Today’s guest columnist is Ben Sherwood, founder and CEO of MOJO.
Judging by our record, it’s been a lackluster start for the Royal Blues, the AYSO soccer team of boys under 12 that I coach in Los Angeles. We’re 3-3-1 with three games left in the short season.
It’s fashionable to say that win-loss records don’t count at this age, and I’m not going to go there in this essay. Let’s just say there’s a lot more than dubs riding on a grassroots coach’s shoulders. The team depends on volunteer coaches to manage the schedule, plan the next practice and—with luck—make it fun. Parents depend on us to teach their kids what it means to be part of a team and, if all goes well, to inspire a lifelong love of sport.
It may sound outlandish, but in a sense the entire $500 billion U.S. sports industry also depends on volunteer coaches like me. Indeed, the NFL, NBA, MLB and MLS all need us to succeed.
Why? The logic is simple.
Playing sports as a kid is the No. 1 indicator of future fandom. No fans, no industry.
But nine times out of 10 in the U.S., a kid’s first experience playing sports involves a volunteer coach, typically a parent. So much rides on these early encounters, and yet it’s a total crapshoot. Three out of four times, according to the data, your coach has no training or experience.
That means the critical introduction to every major professional sport in the U.S.—football, basketball, baseball and soccer—comes at the hands of dads and moms who, while almost always well-meaning, are only occasionally qualified.
Imagine sending a child to math class and relying on volunteers to teach them long division. You already know it doesn’t add up.
Youth sports are in decline. Some 70% of kids drop out by age 13, girls at a much higher rate than boys, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this. According to Project Play’s latest numbers, nearly three in 10 kids have completely lost interest in playing organized sports.
It’s no wonder kids are dropping out. It’s more competitive than ever. More specialized. More expensive. On a very basic level, it’s not fun anymore. Because they aren’t playing, they aren’t reaping the benefits of sports. And from the industry perspective, they aren’t becoming avid fans.
For the professional leagues, there’s a quantifiable value to a kid who plays their sport from an early age. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred puts it succinctly: “[T]he best way to get a fan is to get a kid to play.” And NFL CMO Tim Ellis explains the stakes: “You have to make them a fan by the time they’re 18, or you’ll lose them forever.”
Think about it: Lose the kid, lose the fan—possibly for life.
And yet, we send millions of moms and dads out onto fields and courts every year with nothing more than a PDF of a practice plan from 1994 or a YouTube video shot in someone’s backyard.
It’s no wonder youth sports are in crisis, with recreational and grassroots programs that have been left behind by pay-to-play elite and travel teams, and an overall ecosystem that has been crushed by COVID.
The solution can’t be that volunteer coaches do more. They already do a lot (and they do it for free).
I think it’s that we need to do more for coaches, and for the rec leagues, which should be the beating heart of youth sports.
First, we must dispel the sense that youth sports should singularly focus on developing elite athletes at the competitive level. Nearly all resources—the attention, energy and money—go to the top youth athletes, leaving behind grassroots players and their coaches. We need community-based, low-stakes places, where kids of all ages and abilities can learn to love the game.
Second, we must arm volunteer coaches with the tools to make youth sports easy, stress-free, and fun. I was that parent-coach with no experience, who spent hours on YouTube in search of a solution. When I couldn’t find it, I created it—a one-stop resource for high-quality coaching content that’s fun to watch and easy to teach, that demystifies youth coaching and gets kids on the field with energy and enthusiasm.
Third, we must invest in organizations such as Coaching Corps, Up2Us Sports or the Positive Coaching Alliance, whose mission is to train coaches on what matters most and deliver for kids in underserved communities. Every child deserves a great coach.
Of course, empowering coaches is just the start. But if we call this play right, we can transform the entire game. Imagine establishing a robust, differentiated youth sports landscape that invests in grassroots and neighborhood leagues that are free or low-cost, to foster a love of sport powerful and pervasive enough to hold up an entire multi-billion-dollar industry.
This is what we owe kids. That first encounter should be about fostering a love of the game that lasts a lifetime.
In that sense—for kids, coaches, families and the entire sports ecosystem—it’s simple: Everybody wins when everyone plays.
Sherwood has coached his sons for the last 12 years in multiple sports. From 2010 to 2019, in his spare time, he also served as president of ABC News, president of the Disney ABC Television Group and co-chair of the Disney Media Networks. His new venture, MOJO, helps make coaching easy, fun and stress-free and won the Webby Award for best sports app of 2021.