If you are wondering what ESPN stands for, it’s not “extrasensory perception and noshing.” Literally, ESPN stands for Entertainment and Sports Programming Network. But philosophically, based on their 2018 Corporate Citizenship Report, one of the things that ESPN is standing for is “Using the power of sports to create social change.”
ESPN has evolved substantially since its founding in 1979 when its early broadcasts featured sportscasters wearing jackets with enormous lapels. Since then many of the lapels have shrunk but ESPN’s reach and range of activities have grown. ESPN now includes multiple television channels, a radio network, podcasts, digital content, a magazine, and ESPN+, an on-demand platform.
This puts ESPN in a unique position to help sports create social change. ESPN is involved in a number of such areas, ranging from supporting the V Foundation for Cancer Research to participating in campaigns to reduce food waste to tackling one of the biggest health problems in the U.S. today: declining physical activity, especially among kids.
A major contributor to this last problem has been decreasing sports participation among youth. As detailed by the Aspen Institute’s 2018 State of Play report, there’s been a drop in the percentage of youth who play regularly play team sports from 41.5% in 2011 to 37% in 2017. The numbers are even worse for kids from lower-income households: in 2017, only 34% of kids from households with annual incomes of less than $25,000 played a team sport for at least a day. That is just one day in the entire year. These numbers don’t bode well for the future as lower physical activity can significantly raise the risk of obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and a number of other health problems. Our computer modeling study published in Health Affairs showed that lack of physical activity among children is a multi-multi-billion dollar problem with costs arising from increased health care needs and lost productivity. As former New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra once said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”
Finding ways to improve sports participation among youth is well-aligned with ESPN’s core business. After all, people are probably more likely watch or watch commentary about a sport that they themselves have played. That’s probably why Ga-ga ball (which has nothing to do with Lady Gaga), cheese rolling, and underwater hockey are not getting much airtime. Moreover, ESPN has first-hand knowledge of what is needed to increase sports participation and the many benefits that such participation may have. Kevin Martinez, Vice President, ESPN Corporate Citizenship, said in the 2018 Corporate Citizenship Report that “We believe that sports plays an enormous role in helping youth and adults reach their fullest human potential both on and off the field.”
That report laid out four problems that are hindering youth sports participation and the ways that ESPN is trying to tackle these problems:
- The majority of volunteer coaches go untrained: Coaches can really determine whether a kid continues to participate in a sport. For example, I stopped playing little league baseball when a coach seemed more interested in getting his son to play every key position than teaching me or others how to play the game. As a result, baseball is now one of my worst sports, although I haven’t tried cheese rolling. The problem is that many youth coaches aren’t qualified or properly trained to assume such important roles that will end up shaping the lives of many children. The Project Play report indicates that only four out of every ten youth coaches surveyed had received any coaching training in 2017. ESPN has been making investments to improve the availability and quality of such training. This has included funding USA Football’s Guide to a Better, Safer Game, distributed to 21,000 youth coaches last year, teaming up with Up2Us Sports in Operation Coach to train returning military veterans to become youth sports coaches, and supporting online training for Special Olympics Unified coaches.
- Not enough places to play: Many locations don’t have enough playing fields, courts, pitches, or other venues to play sports. This is especially true in low income neighborhoods. ESPN has been working with Under Armour and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) to transform vacant spaces into safe sports-playing venues high-poverty neighborhoods. The RePlay program resulted in 12 community organizations getting funding to revitalize potential play spaces. ESPN has also been working through Disney’s Meet Me at the Park program with the National Recreation and Park Association, to help refurbish 27 play spaces at local parks. There is also the Built to Play initiative with love.futbol, A Ganar and Magic Bus that has built seven courts in very low income locations of South and Central America and India over 3 years.
- Rising costs are pricing kids out: Playing sports isn’t free. Heck, even cheese rolling requires purchasing the cheese. But the costs of playing sports have gone up and up over the past couple decades. When you factor in the costs of equipment, training, participation fees, and everything else involved, kids from lower income families (or even middle class families) are at distinct disadvantages. That’s why ESPN has been assisting Good Sports to provide over 40,000 pieces of equipment to economically disadvantaged youth and DonorsChoose.org to help provide 138,000 kids with equipment by matching donations on the crowd-funding site.
- Parents are concerned about safety: All sports have injury risk, some more than others. Plus, whenever you bring people together, there is the risk that some may behave badly, very badly. Unfortunately, bullying, hazing, discrimination, and sexual misconduct are often risks of participating in youth sports. It is sad when such despicable behavior prevents a child from reaping the lifelong benefits of playing sports. Therefore, ESPN has requested that its non-profit partners take training from SafeSport, an organization working to end abuse in sports.
These four problems certainly aren’t the only obstacles to improving youth sports participation. But they are definitely four problems worth addressing. ESPN has also joined Project Play 2020, a consortium that aims to increase youth sports participation nationwide and for which the Global Obesity Prevention Center (GOPC) that I lead is a founding partner.
It is really time to view declining youth sports participation as a major health issue. Of course, sports can be fun and entertaining and has evolved into a big business. However, when played appropriately, sports can also be an important health intervention. You may not view ESPN as a health care organization. But with ESPN playing a major role in the communication and dissemination of such a health intervention, in many ways, it really can be one.