Participation in youth sports can help reduce obesity, improve self-confidence, and develop critical social skills. But participation doesn’t come cheap and so not all children get to play. A Narrative Matters article in Health Affairs described the cost barriers to participating in high school sports and NBC News documented the more than $18,000 spent by one young athlete to participate in a traveling soccer team.

While there have been some creative efforts to make it easier for low-income children to participate in team sports, including a program to provide them with equipment, the obstacles low-income children face remain formidable. The likelihood of playing team sports is strongly associated with household income.

A Local Effort To Improve Youth Access To Sports

While my day job has me conducting health policy research, for the past 21 years I’ve coached baseball in a youth league sponsored by the City of Gaithersburg. Gaithersburg, Maryland is a suburb of Washington, D.C., and like in many such communities there are significant disparities in youth opportunities, including for team sports. By 2009, I had become more aware of the disparities in sports opportunities within my own community. In the case of baseball, some youth have $300 bats made from a titanium alloy and receive personal instruction from former college and professional players who teach at nearby facilities. Other children play in an excellent public league sponsored by the city. A major effort is made to keep registration fees low; for most sports, city residents currently pay $50 to register, up from $40 in 2009.

There was a procedure already in place for obtaining a waiver to eliminate this fee, but few families applied. They may have faced difficulties negotiating the system, especially those who also faced language barriers. We know that many people do not apply for benefits such as Medicaid or unemployment compensation because of administrative hurdles, so it seemed quite possible that some parents might just decide not to register their children for the youth sports program rather than go through a potentially intimidating waiver process.

Gaithersburg was interested in understanding barriers to participation, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation was funding innovative projects through their Active Living Research program. With support from RWJF, a pilot program was initiated to measure the impact of a facilitated waiver program. Under the program a parent who wanted a waiver simply checked a box saying: “I am a resident of the City and request a waiver of all fees.” The cost to the city was covered by the RWJF grant.

Lowering the existing barrier clearly had an impact. Key findings from the pilot, which were recently published in the Journal of Park and Recreation Administration and highlighted in The Washington Post, include:

  1. The number of waiver applications increased 1,200 percent.
  2. Overall participation in team sports increased 31 percent. For children attending high-poverty schools, participation increased 78 percent.
  3. Children who received waivers had high rates of participation in games and practices.

Lessons For Other Communities

The model tested here may not be feasible for many communities; our goal was to see how large an impact could be achieved by almost eliminating the waiver process. Some communities cannot absorb the cost of providing services without aggressively collecting registration fees. Local governments must show that they are good stewards of public funds, and granting waivers in the absence of proven need could be problematic both financially and politically.

The facilitation of waivers, however, does not have to be an all-or-nothing process. There are a number of more modest steps that can be implemented to increase access to waivers. Waiver criteria can be clearly stated so the applicant can better assess the probability that his or her waiver request will be granted. Another approach could be to explicitly link fee waiver programs to the criteria used in other programs. For example, outreach can be directed to children receiving free school lunches. In programs in which criteria are not fixed, a phone number should be provided so that a staff member knowledgeable about waivers (and preferably bilingual) can be reached directly and parents don’t have to explain their economic circumstances to more people than necessary.

Simplifying the waiver procedure, however, is not enough to provide program access to low-income children. We found that even with facilitated waivers, the vast majority of low-income children in the city did not participate in the youth sports program. Other barriers, such as work schedules, access to transportation, and other social and cultural barriers, cannot easily be rectified by local policymakers. But as even low registration fees can preclude some children from obtaining the benefits of participation in team sports, these fees represent one obstacle that can be addressed.

While childhood obesity rate growth has leveled off, we still have more work to do to increase activity options for kids. Helping more kids play organized sports is a small investment that can pay off in the long term by providing kids with the skills and motivation to remain active throughout their lives.