Industry Insights

5 Takeaways About the State of the Youth Sports Industry from NextUp 2019

By Jamie Hancock
December 17, 2019
3 min

The youth sports industry—yes, it’s now officially an industry—convened recently at NextUp 2019, a LeagueApps-organized event created especially to address its needs and concerns. After those two action- and information-packed days, LeagueApps President Jeremy Goldberg had some thoughts:


1.  Those this-is-just-a-hobby days are over.


The youth sports industry is “professionalizing.” Of course, this shift has been taking root for years—which is why we created LeagueApps—but the level of engagement at NextUp 2019 made it clear that youth sports organizers are aware of the need to get serious. Toward that end, they obviously crave programs and events that speak specifically to their interests and needs. They can count on us to offer more content and forums that do just that.


And, yes, everyone is well aware that the idea of “professionalized” youth sports can evoke a negative reaction, especially where the athletes are concerned. But from what I see the industry is ready to reclaim the word. Done right, professionalization will benefit everyone—players, organizers, and parents, too.


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2.  Successful league organizers know they can’t figure it all out on their own.


One by-product of the new professionalization is a growing hunger among industry leaders for insights that can make themselves, their players, and their leagues better. At the conference, we saw many instances of knowledge sharing—sometimes across regions and sports—that led to “aha moments” that will surely make an impact down the line. For example, I eavesdropped on a fascinating conversation among the team behind Pro Skills Basketball in Charlotte, NC, the Californians of FORZA1 Volleyball, and an NBA executive. The subject was mindfulness and mental performance, and now that powerful trend in the pros is going to find its way to the kids.


3.  Youth sports organizers navigate business challenges just like any other small- and medium-enterprise owners.


The same issues keep all entrepreneurs up at night. If they’re not thinking about how to recruit and train staff or develop a positive culture or leverage data, they’re pondering scalability or new revenue streams or customer retention. Sounds familiar, right? It’s why the savviest youth sports organizers are reading the same books and listening to the same podcasts making the rounds in Silicon Valley.


4.  The biggest challenge we face is keeping the “youth” in youth sports.


Former Duke and NBA star and current Miami Heat exec Shane Battier called out the elephant in the room: 70% of children leave organized sports by the time they’re 13 years old. What do we need to do to keep kids engaged in the programming? The answer lies within new innovative ideas and models. Therefore, organizations must continue to evolve—a concept that was heavily embraced by the solutions-oriented attendees at NextUp.


Take Overtime co-founder and CEO Dan Porter, who is reimagining the sports network, an ESPN for the next generation. Or look at eSports, with its highly interactive, cutting-edge paradigm for its leagues and tournaments. Perhaps most important, as it is still largely kid-driven, eSports has thus far steered clear of the intense parental pressure that many other youth sports participants experience.


5.  With great reward comes great responsibility.


As one-time New York Giant Tiki Barber reminded the audience in a roundtable titled “Why Sports Matter,” youth sports organizers and coaches have a chance to make a tremendous difference—on a child’s life, foremost, but also on the broader community. You don’t (or shouldn’t) enter this industry just to make bank; the job is mission-driven. In what is today an arguably divided society, organizers are uniquely situated to bring people together, and to promote accessibility, high moral standards, and accountability once they do.


And so, we’ll conclude here the same way we began NextUp 2019—with one of our all-time favorite sports quotes:


“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to the youth in a language they understand.”Nelson Mandela

Let’s push youth sports forward—together.