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Forget pro, college sports: Why the absence of youth sports might have biggest impact of all

Not even the mighty NFL generates as much money as youth sports -- but this goes well beyond that

A soccer ball in an open stadium
A soccer ball in an open stadium (Pexels/stock image)

For 11-year-old Victoria Klich, it was like love at first sight.

Back in February in the middle of a cold and dreary Michigan winter, Victoria’s father, Greg, introduced her to softball inside the garage of their suburban Detroit home.

He put a bat in her hand, she took a swing, and immediately was smitten.

“She thought it was awesome,” Greg Klich said. “She put that bat in her hand and it was a whole new thing. It wasn’t a Barbie doll and it wasn’t sitting on the rug making the animals talk. It was a whole new experience for her. She was very excited.”

Victoria was so elated, in fact, that her dad immediately bought her softball equipment, signed up for a neighboring recreation league this spring, set up a batting cage and tee in the garage and had her watch videos of Derek Jeter hitting.

From there, regular hitting sessions in the garage and fielding sessions in the driveway or yard became frequent, even in the cold weather.

“We’ve got the ChapStick, the runny nose, you name it,” Greg Klich said. “It was freezing outside.”

Dealing with the elements was worth it because Victoria was simply excited to start playing softball in a league for the first time -- and not only have fun, but create memories that can last a lifetime.

“What we want to get out of this is the discipline, the respect, listening to a coach and gaining friendships,” Greg Klich said. “I’m still friends with guys that I was on Little League with when I was 11 years old.”

But now, the potential for good times and memories has been put on hold, with games in limbo due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Throughout the country and world, players, coaches and parents involved in youth sports are wondering what will happen to a billion-dollar industry, that, if taken away, could change the landscape of the sports industry and alter futures for thousands of families.

How valuable are youth sports?

In terms of sports and when they’ll resume, much of the attention around the country has been focused on professional and college sports -- and what fans will do emotionally and for leisure without games.

Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that sports shouldn’t happen at all in 2020 without widespread testing.

It was announced Thursday that the Little League World Series will not be played this year for the first time since the organization began, because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to ESPN.

Little League International, which announced the move, also canceled regional tournaments but said the events would return in 2021.

But back to the money: From a financial perspective, while there has been and would continue to be a catastrophic economic effect without professional and college sports if the pandemic continues, the biggest hit would be if youth sports are wiped out.

In 2019, youth sports in the U.S. generated $19.2 billion, according to Research & Markets. Worldwide, the figure is $24.9 billion. By 2026, that number worldwide is projected to reach $77.6 billion.

Figures are based on revenue generated from equipment, uniforms, facility construction, travel, team membership, software and venue rental.

By contrast, the NFL, the world’s most affluent professional sports league, generated roughly $16 billion in 2018, according to USA Today.

Major League Baseball generated $10.7 billion in 2019 and the NBA nearly $8 billion in 2018, according to Forbes, so youth sports generated more money than those leagues combined.

Those numbers are tallied based on revenue streams such as TV rights deals, merchandise, ticket sales, licensing and sponsorships.

Losses for communities everywhere

Steve Sack usually spends a good majority of his year preparing and planning for three days.

The owner of Michigan Elite Volleyball Academy in suburban Detroit, an organization that’s home to 150 youth volleyball teams and has produced numerous Division I college volleyball players over the years, Sack had been, as usual, making preparations for the club’s signature event.

Every April, the club hosts “Motor City Madness,” an event that, this year, was supposed to bring in 580 volleyball teams and an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 spectators from around the country -- for a showcase that features some of the country’s elite volleyball players.

Action from the Motor City Madness volleyball tournament in 2018. The tournament takes place every year and welcomes thousands of players and spectators from around the country. It was postponed this year due to COVID-19.
Action from the Motor City Madness volleyball tournament in 2018. The tournament takes place every year and welcomes thousands of players and spectators from around the country. It was postponed this year due to COVID-19. (Keith Dunlap/GMG)

Matches are held at various facilities in the area, including at Ultimate Soccer Arenas, an indoor soccer complex where makeshift volleyball courts are brought in and scattered all across the artificial turf fields.

But after months of planning, Michigan Elite had to pull the plug on the event that was scheduled for April 17-19.

It was temporarily rescheduled for Memorial Day weekend, but has since been canceled altogether.

“It’s like having the carpet pulled out from underneath you,” said Sack, who emphasized that the worst part is the adverse affect the pandemic is having on the kids, not necessarily the financial losses. “You go from ramping up to this.”

Cancellations of such big youth sports events have a serious trickle-down effect, too.

With major tournaments such as the aforementioned Motor City Madness, surrounding hotels pencil in those types of events as some of their most lucrative time frames of the year.

Restaurants that eventually will be open for business will be emptier without gatherings after games or practices.

In the peak summer season, when many different youth and travel sports leagues are active, local gymnasiums and schools make extra money by renting out their facilities.

Communities around the country have built facilities, whether it’s baseball and softball diamonds or soccer fields, solely for the purpose of hosting youth and club sporting events that bring in sizable income to the area.

Refunds will have to be given to families depending on which point of the season their sport was in before the shutdown occurred.

Vendors who pay to have tables at such events to sell their products are now in limbo, as well.

“Some companies that have huge mortgages, leases or fixed-cost structures, they’re really going to have (to) scramble to work with their landlords and work with their vendors to allow them to stretch things out so they can survive into next season,” Sack said.

Trying to recoup and regroup

Alex and Ryan Mooney are brothers who all winter were looking forward to this summer, knowing how it important it was for their respective futures in baseball, albeit for different reasons.

Alex Mooney is one of the country’s top players in the junior class who has committed to play for Duke -- and after his high school season with Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in suburban Detroit, he was getting set for a critically important period of summer ball with his travel team.

The summer after a junior year is one where elite high school players showcase their skills for professional scouts in advance of next year’s Major League Baseball draft.

“I’m supposed to go to a (showcase) in California for three weeks,” Mooney said. “The top 80 players in the country are going there for scrimmages and games every day. That’s big for me because I know there’s going to be a lot of scouts and good players I would compete against. Hopefully, it can help me turn some heads with the scouts."

Ryan Mooney, a freshman at St. Mary’s, was looking forward to his first season of high school baseball that eventually got canceled due to the pandemic, but was even more anticipating travel ball because the summer after a freshman year of high school is a prime time to demonstrate one’s ability to college coaches.

“It’s a big summer for me personally,” Ryan Mooney said. “I’m planning on going to a lot of big tournaments that can really get my name out there.”

Now, the excitement each felt has given way to uncertainty and nervousness, not knowing how their futures will be affected. For now, showcases and tournaments the two had planned to attend this year haven’t officially been canceled or postponed. But that could easily change.

“We are just playing a waiting game,” Alex Mooney said.

The challenge is bigger for baseball players such as the Mooneys, because it’s nearly impossible to simulate live pitching during the extended break, and facing live pitching is an essential component for hitters to stay sharp.

“We are fortunate enough to have a batting cage at our house, so we try to throw to each other as much as we can,” Alex Mooney said.

The advantage youth sports have over professional sports in resuming play during the pandemic is that, while often bringing in lots of parents and other fans to communities for events, they don’t draw the tens of thousands of fans into one space that professional and college sports often do.

The disadvantage for youth sports though, is that professional and college sports have billion-dollar TV contracts that allow them still to make a good chunk of money playing games without fans.

If events resume or take place as scheduled over the summer, hosts are going to have to carefully plan out social distancing and sanitation policies.

Balls, equipment and courts will have to be cleaned frequently and meticulously.

Players won’t be able to congregate around drinking fountains. Giving high-fives might have to banned.

The safety challenges will be greater for sports that play indoors, such as basketball and volleyball, as opposed to outdoors such as baseball, softball or soccer.

“Every sport has to look at what their specific conditions are and what they need to do to minimize the risk for the kids,” Sack said. “You’re going to get the complete spectrum of people coming back into this. From parents aggressively pursuing getting their kids back on the playing field or court and (who) want their kids out there, to some saying, ‘Absolutely not. I don’t feel safe.’”

Of course, given the financial implications at stake, youth sports organizations all across the country will gladly plan for unprecedented restrictions if it simply means the games can go on and the blow to a multi-billion industry can be lessened.

“It’s a big hit to the local economy,” Sack said. “Anytime you can’t bring in 10,000 to 12,000 people into an area, a significant amount of business gets lost.”

And it also means there are a significant number of lifetime memories that can’t be made.


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