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Research Questions

  1. What is the current state of funding and anticipated future funding for youth sports?
  2. How has school and out-of-school funding for sports changed in the past five years?
  3. How do youths access sports?
  4. What are the barriers to participation?
  5. What are the perceived benefits of sports participation?
  6. What are parents', school administrators', and community sports program leaders' beliefs in regard to enablers and challenges of youth sports participation?

To better understand sports participation rates for middle and high school–aged youths, the funding landscape, barriers and enablers to youth sports participation, and perceptions of the benefits and challenges of youth sports, RAND researchers launched three large-scale surveys of parents, school administrators, and community sports program leaders. A separate appendix provides detailed descriptions of survey and analysis methods, additional survey results, and survey protocols.

Perceived and actual barriers for middle and high school youths who may be interested in playing sports include financial costs and family time commitments, such as volunteering and providing transportation. Lower-income families in the sample were more likely to name financial costs as a reason for not participating than were middle- and higher-income families. Schools and community-based organizations may need to examine how costs — both time based and financial — currently burdening families can be reduced or supplemented with outside sources. Schools, community sports programs, policymakers, and funders can work to lower fees, particularly for low-income students. Providing equipment and transportation and minimizing parent time commitments may have the greatest effect on increasing sports participation among youths from lower-income families.

Key Findings

Adults reported benefits of youth sports participation in multiple areas

  • Parents, school administrators, and community sports program leaders who participated in the survey perceive benefits of youth sports participation in the areas of physical health, social and emotional skills, and academics.

Perceived demand for youth sports is growing

  • Youth sports participation rates are relatively high.
  • Perceived demand has grown for youth sports in schools and community-based programs.

Youths from lower-income families are less likely to participate in sports

  • Sports participation gaps exist between youths from lower-income families and those from middle- and higher-income families.
  • Only 52 percent of parents from lower-income families reported that their student in grade 6–12 participated in sports, compared with 66 percent of middle- and higher-income families.

Fees are rising and can keep lower-income families from participating

  • School administrators and community leaders in our survey noted that, in the past five years, most school sports budgets have not increased, despite rising sports fees for both school and community-based sports. This likely places the burden on families to provide additional financial support.
  • Higher fees are likely more difficult for lower-income families to bear. For lower-income parents (those with a household income of less than $50,000), expense was the second-most-common reason their child did not participate in sports.


  • Community-based organizations can help reduce out-of-pocket costs for lower-income families and for all families when possible and provide stipends for any necessary personal sports equipment that the school or organization does not supply. Private foundations that financially support youth sports may be willing to provide partial or full stipends for equipment costs.
  • Schools and community organizations can conduct a thorough review of parent time commitments and eliminate expectations or requirements when possible.
  • Stakeholders can establish community collaboratives where field space and, potentially, gear and equipment can be shared. Local governments and city officials can mandate that community resources, such as parks and sports fields, be shared across community organizations and open to schools that lack facilities. If fees are required to share fields, communities can determine whether the cost is a barrier for certain organizations.
  • Parents, community organizations, and schools can encourage youths (particularly younger youths) to try multiple sports. Encouraging youths to try multiple sports is not only likely to reduce the chances of overspecialization in a particular sport, but it also allows youths to explore sports that they would not have tried otherwise.
  • Organizations offering sports can provide training to coaches on how to create sports environments that help develop youth social and emotional skills, develop health and wellness, and promote a positive culture within the sports program or team.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was commissioned and funded by the Dick's Sporting Goods Foundation and conducted by RAND Education and Labor.

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