Will COVID-19 send youth sports back to ‘The Sandlot’?
A little league baseball tournament during the pandemic reveals the trade-offs at the heart of the industry — which could be facing approaching a breaking point.
SPRINGVILLE — A convoy of SUVs and oversized pickups crowd the parking lot on a triple-digit Monday. Parents wheel wagons of Gatorade and ice toward the baseball diamonds at Bird Park, thickening the air with sprayable Coppertone. A few head toward the southwest field, where bugs buzz in the woods beyond the lopsided outfield fence, and where the Blaze, a team of 8-year-olds from Idaho Falls, Idaho, are about to chase a tournament title.
The Wasatch mountains form a semicircular embrace around this town just south of Provo, a landscape of contrasts. Rusted, splintery corrals decay beside perfectly manicured front lawns; aging red-brick houses stand defiant beside glistening new apartment complexes; towering American flags are rivaled only by the golden arches of a truck-stop McDonald’s. In other words, a slice of middle-America, in the throes of transformation from small town to suburban sprawl, and therefore the perfect setting for the most American tradition of little league baseball.
Overcome by the smell of rustled grass, it’s easy to understand what draws people here amid a pandemic. From the hand-burning bleachers to the dim crack of a metal bat in the grip of growing hands, it feels like an All-American summer — a scrap of innocence straight out of “The Sandlot,” the quintessential kids’ baseball movie — like something lost to COVID-19 then recovered. And it’s plainly intoxicating. It feels right. Your mind tricks you into embracing the moment, forgetting the invisible coronavirus.
But the illusion soon dissolves into anxiety. Parents sit in clusters scattered across the bleachers, while other families set up in camp chairs down the base lines. But the only mask in the whole park, it seems, is worn by the concession worker. And while there’s a rule forbidding the chewing of sunflower seeds to discourage spitting, a large, green, three-quarters-full Bigs bag occupies a seat in one dugout, with husks speckling the clay.
One game wraps up around noon. Rather than high-fiving, the teams wave their hats at each other. The Blaze are one of 26 squads who’ve come to this tournament from out of state — each with at least 10 kids and their families — from as far away as Las Vegas and northwestern New Mexico. This defies CDC recommendations for how to safely operate youth sports in the age of COVID-19, but that doesn’t seem to bother anyone.
Why does our society deem youth sports important enough to play during a pandemic that’s killed more than 180,000 people in America? Youth sports are set up this way. For many parents, an event like this is an investment in their child’s well-being and preparation for the future. On the other side, there is a business that couldn’t survive without their participation. What nobody here today is talking about is how the pandemic is upending that business model; as the virus lingers, a growing portion of parents — nearly half — are reconsidering whether they’ll bring their children back.
The current normal
“The Sandlot” was filmed just up the road in Salt Lake City and Ogden, but the movie feels old. Released in 1993, the movie’s depiction of neighborhood kids spending the summer of 1963 together at the local baseball diamond feels like something from another lifetime. An American childhood marked by pickup games and recreational competition has become a relic. The youth sports infrastructure has shifted from local, informal and affordable to national, curated and elite — a system commonly called “pay to play.”
Much of that money goes to equipment, travel and competitions — events like this delayed Memorial Day tournament, hosted by the Rocky Mountain School of Baseball, luring kids from across a region with the promise of high-level competition. This year’s edition features 253 teams, ages 7 to 17, each one paying either $525 or $575 (it varies by age group) to be here. That adds up to more than $134,000 for a three-day event.
That’s barely a taste of the broader pie. Youth sports generates nearly $20 billion a year in the U.S., with one projection valuing the worldwide industry at $77.6 billion by 2026. It isn’t as centralized and exclusive as, say, the $15 billion NFL, but there’s still plenty of cash to be made — and opportunities are distributed along those lines.
“It’s really become this increased haves vs. have nots,” said Jon Solomon, editorial director of the Sports and Society program at The Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan think tank and one of the nation’s foremost authorities on youth sports issues.
Parents who can afford it dish out dollars just to give their kid a chance at athletic success, whether that looks like going pro or just lettering in high school. Their reasons are many, from cultivation of what writer Hilary Levey Friedman calls “competitive kid capital” (a mixture of five lessons, like internalizing the importance of winning and learning to manage pressure, that parents believe are taught by youth sports) to Malcolm Gladwell’s popularization of the belief that repetitive practice is the path to success — the so-called “10,000 hours rule” — to evolving social norms about how to raise kids to the immutable quest for parental prestige. And competition itself is a kind of currency.
Friedman’s book, “Playing to Win,” suggests that children’s activities have largely become “proving grounds for success in the tournament of life,” and many parents fear without enough competition their kids will fall behind. Maybe that’s why so many parents are here, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks competitive events between teams from different geographic areas in its highest category of risk for youth sports.
But the Aspen Institute suggests there’s even more to learn from the parents who aren’t here. Its most recent survey — in partnership with Utah State University — found that only 53% of parents expect their kids to resume sports in the same or greater amount when restrictions abate. Down from 70% in May, the findings suggest, per Utah State’s Travis Dorsch, that American families are reevaluating their children’s priorities and America’s “widely accepted model of competitive youth sport.”
“Youth sports,” the Aspen Institute wrote as a lead-in to a recent webinar, “will never be the same.”
Why are parents here?
From the first wobbly toss, the Blaze can’t find the plate. Wild pitches and walks send their starting pitcher pouting and stomping off the field, his team down big early. While he sits with his arms crossed in the dugout, the silent sound of tempered expectations descends on parents and coaches. Yet their enthusiasm for the event persists.
On the bleachers behind home plate, a group of team moms sits under a blue tent. They all turn to 42-year-old Heather Thompson as a sort of spokesperson. Her son, an 8-year-old future power hitter named Isaac, is starting at first base today after they made the near-four-hour drive down from Idaho Falls. “I was not nervous to travel,” she says before highlighting her precautions against the virus. “We’re trying to stay clean, so.”
Seated closer to the Blaze dugout under a red umbrella, 36-year-old Kelsi Darrington shares the sentiment from behind white-framed sunglasses. “You still have to be cautious,” she explains while her son — short, dirty-blonde Treker — kicks up the clay around second base as his team falls further behind. “But you still have to live life, too.”
Their sons are playing in their first season of travel ball, and both had played in local rec leagues prior. Darrington laughed when asked if she missed rec ball. “No, no,” she said. “The competition isn’t as great as what you see in these tournaments.”
For Thompson, meanwhile, youth travel sports are a family tradition. “This is my fifth child out of six, and they’ve all done it,” she explained. “So this is just what we do.”
Like much of America, the Blaze shut down in March, around the time Rudy Gobert tested coronavirus-positive. “They were bored,” Thompson remembered. “They gained weight. They were lazy. They fought more at home. We just weren’t happy when we weren’t out doing things.”
About 50 teams of 380 opted out of the Rocky Mountain School of Baseball’s nontournament league, league president Rhett Udy said, “which was fine,” because he wants participants to feel comfortable. It’s anyone’s guess when — or if — they’ll be back.
But when practice started up again in late May, parents like Thompson and Darrington were thrilled. It’s familiar. It’s what they’ve learned to expect, the process they’ve come to embrace, regardless even of a pandemic. And it’s available when few alternatives are.
Free will, in America and elsewhere
A few innings later, the Blaze claw back. A few innings later, it’s the opposing South County Chukars that can’t find the plate. Isaac runs home, a smile on his face. “Go pump up your team,” Thompson yells, her saliva taking flight. For a moment the tiny droplets hang in the air, balancing like the risk and reward, the joy and the danger inherent in this game, before falling to the ground like the fallacy of free will — not in philosophical or religious terms, but as justification for a tournament like this.
The free will argument goes like this: Individuals can make their own decisions about where they want to go and what risks they’re willing to take. People who want to avoid events like this can do so. As Udy said: “Everyone here chose to be here. It’s something that everyone wants to be a part of.”
But these people will also mingle with folks who didn’t choose to be here. They’ll encounter them at fast-food restaurants, at truck stops on the drive home, or at the grocery store a week from now. During a pandemic, choices have consequences not only for individuals but also for those around them.
That fact is especially problematic at an interstate tournament. It’s a smaller version of a college football stadium packed with fans — a situation that recently prompted Emory epidemiologist Zachary Binney to observe on Twitter, “This is an understandable but mistaken gut response. ... With an infectious disease your personal choices aren’t just your personal choices.”
So far, the Aspen Institute reports no formal research has been done exploring coronavirus outbreaks tied to youth sports. It cites only a few concerning anecdotes, like an outbreak on a high school football team in Kentucky, or a St. Louis County, Missouri, executive calling youth sports “the primary source of spread in the community” (an assertion challenged by pediatricians).
And preliminary research does show that outdoor activities are preferable to indoor activities in reducing viral spread (although large crowds still increase the risk), and that kids ages 0-9 spread the virus less than adults and kids ages 10 and up. So a baseball game for 8-year-olds might be acceptable with adequate precautions.
Sweden has tried something like this, taking an outlier approach to combating the virus, pushing guidelines over mandatory shutdowns, with mixed results. That approach extended to youth soccer, which never took a break.
Mark O’Sullivan is the head of development for kids ages 8-12 at AIK, one of the country’s top soccer clubs, as well as a youth development researcher. While AIK also embraced the guideline approach, he found that most parents were committed to taking every possible precaution, but AIK still deployed enforcers to encourage people to follow the guidelines at practice and games. He believes youth sports can carry on safely during a pandemic, but not if there’s hostility toward the guidelines, not if the guidelines aren’t clear, and not by taking unnecessary risks.
For example: a travel tournament for 8-year-olds. “Wow!” O’Sullivan said at the very idea, worrying that the pressure such events would put on young players could become a “psychological ticking time bomb,” and questioning the parents’ motives. “This is the race to the bottom in full flow! … Hopefully the pandemic will help people to reflect over this.”
More than temporary
With the bases loaded, a Blaze player bops a hit right back up the middle, scoring all three runners and triggering an automatic end to the inning via a maximum-run rule of eight. They head back out to the field, trailing just 11-9. I’m sucked into the drama, but I still wonder if there’s a better way.
Some are already trying to find it.
Thomas Finlay, CEO of Charlotte Independence Soccer Club in North Carolina, came to the U.S. from Glasgow, Scotland, as an 18 year old, to play at Wake Forest. Now 48, he feels lucky and excited for the future of youth sports in America, despite a 14% drop in the club’s budget.
“For many, many years in the youth soccer structure, everybody was just plugging along in the same format, the same structure, forming teams, putting the teams in competition, tournaments, leagues, yada, yada,” he said. “And now, what’s happening is we have to be creative and flexible and pretty fluid in today’s current environment, where now you actually have to look at your business structure, your business model, and also what you’re doing with kids.”
When COVID-19 struck, Charlotte Independence adapted aggressively, even beyond safety protocols. The club has introduced at-home training programs, “good old-fashioned” social media challenges, a high school program and a physical education program for kids attending virtual school; parents can purchase certain numbers of hours in advance and drop their kids off from 9-11 a.m. on whatever weekday mornings they choose to.
Finlay suspects these will be more than temporary alterations. “I think it’s an exciting time,” he said. “And I think how we come out of this COVID-19 time period will set the tone for the next 10 years of youth soccer.”
A ‘great reset’?
At Bird Park, the Blaze watch their hopes dwindle. With a one-bouncer to the right field fence and a dropped fly ball, the Chukars build up a 14–9 lead. A maskless man walks up to the teenage umpires — and coughs on the way. Not that anyone seems to care.
All the adult spectators are enraptured in this child’s game, their blood pressure spiking as the 2-hour clock ticks away. They’ve paid good money to be here, and pandemic or not, their minds are focused on winning. It’s the defining relationship of American youth sports at work: Parents who want competition, organizers who provide it and profit, and the kids in the middle.
“When we talk about youth sports, what kids mostly want is the opportunity to be together with their friends, to be physically active and to test themselves competitively,” said Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society program. “And you can do all that in a practice setting.”
That sounds a lot like “The Sandlot” — a film that glorifies a carefree childhood, with kids playing baseball for fun and belonging rather than in search of early-onset adulthood. What makes it so endearing is almost subversive in today’s youth sports culture.
“These days too many children’s movies are infected by the virus of winning,” wrote legendary Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, “as if kids are nothing more than underage pro athletes, and the values of Vince Lombardi prevail: It’s not how you play the game, but whether you win or lose. This is a movie that breaks with that tradition, that allows its kids to be kids, that shows them in the insular world of imagination and dreaming that children create entirely apart from adult domains and values.”
But what kids want is rarely — or, at least, has rarely been — part of the equation.
The American youth sports system, O’Sullivan said, is built on the lie that early specialization is the pathway to athletic success and therefore worth the cost. “We know from research,” O’Sullivan said, “that this is a very reductionist view of player development and simply not true.”
That system incentivizes profiteering on the part of organizers; guilt on the part of parents, many of whom just want their kids to be able to play in high school; pressure on coaches, which is passed onto kids; and, ultimately, a declining youth sports participation rate.
The pandemic has further highlighted this unfortunate pipeline. “You don’t need regional tournaments right now,” Farrey said. “If you need to test your kids’ talent, just play a team that’s a year older from the local area.”
And the Aspen Institute survey numbers suggest that many parents are starting to agree. The reasons are less clear. Perhaps they’re motivated by fear of the virus, which could dissipate along with the pandemic; perhaps this forced break from the routine has given them time to reflect on the role of youth sports in their lives, or the cost; or perhaps they see their child in the Blaze pitcher pouting in the dugout, having no fun at all. Whatever the reason, “It is striking,” Dorsch told the Aspen Institute, “how quickly parents have reevaluated their priorities for their children in youth sport.”
Farrey hopes some good comes out of their reassessment; that sandlot-style ball could make a comeback, making an experience like Ebert’s description of the film — “The movie isn’t about winning and losing, it’s about growing up and facing your fears” — a more common feature of American childhood than industrial-scale drills and tournaments. “I’m cautiously optimistic that we can build a better model for sports coming out of this,” he said. “There’s this big pause that could lead to a great reset in how we deliver sports in this country.”
But Farrey also knows change in youth sports is often difficult, compromising and rare. The siren song of “normality” remains potent. While almost half of parents are worried about returning to youth sports when restrictions abate, a narrow majority are not. While many teams opted out of the season, most opted in. This tournament might be smaller than last year’s, but it’s still thousands strong. It’s all emblematic of the timeless tug-of-war between growth and preservation, progress and familiarity. The pandemic has just revealed certain cracks in the foundation, and an all-American stubbornness that has been there all along.
For the Blaze, on this particular Monday, stubborn is not enough. A late rally comes up short, sending the boys from Idaho Falls home with a 14–13 loss, but with plenty of chances to make up for it. This is already their fourth tournament this summer, and their parents were still excited about the ones to come, COVID-19 or not.
A few blocks away, State Street meets Main. On a patch of grass, in the middle of this slowly transforming city, an extra-large American flag flaps in the breeze.