A team effort to encourage more youth participation in sports is expanding and going nationwide. And one of the institutions that helped roll out a plan at the Western New York level earlier this year is joining more partners on the national project.
Earlier this year, the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo and Aspen Institute released a report known as State of Play, which identifies issues and provides recommendations for getting kids involved in sports.
Those backing the project say an increase in youth sports participation now could save tens of billions of dollars in future medical costs and economic productivity losses.
"We have kids that are less active today than they have been in the history of our country," said David
Egner, president and CEO of the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, which co-sponsored the local State of Play report along with the Aspen Institute and Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo. "Obesity levels are at their highest point in the history of our country."
The Aspen Institute hosted a two-day conference in Washington, D.C. late last week to roll out what is called Project Play 2020. Like the State of Play report that was introduced in Buffalo earlier this year, Project Play 2020 seeks to renew interest in youth sports by addressing some of the issues that have made them either cost-prohibitive or simply no longer fun to many participants.
Project Play 2020 will initially focus on two of the recommendations introduced in the earlier report: increasing training for youth sports coaches and encouraging more sampling of sports and discouraging a concentration on one sport alone.
Egner says there's been a renewed sense of appreciation by many that concentrating on one sport alone may not necessarily be in the best interest of the kids.
"It's just become an obsession, as opposed to having it in the position it was when we were kids, when it was about free play, playing a lot of sports," Egner said. "We know that there's less injury if you're playing more sports. We know that your problem-solving skills, your cognitive ability, social skills all go up if you're using multiple sports as a mechanism instead of just one."
The conference in Washington, D.C. brought more partners to the Aspen Institute's cause, including medical and fitness experts, international retailers and even professional entities such as the National Basketball Association, Professional Golfers Association of America and Major League Baseball.
Even the big leagues, Egner suggests, embrace the idea of simply letting the kids play.
"Rob Manfred, the baseball commissioner, spoke and he talked about Major League Baseball being interested in reintroducing informal league play and making this big investment back into the notion that we shouldn't all be pushing our kids into travel play," Egner said.
The State of Play seeks to engage communities and allow them - not the researchers or sponsors - determine the best direction. Egner says State of Play has been well received.
"It's been gratifying to see how the report's been embraced," he said. "We've seem media channels pick it back up weeks later and use it in ways we didn't anticipate, whether it's talking about the best local athletes of the spring season and pointing out that the majority played more than one sport, and the majority were high-performing students."
Egner recognizes the challenges getting kids to play in some communities across the nation but he says there's already an on-the-ground effort closer to home.
"What that means to our market is that we're hopeful to lever these national groups into our local platform," he said.