October 11, 2019

Huddle Up September 2019: A Message from Bridget Niland

In our day-to-day work, Project Play WNY is focused on expanding opportunities for kids of all backgrounds to be active through sport.  During our various volunteer committee and working group discussions, we brainstorm “how do we get the 84 percent of kids who are not moving enough during the week to be more active?”

In the fall of 2017, I made the leap from the world of college athletics to join the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation’s efforts to address the growing number of challenges in 21st century youth sports.  The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, with the support of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, had just released the State of Play WNY Report, which highlighted that only 16 percent of kids living in the eight counties of WNY engage in the recommended one hour of activity each day. The Wilson Foundation had already been a leader in supporting youth sports. Back in 2004, Ralph’s wife Mary founded the WNY Girls In Sport initiative in 2004. Mary shares the same passion with many WNY youth sport organizations who know that a quality youth sport experience is good for kids’ bodies and overall well being.  A childhood without sport and physical activity can lead to an unhealthy and less prosperous adult life.

My personal draw to the work that is now called Project Play Western New York came from three experiences. As college athletics administrator, I was seeing an increasing number of young athletes with overuse injuries from playing the same sport at an early age.  At the same time, the NCAA and college athletics conferences were tracking data that noted a higher number of student-athletes were dealing with mental health issues attributed to years of playing high-pressure youth sports.  As a parent, I was shocked by the additional costs that private leagues require and the hyper-competitive approach for young kids. Well-intended parents (including me) were over-involved to the point that it was hard to tell whose hobby it is—ours or our kids.  Too much competition and not enough skill building was a comment that many college and high school coaches would share. As a youth sport coach, I was noticing the opportunities that were once public and low cost now have a price tag and time commitment that make it difficult for middle to low-income families to participate. We are losing entire teams due to cost or an inability to fundraise.  

After joining Project Play WNY, I learned that these experiences are not unique, and kids are getting priced-out, pushed-out and burnt-out of youth sports.  The data points spilling out from all directions confirm that our current youth sports model is broken and the losers in this will be all of us, not just kids and their families. In early August, ESPN and Aspen’s Sports and Society launched the #DontRetireKid campaign aimed at drawing attention to the dropout rate of kids from sport.  This past week, the National Federation of High School Sports announced that for the first time in 30 years participation rates in scholastic sports teams is dropping— not a surprise given that the feeder system for high school sports is youth sports.  On Sept. 9, the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation is bringing the campaign to WNY.  Project Play WNY is a key player in this work and our new website will provide ample opportunity for kids, parents, coaches, and educators to learn more about what we can do to help improve youth sports in our region.  Please join the conversations and activities you will see run throughout the fall.  We know there are many great individuals and organizations in WNY who can help us brainstorm and implement actions to end the priced-out, pushed-out or burnt-out nature of youth sports. We want to hear from you!

We are currently implementing or funding some of those ideas through pilot programs and events focused on testing out answers to this question.