Article Written By: Aris Alpian
Head Coach, Felician University
Why Parks Departments Are Great For Youth Sports Programs
With the cost of participation in youth sports skyrocketing across the nation, many families are being priced out of having their children take part in one of the best ways for children to develop physical and social skills.
Municipalities run many park departments, so they are generally funded by tax dollars and strive to be inclusive regardless of socio-economic standing. Even in more affluent zip codes where the cost of living is much higher than the national average, middle-income families will find themselves struggling to pay the size-able annual tuition fees many private sports organizations are known for charging.
There is also the skill level dynamic to consider, as many of these “pay-to-play” organizations are ruthless about winning and only want the best athletes within their organization.
So, the question becomes, where do less affluent and less skilled children play and participate in youth sports? Why does only a particular segment of our population get to have their children benefit from the fruits that youth sports have to offer?
Inner City Programs vs Suburban Towns
With the demise of sports leagues such as the PAL (Police Athletic League), many families are left searching for organized activities for their children to participate in after school. These programs had become a staple, especially in America’s inner cities, where volunteer coaches and administrators took the initiative to support these types of community-driven programs.
The void left behind has been a significant dilemma for educators, law enforcement, parents, and politicians alike. This void or vacuum has led to increased gang recruitment and membership in cities like New York, Newark, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and virtually every medium to a large city in the country.
The promise of belonging to something bigger than oneself has always been a lure to young men, and when sports do not fill that area in their lives, the criminal element unfortunately does.
Smaller and more suburban towns do not see this correlation as they have smaller populations and may find it easier to organize a soccer league for 6- to 8-year-olds as there may be only a hundred registrants. Parent volunteers are more likely to assist with the coaching, and officiating, while parent administrators take care of the player registration and field maintenance.
So, where does the solution come from? Grants from benefactors and large corporations are a viable possibility, but the funding is only part of the dilemma being faced.
Generally, large-size donations are tied to a project that involves a building or a field that a name can be attached to, such as “Harriet Tubman Field brought to you by Bank of America,” where the donation is not just a check being presented, but as a form of brand building for the corporation.
It ties the name to the community where the philanthropic arm can measure the impact of their dollars. However, does that address the issue of getting youth sports leagues up and running in lower-income areas?
Operating the Program
A high-end artificial turf field with shiny goalposts will surely be welcomed, but who will be utilizing these facilities in an organized manner? One solution could be for these corporate institutions to attach their brands and logos to the actual youth sports leagues and outreach programs annually. Would they be tied to any mismanagement or larger-scale issues that may arise?
The question does remain as to who is going to actively operate the programs-hence the entry of the municipal parks departments. It makes sense that a government entity that is already in place in terms of infrastructure (field maintenance staff, equipment, administrators, offices, etc.) be tasked with running the recreational youth sports programs. The funding can be a private-public partnership with individual fundraising activities on the grassroots level to the corporate donations we highlighted before.
EXACT Sports hosts hundreds of national showcase camps for aspiring college athletes around the county and they have recently launched a youth sports program that collaborates with parks departments around the county to improve the state of youth sports camps.
Alternative For the Pay-to-Play Model
So now that we have corporate sponsorship combined with municipal parks departments working together in a public-private partnership to fuel youth sports leagues and clinics in less affluent areas of our country let us explore what this endeavor looks like from the view on the ground. Registration will be open to all public and charter school children living within the geographical area to avoid overpopulation in the program and to ensure sufficient playing time for all participants.
Corporate sponsors will provide and have their logo on all the uniforms distributed, as that will be a significant incentive for their philanthropic contributions. Registration and waivers can be done through the Parks Department’s website, with all schedules, standings, rosters, and vital information easily accessible to all stakeholders.
The facilities are municipally owned, and priority will be given to these recreational programs and leagues. A small nominal fee can be attached to filter those who are really interested versus those who may only look to use it at their convenience. Officiating can be done either by volunteers or by empowering local high schoolers that play the sport to officiate as a part-time job.
One can see how seamless this could be, but one also must be realistic about challenges that may arise. By offering an alternative to the pay-for-play model rampant throughout all sectors of youth sports, communities can submit an entry and novice-level option to families that may be priced out of private “for-profit” entities. That should be the goal of these programs, inclusion. It is not about winning as much as it should be about enjoyment through participation. If many participants want to return the following season, the program will be deemed an overwhelming success.
Youth sports have always been the arena where the community came together and invested in the children and their futures. In the passing decades, the cut-throat mentality that exists in performance-level competitions such as college and professional ranks has transcended down to the youth level. The professionalization of youth sports coaches and programs has alienated many people from participating as the cost has proved to be too great a barrier for entry. Using tax-payer funds combined with private corporate sponsorships is one way to offset this trend and allow all that wish to be involved to have an avenue to do so.