Teamwork is Critical as the COVID-19 Crisis Spurs Dramatic Changes.
By Jason Siegel.
Our mission at the Greater Orlando Sports Commission is to attract and manage sports-related events, conferences and activities that drive positive economic impact for our region. We focus on five main areas:
- Major league and marquee sporting events (all-star games, WrestleMania, Monster Jam, international soccer)
- Olympic Sports events (trials, qualifiers and championships)
- NCAA events (national and conference championships)
- eSports events (qualifiers, tournaments and national championships)
- Amateur/youth sports tournaments (qualifiers, showcases, invitationals and championships)
Hosting youth travel sports is essential to the success and economic viability of our region, which includes Orange, Lake, Osceola and Seminole counties and the city of Orlando. Youth travel sports traditionally drives between $15 billion and $20 billion into the nation’s economy, and our region is one of the country’s leading destinations for this activity. Our community’s sports venues host more youth sports activities than events in any of the other four categories listed above.
As we face the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, our team at the Sports Commission has been gathering a tremendous amount of information, aggregating best practice policies, procedures and protocols, and asking a lot of questions while collaborating with our community’s sports stakeholders.
We are at a crossroads
The disruptive forces of the universe will make us question the way things used to be and reimagine how things will look when we can fully go back to participating in both travel and recreational play. Equally as important, or even more so, is the need to create opportunity for underserved communities and take more social responsibility.
We can and should do this by considering the opinions of experts who are discussing changes that may create new and inclusive opportunities in the future. Experience and history tell us that youth travel sports and the economic impact that comes with it has been borderline “recession-proof.” In fact, many venues and destinations saw a spike in travel participation after economic downturns because parents were willing to forgo their own family vacation plans to travel with their children and their teams. Here in Orlando, we have long witnessed visitors who have planned their family vacations and trips to our theme parks and attractions around their child’s travel tournaments.
While that is encouraging, there’s more to the story. Local sports clubs have not been as fortunate. Many organizations did not qualify for the CARES Act forgivable loan. Countless youth clubs had no source of financial help that was available to other small businesses. Due to narrowing margins, clubs and leagues were forced to either not pay their coaches or not refund families for seasons left unfinished. Parks and recreation budgets have been getting slashed across the country, and many nonprofit community centers face fundraising challenges as they look to the future.
Youth sports experts predict 25% to 50% of children won’t return to the fields, pools, pitches, ice rinks and gymnasiums for the remainder of 2020. That’s a heartbreaking number, considering the pre-COVID-19 challenges: Adolescents only average playing three years of organized sports. Less is not better.
It’s a daunting challenge we face as a nation, not just in Greater Orlando. Schoolchildren will go at least five to six months without physical education on school campuses, and many of those will not participate in local “rec-league” or travel play over the summer.
The emotional and physical stress and strain could range from moderate to extreme anxiety, weight gain and disciplinary issues. Sports instill so many positive values for children, including leadership, teamwork, work ethic, and organizational and life skills.
Youth sports, through its evolution over the past 25 years, has grown from pickup football and basketball, stick ball on the streets, soccer in open fields and ice hockey on ponds to a far different model. The current model involves position-specific coaching, private instruction, custom uniforms, expensive equipment, lengthy travel, and pay-to-play models in our middle schools and high schools.
Our world may soon include a reduction of college scholarships and sports programs, and with that the lost opportunity to attend colleges and universities because programs at that level can’t be funded the way they once were. It will leave many student athletes unable to find alternative forms of competition, stunt their development and interrupt their education.
What to do becomes the pertinent question.
We are working to recruit a diverse task force to develop solutions to address the widening gap and inequities between community “play-for-free” after-school youth sports activity and “pay-to-play” models that are marginalizing low-income community kids and special-needs children. Opportunity leads to access, and access leads to participation.
We look forward to working with leaders from all sectors of the community in finding answers that will shape the future of youth sports. It’s imperative we find those solutions, not only for us, but for our children waiting on the sidelines.
Jason Siegel is president and CEO of the Greater Orlando Sports Commission. Longtime Orlando sportswriter George Diaz contributed to this article.