Teaching my boy how to paddle
We have to capitalize on the momentum we built in 2020. (pixdeluxe/iStock)

Team Sports Are on the Decline. And That’s OK.

American kids are less likely to play in a youth sports league than ever before. But as 2020's surge in outdoor activities showed, we have a huge opportunity to get this generation moving again.

Teaching my boy how to paddle
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The struggle to pry kids away from screens can be traced back for decades, even if the specific devices have evolved. When I was young, it was television; what better way to decompress from school than with an afternoon block of cartoons and M*A*S*H reruns? These days it’s the phone; kids can kill a whole morning going full zombie mode on TikTok videos and text messages. But no matter the era or screen of choice, organized sports have always offered a healthy alternative—lots of exercise, important lessons about being part of a team, and ample time spent in loud, smelly locker rooms being uncomfortable with your awkward body in various stages of puberty. 

Even before the pandemic, however, the number of youths involved in team sports was beginning to decline. From 2008 to 2018, the participation rate of kids between the ages of 6 and 12 dropped from 45 to 38 percent, due largely to the increasing costs, time commitments, and competitive nature of organized sports leagues. And in the wake of most athletic programs getting shut down last spring, three in ten children who previously played team sports now say they’re no longer interested in doing so, according to a study from the Aspen Institute. That’s a scary statistic, especially as we emerge from an era of seven-hour Zoom-classroom marathons, which has only increased American kids’ inactivity levels. If team sports continue to fade away, how will we get children moving again, safely, so that they can still enjoy the benefits of regular exercise? The answer, if we can capitalize on the recent promising trends, is to capitalize on the growing interest in outdoor activities. 

Research by the Harris Poll in October found that 69 percent of Americans reported a heightened appreciation for outdoor spaces during the pandemic, while 65 percent said that they try to get outside the house as much as possible. Younger people have been at the forefront of the movement. A survey by Civic Science found that Gen Zers and millennials (those between 13 and 34 years old) were the most likely cohorts to say that they planned to do more outdoor activities as a result of COVID-19 related shutdowns. 

“If those numbers are right, it would be the most significant increase in people getting outside for their health and well-being that we’ve ever seen, which would be remarkable,” says Lise Aangeenbrug, executive director of the Outdoor Foundation. 

There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that indicates a huge spike in Americans’ interest in outdoor sports. You’ve probably gathered some of this yourself if you tried to buy a kids’ bike this year—there was a six-week wait just for a tune-up this summer in Santa Fe, where I live—or if you drove along a forest road looking for a trailhead with an empty parking space. But there’s also plenty of additional research emerging to bolster our belief in the trend.

This year, bicycling became the third most popular sport for kids (up from 16th), according to the Aspen Institute. Yellowstone saw more visitors in July 2020 than it did the previous year. State parks have seen a surge, too, as more families got outdoors but stayed closer to home to do so; some parks even ballooned past capacity and had to turn people away or issue warnings and direct visitors to lesser known sites. 

Sales data also gives us some insight into how families are spending their time outside now. According to numbers from L.L.Bean, sales of kayaks and family tents jumped 128 percent and 53 percent this year, respectively. Nationwide sales of camping equipment climbed to $605 million in June, a 31 percent increase from the year before.

Even better: these trends haven’t subsided with the arrival of winter and cold weather. Snowshoe sales at L.L.Bean were up 40 percent, and REI expanded its inventory of winter gear ahead of the holidays in anticipation of all-time highs in consumer demand. 

All this points to a huge opportunity. The question facing Outdoor Foundation and other organizations is how to sustain the momentum. At the most basic level, it’s just a matter of people continuing to do something they already enjoy. “When you think about what makes new habits, it’s to repeat and reinforce the experiences,” says Aangeenbrug. “And [the pandemic] has gone on long enough that if you got outside in April, because you couldn’t stand to be in the house one more minute, and you kept going outside and you kept having good experiences with your family and your kids and you did it enough, the likelihood is higher that it’s something that’s going to be a part of your life.” In other words, if your kids love getting outside to hike or climb, make sure you continue to provide those opportunities even after the pandemic has subsided.

The increased interest in outdoor recreation also presents an opportunity to diversify the participants. Stephanie Maez, Outdoor Foundation’s managing director, says the organization is now awaiting the results of research that will better help it understand this year’s outdoor newcomers, offering the chance to grow the number of kids getting outside in underserved communities. “For us it’s about identifying what those motivating factors are for new participants, and doubling down on the communities we’re currently investing in, and looking at other communities that have the need,” says Maez. 

One clear trend among those embracing outdoor recreation for the first time during the pandemic has been the desire for easy access to trails and other close-to-home greenspaces. “Our industry has an opportunity to recognize that the outdoors can be just outside your doorstep, not just faraway nature,” says Aangeenbrug. Last year’s passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, which fully financed the Land and Water Conservation Fund, could finally address the need for more hiking and biking trails, along with additional parks in places where greenspace is limited. Expanding outdoor infrastructure will go a long way toward sustaining interest levels and bringing even more people into the activities that a lot of us who have been doing these things for a long time tend to take for granted. 

No one should root for the disappearance of team sports, which provide kids with vital life lessons and help build community bonds. Still, their decline shouldn’t leave us feeling resigned to declining activity rates for another generation of kids. But we have to capitalize on the momentum we built in 2020. We have to go out of our way as individuals to make the outdoors more welcoming. Instead of mourning the loss of this season’s rec basketball league, have your kid invite a couple of friends from last year’s team for a hike. That might just spark someone’s passion—a vastly more satisfying experience than watching syndicated episodes of M*A*S*H.

Lead Photo: pixdeluxe/iStock

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