Dr. B. David Ridpath: How the drive for athletic scholarship impacts big business of youth sports. (with book excerpt)

On April 19, I was incredibly excited to attend the Ohio State University Sport and Society Initiative panel entitled The Costs of Professionalizing Youth Sports. As a researcher who primarily focuses on college sports governance and reform, the intersection of the youth sports complex in America and how it influences other spaces in the sports industry, including college sports, cannot be discounted.

The two panel presentations were impactful in helping people understand that the way we ‘do sports’ in America currently may not be, and I contend is not, the best way. The youth sports industrial complex in America is big business and in many ways has done more harm than good with regard to sport development in the United States.

While my research has focused on problems and issues with another big sports business in America-intercollegiate athletics, I have extended my research platform into areas that influence the issues currently in American college sports. Simply put, the drive for an athletic scholarship ostensibly to get a low cost or debt free education is a huge motivator and trickles down to the big business of youth sports.

While I won’t spend time in this forum discussing the educational shortcomings of eligibility maintenance versus real access to a college education, the drive for a college athletic scholarship must be mentioned as a key factor why American families are focusing so much on youth sports competition as a ticket not only to college, but potentially to the lucrative world of professional sports.

The tragic part of this pursuit is that so few actually get to the holy grail of a full ride athletic scholarship and fewer still make it to a secure professional athletic career. Most college sports teams even at the NCAA Division I level only provide partial scholarships and the money spent on youth travel and elite teams can often pay for a college education a few times over. That does not stop the dream and what we have in the United States is a system diametrically opposed to sport development processes in other countries.

As the panelists stated in April, the drive for sports success has led to early specialization, burnout and huge financial outlays by families that are restrictive to many populations in the country.

At the core is our school system. According to the United States Olympic Committee, we are the only country in the world that has over 80 percent of its sports development grounded in the public and private primary and secondary educational system. This means a few critical things that are damaging to the future of sport development in America.

First, since the primary source of sport development is in the school system it means that it is also the primary source of elite athlete development for our nation. This focus forces out kids who may not be the best but still want to, and candidly need to, play and get the benefits of sport participation and the most accessible way is through the school.

Reality is, we are losing physical education classes and sub varsity teams in the drive for elite development and winning even at tender ages of 5-7!!. Second, like their college counterparts, American high schools are focusing resources on the commercially viable sports of football and men’s basketball to the detriment of other teams and participation opportunities.

As with universities, high schools are eliminating Olympic sports like wrestling and swimming under the guise of financial pressure or Title IX compliance to support these two sports. The end result is chances for youth to compete in sports like these are dwindling.

Eventually this will have an effect on our national and international competitiveness as schools remain our primary source for elite athletes. School sports became part of our educational system in America because of the goals concerning sound mind and body. Now we have become a nation of spectators where opportunities are dwindling at our schools and outside mass participation and elite development options are too expensive and restrict access socially and economically.  

This focus has also had a dramatic effect on educational primacy, specifically in our public schools, as the focus on athletic success has overshadowed the importance of education and athletic competitive success often is prioritized over academics. Sport should be an impetus and complement to an overall education, but not replace it.

This has been happening on our college campuses for over a century and it is only going to get worse as the stakes and finances rise at our primary and secondary levels of education.

The panelists had many great suggestions for revamping how we configure recreational, mass participation and elite sport development in this country so every kid, and adult for that matter, can have a chance at play and exercise regardless of zip code and socio-economic status.

Things like more unstructured play, community based accessible sports programs and even sports academies like Europe for the elite athlete were mentioned as viable options to our current system. In my view, there are many things we can do.

The only thing we cannot do is what we are doing now. America is at the precipice of a public health disaster that can be changed by giving its citizens greater access to sport, recreation and unstructured play opportunities.

Being more proactive rather than reactive in public health care can go a long way to helping our citizens and dramatically reducing health care costs. We can also save many sports that are losing opportunities at the altar of football and men’s basketball.

Many things can be done to better the disjointed sport development system we currently have and the panelists presented excellent ideas.

My sport development and systems research focus took me to Europe for 15 months as a Fulbright scholar in 2014-’15. The goal of this project was to research other sport development systems such as in Europe and ascertain if components in part or in whole can be applied to improving the United States sport development system.

The end result of that time in Europe is my new book entitled “Alternative Models of Sport Development in America: Solutions to a Crisis in Education and Public Health.” The forward to this book was written by Tom Farrey, one of the outstanding panelists at the SSI event, and director of the Project Play Initiative for the Aspen Institute.

In this book I propose four potential models for a new approach to sport development in America. An excerpt follows, but in brief the models focus on having elite sport development outside the school system and returning mass participation and exercise focus back to the schools. Affordable recreational opportunities are also discussed including the development, financing and sustainability of a European type sport club system that is affordable and accessible to all.

Making changes like this can enable better public health and a focus back on education in our school systems while recalibrating the youth sports industrial complex that currently exists.

Like the panelists stated in April—there are changes we can make and the intent of my book is to add to the conversation and potential solutions. If you did not attend the panels, I urge you to watch the archived links and be part of the solution because a solution is what we need-desperately.

As long as we increase access, focus on education and public health, there are many ways to accomplish it. The challenge is to just do it!

Excerpt from Alternative Models of Sport Development by Dr. B. David Ridpath

The former president of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch, once placed sports and sports development among the most important social phenomena of the twentieth century. He added that “sport has confirmed itself as a means of education, source of health and improved quality of life, an element of recreation and leisure occupation, first-rate entertainment, [and] factor of social communication” (quoted in Thoma and Chalip 1996, xi).

As a researcher of sports, as well as a lifelong participant and fan, I wholeheartedly agree with the pronouncements of de Coubertin and Samaranch. However, we also have to recognize that sports delivery and sports development are changing and, like anything else, need to evolve to keep up with shifts in the industry and with the current time. How we are to understand the ways in which sports affect our lives, positively or negatively, and how we are to manage the future of sports and sports development in a rapidly changing world?

            Two of the most popular and widespread sports development models are the European club model and the American education-based model. Sports in European countries are largely organized through nonprofit, mainly local and grassroots clubs. This is in sharp contrast with most sports development in the United States, as its typical participants are either primary or secondary school athletes, along with those competing in college- and university-based sports. Comparing and contrasting the European and American models, we can begin to ascertain whether other models might be developed in conjunction with or separate from our current way of governing sports.

My argument starts from a baseline belief that the current education-based model in the United States does not work and must be changed. Frankly, we should no longer entertain any debate that is grounded in saving that system. Instead, we must recognize and admit that we have a problem; only then can this society fully address the need for reform. I am not here to advocate killing off education-based sports in America. Educationally housed sports can certainly be part of new approaches toward the evolution of sports governance and sports delivery in America. However, the stress on our education system with regard to sports participation and finance must be relieved, and soon.

As a nation, the United States must address the situation before it deteriorates beyond repair. If we want to continue to provide and enhance plentiful opportunities for as many people as possible in a wide variety of organized sports and recreational pursuits, preserving educational primacy along with improving public health, then we simply must change how we do sports in this country. If we want to continue to develop elite athletes at local, regional, and national levels—in many sports, not just football and men’s basketball—who will excel at home and abroad, then we must change. The United States seems to be stuck in the past on this. Meanwhile, for its citizens, opportunities for better health and the personal growth that can be gained from sports are vanishing.

My book Alternative Models of Sports Development in America: Solutions to a Crisis in Education and Public Health examines four potential and dramatic alternatives to the current model, including consideration of adopting portions of the sports club systems prevalent in Western and Eastern

European countries, with a focus on Germany and the Netherlands. I spent fifteen months in Europe

conducting research for this project as a Fulbright teaching and research scholar at the University of Bayreuth, Germany, in 2014–15. The research consisted of immersing myself in the system via empirical research, site visits, interviews, and focus groups to learn as much as possible about the European sports model and to ascertain if a similar model could be developed in part or in whole in the United States. Since most European sports club systems are similar, I made the choice to focus on Germany and the Netherlands, as they were the two countries I spent the most time in during my research sabbatical.

The book also focuses on other potential models for elite, mass-participation, and recreational sports development in the United States. As sports choices decrease in a funding-challenged American educational system, and recreational opportunities outside that system become more expensive, it is increasingly apparent that more sports opportunities need to be developed outside the educational system for competitive, mass-participation, and general recreational exercise. The United States is not only suffering from an education funding crisis, made worse by its way of too frequently prioritizing sports over education. It is also suffering under the strain of its citizens becoming primarily sports spectators while maintaining very unhealthy and mostly inactive lifestyles, in turn impacting health care and the federal and state budgets devoted to it.

Where would the money and infrastructure come from for a dramatic shift in sports development in America? It’s a fair question, but one with realistic and measurable answers. This book covers the potential positive impact that an extreme paradigm shift, including a shift to models such as the ones being proposed, can have on public health in the United States. Any reorganization of how we do sports in the United States must take into account the overall health benefits to the population, not just competitive and commercial benefits. Other countries are outdoing America in offering widespread options in sports, whether it be for mass participation or elite development.

Many scholars agree that opportunities in the United States are dwindling and that we should learn from countries like Germany, with its “Sports for All” movement, or Canada, where the government is promoting physical activity to enhance all of its citizens’ well-being. Sports clubs around the world are supported in several ways, including through government subsidies (via taxes), membership dues, revenue from ticket sales and ancillary businesses, sponsorships, and donations. Some countries, such as the United Kingdom and Australia, also draw on lottery and gambling proceeds to help fund their sports club systems.

As a country we can actually save money by promoting and achieving better public health through increased access to and participation in sports. This means paying it forward and focusing on prevention, with benefits more on the back end, but it is critical for everyone to have skin in the game, including the government. A tax subsidy could be something the public gets behind, if it can reduce overall health-care costs and save money in the long run. Combining this with entrepreneurial spirit, public and private partnerships, and good old American ingenuity and creativity, we can enable and sustain the funding and infrastructure for newer, more accessible models of sports development and delivery.

This excerpt is adapted from B. David Ridpath’s new book “Alternative Models of Sports Development in America: Solutions to a Crisis in Education and Public Health”, published in January by Ohio University Press. Ridpath is an associate professor and the Kahandas Nandola Professor of Sport Business at Ohio University in the College of Business and Department of Sports Administration. He is also a Faculty Affiliate with The Ohio State University Sport and Society Initiative. Ridpath was named a Fulbright Scholar in 2015 and also serves as adjunct professor at the University of Bayreuth in Germany. He has several published scholarly and media articles to his credit and is a national authority on intercollegiate athletics and college sport reform. To secure the book, visit http://ohioswallow.com/book/Alternative+Models+of+Sports+Development+in+America