January 15, 2020

Huddle Up January 2020: A Resolution for WNY in 2020

As January marks the time for resolutions, let’s resolve that 2020 is the year WNY families and kids play sports as much as we watch sports. This thought came to me over the holiday break as I was encouraging my kids to turn off the college game on TV and go play the game outside.

It’s the same conversation we have when they opt to play sports on a computer console rather than the game outside. “Why not go out and play the actual game?” I’ll ask.

I am certainly not the first parent to have similar thoughts or utter similar questions to their kids. 21st century parents face several challenges when trying to cajole their kids into playing the way we did in the 20th century.  Thanks to cable, the internet, social media and near-to-life video games, 21st century kids have far more choices of how to fill their leisure time than we did.  Although we are blessed to live in the age of technological advancement, some of the advancements have made it challenging to get kids and families to spend as much time playing sports as we do watching or following sports.

I am certainly not the first to ponder the question of the correct balance between being a sports fan and being an athlete. At the 1961 NFL Foundation Hall of Fame Banquet, President John F. Kennedy commented that the United States was becoming “more and more not a nation of athletes but of spectators.” More than half a century later, we are feeling the long-term effects of the President’s observation. A well-reported statistic nationally is that 70 percent of all kids drop out of sports by age 13.  In WNY, we know that only 16 percent of our kids play sports or get an hour of physical activity per day.  If we match-up those numbers with the numbers of sports fans who attend games or watch televised or streamed sports, we know that despite continued efforts to reverse trends, we are a country of more fans than players.

Please do not misread the message. In no way is Project Play WNY suggesting that families and kids resign from the Bills Mafia, or turn in their college basketball season tickets, but perhaps we could move toward best practices from other well-developed countries and match sport fandom with sport participation.

How do we do this? Project Play WNY found some suggested actions during our March 2019 trip to Germany and Spain. Why Germany and Spain? I asked the same question when told of the trip. As a person whose background is in collegiate sport, I always thought of the European model of sports as lacking what we provide in America. A little digging showed me how flawed my thinking had been. The childhood obesity rate in Germany and Spain is half that of ours here in the United States. The German and Spanish youth sports systems also lack the affordability and access issues we struggle with here in the States. In both countries, government-funded community club-based systems fetter out youth sports opportunities. Neither Germany nor Spain relies on private for-profit business nor school systems to provide youth sports. Instead, youth sport is one part of larger, more comprehensive sport clubs that provide age-appropriate activities from the cradle to the grave. Even more impressive was that the word “sport”  in the two countries was not synonymous with competition, but rather encompasses wide-ranging physical activities. For example, in Germany, there are ample opportunities to skateboard, rock climb and free play through unstructured sports facilitated by their local club systems.

A true “a-ha moment” of the trip came when a group of us stopped into one of Germany’s largest sporting goods stores. The first items we saw were not pro sports jerseys or other licensed products but rather sporting goods equipment. In fact, we had to search the store to find licensed apparel of pro sports teams (there are no professionalized college teams in Spain or Germany). Instead, there were aisles of sports gear and equipment for the participant.  The set-up of the store was demonstrative of the overall difference between sport in Germany and Spain and sport in the United States. The word “sport” in those two countries represents activity.  I’ll let you decide whether sport has that same meaning here in the United States.  

One interesting outcome in the meaning of sport is that German and Spanish adults fair far better on the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development’s rankings of minutes per day spent on sport and exercise. Spain ranks at the very top of the list with adults averaging 42 minutes of sport or exercise. Germany ranks in the top third of the list with 26 minutes and the United States checks in the bottom third of all countries posting an average 23 minutes per day. Sadly, American adult women were reported as averaging a mere 13 minutes of sports or exercise per day. 

We know that life-long sports participation leads to a better life-long quality of life. In 2020, let’s try changing the approach to sports by making a commitment to being a region where families and kids not only watch sports together, but play sports together. For tips on how to kids to go out and play the sport they love to watch. You can find unique opportunities to do this on our website at www.projectplaywny.org and by following us on social media.