As families around the country prepare to send their kids back to school, many start thinking ahead to the fall sports season. What used to involve signing kids up for after-school sports and gym class is no longer that simple, and many children are inhibited by from participating in athletics due to rising costs.
Earlier this year, Hope Solo raised concerns about the expenses involved in youth soccer, arguing that rising costs hindered the sport’s accessibility to every athlete. This problem is not limited to soccer, it extends across youth sports, transforming what was once a pivotal part of childhood development into something that is accessible only to the privileged.
When lifelong athlete Melissa Harper reflects back on her days playing youth sports, the only question was whether or not you wanted to participate; cost had nothing to do with it. Today, unfortunately, that is no longer the case.
This led her and Christy Keswick to found Good Sports, a nonprofit designed to connect Fortune 500 companies and the sports industry directly to underserved communities in an effort to save youth sports.
“[Youth sports] has become a pay-to-play industry,” explained Harper, now the CEO of the organization. “So there are very few programs at any level that you can sign the child up for without some sort of participation fee.”
On top of that, kids are often expected to show up with their own gear – another added cost for families. So while a participation fee may cover things like insurance and coaches and uniforms, it may not cover bats or gloves in baseball. Both the participation and equipment fees can add up, especially in some of the more expensive sports, barring entry for many youth athletes.
“Cost is a huge factor in whether or not kids can participate in sports and all of us who were involved in founding Good Sports have gained great things from sports and feel like that’s something that should be available to all children, not just those who have the benefit of being raised in a more athletic environment,” explained Harper.
Aside from physical benefits, youth sports have proven long-term emotional, physical and intellectual benefits as well that many kids are being robbed of due to inaccessibility.
To combat the issue, Good Sports established a number of partnerships with both sporting goods and corporate companies. Working with some of the leading sporting goods companies, Good Sports has created a way to deal with excess products that many of these organizations produce.
Working directly with 37 of the top sporting goods companies, Good Sports has found a way to facilitate the distribution of the excess product that they aren’t planning to sell.
“If there is excess apparel, footwear, access inflatables or hard goods in an equipment company’s warehouse, we can get that into the hands of kids who need it most,” explained Harper.
Companies like Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour rely on Good Sports to help manage the overflow of inventory. With so many organizations in need, ranging from public schools to parks and recreation programs, Good Sports can help prioritize the neediest organizations and manage the distribution in the most efficient and beneficial way possible.
Additionally, Good Sports supports many of these companies in their proactive philanthropic efforts, assisting in the execution of employee engagement programs and planned large-scale equipment donations.
“It’s both the proactive part of [the sporting goods companies’] community engagement programs as well as an operational solution for basic ebbs and flows of inventory.”
While distributing the excess of product helps many youth sports programs, it doesn’t meet every program’s need exactly. Given that Good Sports supports athletic programs from kids ranging from age three to 18, there is a large breadth of equipment needed to meet specific age group and sports’ need. With that, an excess in product doesn’t usually match perfectly with what a specific community needs. There may, for example, be an excess of soccer balls, but a community needs baseball gloves. When a gap like that occurs, corporate partners come into play.
“We use their dollars to essentially fill the gaps and source equipment that will meet the needs that we don’t currently have an inventory for,” explained Harper.
While the portfolio of partners is diverse, all share a common value of encouraging active play for youth.
Keurig Dr. Pepper, for example, originally partnered with Good Sports through a pilot program started in 2009.
“We teamed up because we really have the same goal to give more kids across the country a chance to get out and play,” explained Shawna Jackson, a philanthropy analyst at Keurig Dr. Pepper. “We know kids want to get involved in organized sports, whether it be schools or their communities, but sometimes there’s an issue of lack of budget and it can be cost prohibitive.”
Later, in 2014, the company launched its Let’s Play initiative, with the goal of helping kids and families make active play a daily priority. It leveraged its partnership with Good Sports to execute the initiative, so far investing nearly $7 million into the non-profit as a part of Let’s Play.
Empower Retirement is another organization that values health and wellness and partners with Good Sports to see its corporate social responsibility plan through. Years ago, as the company built out its plan, it immediately identified youth as an area it wanted to serve due to a very active and passionate employee base. Originally working with the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs’ foundation to get involved in youth sports, Empower Retirement was introduced to Good Sports as it looked to deepen its commitment in the area.
Philanthropy is a core component of Empower Retirement’s culture. Each employee receives 16 hours of paid volunteer time per year and has the freedom to nominate organizations that are near to their hearts, like the YMCA and Boys and Girls Club, to receive the equipment that Good Sports allocates through the company’s funding.
The company’s partnerships with professional sports teams, in addition to Good Sports, help provide more ways for their employees to get involved in giving back. Tapping into the relationships with teams, Empower Retirement looked to make the employee volunteer experience even more hands-on and exciting, using stadiums and bringing in alumni players for equipment packing events.
“It has been such an incredible opportunity for our employees and these agencies and the teams too because we’re able to all bring them together in a really unique meaningful way,” explained Christina Frantz, the AVP, corporate social responsibility, talent acquisition, diversity and inclusion at Empower Retirement.
To date, the company has had about 110 employees participate in the volunteer program and sent more than 13,665 pieces of sporting equipment to more than 114,000 children.
For corporate partners, such as Keurig Dr. Pepper and Empower Retirement, whose core businesses objectives are often unrelated to sports, Good Sports helps ease the burden of their CSR teams in supporting philanthropic endeavors. Before the organizations, there was a financial and administrative hassle for many corporations, particularly smaller ones, to accomplish their philanthropic goals.
“[Good Sports] is a really strong community partner with a ton of relationships across the United States and they are efficient and effective,” explained Frantz.
“They also just do a really good job of maximizing our impact and both the financial and human capital that we invest in. We can really make an investment in them and then they can grow that investment in the community because of their relationships. For me to go out and find those partners would be less efficient than partnering with Good Sports. Then having them translate that relationship, that’s really a big win.”
Good Sports emphasizes the importance of mutually beneficial relationships when working with all of their partners, because, at the end of the day, all have the end goal of making improving access to youth sports.
“Our approach to partners, whether they’re equipment or financial partners is to basically take the core of what we do, which is giving kids in need equipment to have access to play and layer on what those partners are trying to accomplish,” said Harper.
The model Harper and Keswick have created has been successful and the work they are doing is making a difference.
Since 2003, Good Sports has donated over $26 million in new sports equipment, footwear, and apparel to nearly five million children in all 50 states. After donations, the organization consistently sees an average of 55-65 more minutes of play each week per kid.
Youth sports programs that have received support from Good Sports have proven the impact of the organization’s donations. Over the last five years, 89 percent noted an enhanced overall experience which helped retain youth in the program, 62 percent of donations enabled organizations to expand their existing programming and 60 percent reported they were able to decrease program costs for youth and their families. Almost half of the organizations that received a donation from Good Sports were able to add an additional team or age group, thus boosting the opportunity for more kids to play.
While the organization is working hard to change the real challenge that athletics brings to families nowadays, Harper believes the thinking around youth sports needs to change.
“It’s important for people to realize that this isn’t a nice to have. Moving every day is core to what children should have access to at all levels in all communities, not just for those who can afford it. Play should be a right, not a privilege,” she explained.
As a new school year approaches and youth sports become top of mind again, Harper and Good Sports will continue to tackle the barrier that keeps kids from getting in the game.