Industry Insights

Why We Need to Bring Back Recreational Youth Sports

By Melissa Wickes
February 22, 2024
3 min

In the last few years, the world has finally begun to see youth sports for what it really is—an important life experience that can help shape kids into successful adults by teaching them invaluable lessons about sportsmanship, teamwork, grit, and more. 

It’s no surprise that this mindset shift has not only led to an increase in youth sports participation, but of course a growth in the valuation of the industry. The global market for youth sports was estimated at 37.5 billion dollars in 2022, and expected to grow at 9.2% until 2030.

The value of the industry is so apparent that more companies are investing by way of real estate ventures, philanthropy, or direct investments, with the hopes of significant financial returns. 

Now, this should all be a great thing, right? More money pouring into the youth sports industry means more opportunities to play, more opportunities to play means more kids playing, right? Well, not quite. This rapid growth of the industry is contributing to rising costs of participation and pricing out many families—barring kids from important opportunities to improve their physical health, develop social-emotional skills, build relationships, and more. Not to mention, as sports become more expensive, they are becoming more professionalized and more intense—scaring a lot of kids away.

Youth sports are increasingly privatized, and families must pay to play through fees, uniforms, equipment, travel costs, and other expenses, said Jon Solomon, the editorial director of the Sports & Society Program at the Aspen Institute, told

Despite all of this, kids need (and deserve) to play—and that’s why so many are up in arms about the need for recreational sports right now. 

Competitive vs Recreational Sports

The difference between competitive and recreational sports is that competitive players participate in tryouts and are selected and rostered based on their performance, whereas recreational players are not. 

Recreational sports are often where kids find their love for a sport, sans the pressure of being great or advancing to some next level. However, more and more families are leaving recreational sports programs for travel sports. 


Well, there are a number of reasons. One, as professionalized youth sports experiences grow in popularity, the perception that recreational sports are “giggles and participation trophies” has grown—which is not true. Additional reasons include pressure to keep up with other families, changing interests, a growing interest in STEM, the pandemic, and of course, economic hardship.

When you pressure a kid to play in a league or a team that is too intense or competitive for them, you increase the chances that they’ll never want to play a sport again. 

This video where Derek Heywsiver, a 9-year-old, announces his “retirement” from youth sports, is a great illustration of the pressure many kids are feeling and how it’s driving them to quit, despite their love of the game and all of the benefits it brings. 

By increasing the opportunity to play in recreational settings—like at their local park, in public schools during recess and PE class, etc.—you increase the chances that they will want to play in more formalized settings.

What’s more, the recreational opportunities have the be exactly that—recreational. This mom has drummed up a conversation on TikTok about the importance of recreational sports by highlighting that her son’s town baseball league, which should be recreational, is treated like club. 

“Parents can be crazy, coaches can be crazy. The tryouts are insane. Sports are what everyone used to say is what keeps kids out of trouble, yet all we’ve done is taken them away from kids,” she says in the video.    

So what’s the solution? 

One way to increase these opportunities for public schools to step in and make access to organized sports more equitable, according to the 2023 State of Play report from the Aspen Institute.

“I think more and more people recognize that you have to provide sports opportunities within the school setting because that’s where most kids are,” Jon Solomon, the editorial director of the Sports & Society Program at the Aspen Institute, told “These are kids who have less money, or their parents are working multiple jobs and can’t get them to practices and games.”

Many school districts have started to invest in these programs for elementary and middle schools. For example, the Fairfax County public schools in Virginia started track and cross country teams in their middle school with a $600,000 investment. 

The biggest challenges for schools launching their own athletic programs, according to Solomon, is lack of gyms and fields and adults to run the programs. But a little creativity goes a long way—and the Aspen Institute created a sports equity toolkit to help students advocate for these programs. 

Another proposed solution is more government funding for grassroots programs. The PLAYS Act, a bi-partisan bill sponsored by Congressmen Colin Allred and Brian Fitzpatrick, would establish a $75 million annual grant program to support nonprofit organizations working to improve positive health and youth development through youth sports and participation. If passed, this bill would increase youth sports participation nationwide, particularly in underserved communities. 

Read a bit about how LeagueApps and FundPlay Foundation are leading the charge in this effort through this Act.