots and empty schoolyards into turf soccer fields. The organization has already built 41.

Stay tuned for news from the conference.