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“Hey, Coach!” yells a 7-year-old as he runs into the gym at the West Minnehaha Recreation Center in St. Paul. Within seconds, he’s dribbling up and down the court, waiting for practice to start. He agrees to stop running to answer a few questions, but he keeps dribbling.

Remeir Blakey says he likes basketball “1,000 percent!” He likes playing with his teammates and seeing them win.

His mom says she appreciates that St. Paul dropped youth sports fees this year.

St. Paul appears to be the only park system in the country to use American Rescue Plan funds to make youth sports free to boost participation rates. After pandemic cancellations, participation rates dropped to all-time lows last year. Now, kids are swarming to rec centers that hadn’t fielded teams in years, like Remeir’s team at West Minnehaha.

Participation rates in 10U soccer and basketball have soared this season to 1,500 kids—about double the number who played last year. Jimmy Lee Recreation Center went from zero basketball teams to five; Dayton’s Bluff Recreation Center went from zero to four. Battle Creek Recreation Center has 11, up from four.

“I can’t recall a time when we’ve had that many,” says St. Paul Parks and Recreation director Andy Rodriguez.

St. Paul offers most sports for free, but as one of the most popular, basketball is the barometer.

Keeping Busy

At a time when many kids are dropping out of sports, some experts are betting on community-based sport programming to return participation rates to pre-pandemic levels.

“It’s a low-stakes way to get kids back in,” says Vicki D. Schull, a University of Minnesota lecturer in the School of Kinesiology who teaches Sports in a Diverse Society. “It’s different than signing up for a travel league.”

A 2021 report from the Aspen Institute shows that 27.8 percent of kids who played sports before the pandemic have since lost interest. For Black kids, that jumps to 32.7 percent. St. Paul has had success in the past with a partnership through the Minnesota Twins, which helped waive fees, and the city banked that eliminating fees for all 10U and older teams might help boost interest and level the playing field.

According to the National Recreation and Park Association, 92 percent of park and recreation agencies charge fees. In St. Paul, most of that money goes toward covering expenses such as uniforms and officials. The $600,000 of American Rescue Plan money will fund that gap for three years, by which time St. Paul hopes to have found another source to keep sports free for good.

“Basketball was $40–$50 per season, but it’s significant for some,” Rodriguez says. “I think it’s super encouraging that people who want to participate can do so without any hindrance of barriers.”

Alawna Shaw, 36, says she would have signed up hoops-loving Remeir regardless of the fee, but she was grateful to save the money and put it toward other things. Other parents at West Minnehaha echoed that, expressing gratitude for both the financial savings and the convenience of a team in their own neighborhood.

Beyond the Score

Samuel Butler is especially excited to bring his 9-year-old son, Eden Ward, to practice at West Minnehaha. Butler remembers playing for St. Paul Parks teams himself and is thrilled that Eden wants to continue the tradition, for many reasons.

“It’s good for getting all that extra energy out,” Butler says, “and it helps him stay on track in school. Also, it’s a great outlet for him to freely express himself.”

Indeed, there are so many benefits to kids who play sports that it’s essential to eliminate barriers and ensure that all kids can participate, Schull says. A previous Aspen Institute report confirms the importance of getting kids to play at a young age: Physically active kids are 1/10th as likely to be obese; score 40 percent better on tests; are 15 percent more likely to go to college; have better self-esteem; earn more money later in life; and are less likely to smoke, use drugs, or have an unplanned pregnancy.

Since not everyone can play for school-based or club teams, rec teams need to fill the gap, Rodriguez says.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, who signed off on the proposal, has said that getting more kids into positive environments at rec centers ties into his Community-First Public Safety initiative.

Kids, of course, have their own reasons for wanting to play, and their answers are revealing. Teenagers say they play sports primarily for fun, followed closely by exercise, according to a national survey by Project Play and Utah State University in 2020–21.

Winning? That ranked only sixth on the list.

Why it Works

A few other cities have used American Rescue Plan funds for sports equipment and infrastructure, but those initiatives haven’t had the same success at boosting participation.

And it’s not quite clear why the St. Paul effort has worked so quickly. Most Minneapolis kids can also sign up for sports this summer without cost: Many sports in lower-income neighborhoods are offered for free, and any Minneapolis resident can apply for fee assistance (although the process is cumbersome). Still, Minneapolis parks haven’t experienced the same uptick in registrations. Minneapolis Park and Recreation commissioner Alicia D. Smith tips her cap to St. Paul.

“I wouldn’t say it’s perfect, but I certainly admire what feels like a blend between the government of the parks and the actual community,” she says. Part of that community buy-in, she believes, stems from the strength of a diverse, community-based coaching staff in St. Paul.

West Minnehaha 10U coach Dusty Horton, for example, is coaching his second generation of players in St. Paul Parks and Recreation. He coached Butler, now 32, and is now coaching Eden.

“Dusty doesn’t let you give up on yourself,” Butler recalls. “And we never lost when I was 9.”

Horton, who is coaching for the first time since 2019, says everything is “new and exciting” for the 10U players. For many of them, it’s the first chance they’ve had to play on a team, because of COVID.

Take 9-year-old Josiah Shaw. “He always wanted to play sports, but everything shut down,” says Josiah’s dad, Jansen Shaw, 37. “I’m thankful he’s not stuck in the house. It is convenient, and he’s loving it.”

Other Barriers

Of course, dropping a $50 registration fee doesn’t remove every obstacle from sports participation.

“There are equipment barriers, transportation barriers, social barriers, and support system barriers,” Schull says. “So, you can sign up, but how do you get there, and how safe is it?”

The average family spends $883 a year for one child’s main sport, according to the Aspen Institute. Travel costs account for 19 percent of that.

More kids playing in rec centers helps solve the transportation piece, Smith says. As the parent of a football player who played on the only Minneapolis rec center team this fall, Smith drove to Centennial Lakes Park in Edina, Lino Lakes, Coon Rapids. “It was really disheartening for me as an adult,” she says. “We were everywhere but in the city.”

Minneapolis saw a slight increase in soccer and volleyball participation this fall. Smith is hoping basketball season will bring further increases to match the success in St. Paul, because more rec centers fielding teams means more opportunities to play within the city. It’s also a chance to showcase different parts of the city on game days to residents and young people, Rodriguez says.

Back on the basketball court at West Minnehaha, Coach Horton is running his new team through a basic drill: It takes several run-throughs, a few with invisible balls, but in the end, the kids weave and pass in the right order. More importantly, in this first full week of practice, the kids are forming a team.

“These kids are in the neighborhood every day,” Butler says. “Hopefully, they’ll all grow up together and stay together.” 

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