Youth sports in the cities

In 2003, the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board (YCB) said the Minneapolis youth sports programs needed a major restructuring. The mix of sports offered by schools, parks and community programs lacked resources, organization and coordination. The problem was so severe “that youth are being turned away from youth sports opportunities across Minneapolis,” it said.

For more on this topic, see Competition, higher costs for youth sports in Minneapolis

The solution? Create a new nonprofit, the Minneapolis Youth Sports Coordinating Organization, to improve communication and collaboration among key players.

Nothing happened.

Well, not nothing nothing. Research at the time found a gender gap in Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board sports programs (where a no-cut policy keeps participation wide open). There were 70 boys involved in sports grades 4-9 for every 30 girls. That research helped the Park Board get a grant to hire liaisons to do school outreach to increase girls' volleyball participation. The program worked. The number of girls’ volleyball teams jumped from 33 in 2002 to 48 in 2003 and 2004. The funding ended after two years and the number of teams slid back down.

So in 2009, are things better?

On the sidelines

Sometimes, sports aren’t a kid’s first choice. Some might opt for music lessons or the computer lab. And some prefer video soccer to kicking a real ball. That’s a challenge for cities everywhere. (In St. Paul, park recreation center staff report more kids asking if they have video game systems, said Brad Meyer, a parks spokesman. St. Paul now has six Nintendo Wii-Fits, a video game option to keep kids active on bad weather days.)

Taking fun on the road in St. Paul
by Scott Russell
Abdirisaq Hassan, 18, rolled into St. Paul’s Highwood Hills Elementary School gym on a recent Wednesday evening eager to shoot baskets.

This January, the city reopened the gym to the community youth two evenings a week. “It means a lot to us to have this gym open,” said Hassan, whose other basketball option was going as a guest to a Y and paying to play.

This gym used to be part of the St. Paul Park and Recreation department through a joint-use agreement between the city and St. Paul Public Schools. The city closed this part-time center at the end of 2007 as part of a broader plan to do fewer but better facilities. Highwood Hills used to be open 3:30-8:30 p.m. Monday-Friday during the school year and noon-6 p.m. during summer weekdays.

The good news: Neighborhood youth get some gym time back. The bad news: The program stops April 22, when the weather improves.

The reprieve is courtesy of St. Paul’s mobile recreation program, which sends staff to various locations to bring activities to people. The teams give the city flexibility to meet needs. As Alex Glass, Citywide Programming Specialist, put it, “We are the bringers of fun.”

The mobile recreation team goes to housing complexes, family shelters, school events or current or former recreation centers. Depending on the event, it brings additional amenities, notably a climbing wall and Jump Castle. (Neither travel to Highwood Hills.)

The Highwood Hills gym nights typically draws 60 kids. The recreation space has two levels. The first floor has a small room with a few tables. On this evening, some kids were tossing a football. Others played board games -- Connect Four or Trouble. The second-floor gym has a split schedule. The young kids (grades K-6) get to use it from 3:30-5 p.m. and the older kids (grades 7-12) from 5:15-7 p.m.

St. Paul will continue to downsize its recreation centers. In 2006, the city had 42 centers, said Parks Department Spokesman Brad Meyer. At the end of 2008—through community partnerships and other changes—it cut back to 33. This year, it plans to close three more and re-partner with another five. That drops the city total to 25.

The park and recreation budget grew 10 percent in two years, from $23.2 million in 2006 to $25.5 million in 2008. But the city also opened the new Oxford Community Center in 2007. Oxford has a roughly $1 million operating budget, which is about half of the total two-year budget increase for city parks and recreation. (Oxford has a field house with three gyms and an indoor water park, and a fourth gym in an adjoining building.)

St. Paul would still have about 11,000 people per recreation center, Meyer said. For cities of similar size, St. Paul still ranks in the top five. “The biggest thing is investing in quality over quantity,” he said.

Mimi Kalb, Minneapolis Park Board manager of community services, said girls’ sports participation is still a concern. In the past year, the Park Board tried a smaller version of the school liaison program. (It increased girls’ basketball by four teams and also focused on boosting hockey teams.)

Marketing is a challenge, especially in high mobility communities. Gary Wilson, long-time coach and volunteer at Farview Park on the city’s north side, is surprised more kids don’t play sports. Sometimes parents call, but miss the registration deadline. Sometimes they say they just moved into the area or they didn’t know about the programs. “That is hard,” Wilson said.

The city doesn’t track youth sports trends. A of children and parents conducted by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Youth Development provides a statewide perspective. The initial findings presented in November suggest youth of color, immigrant youth and youth in low-income families (less than $25,000 a year) were less likely than their white, more affluent peers to play sports.


While some kids sit out, others might be getting too much of a good thing.

The Minneapolis Youth Baseball Association (MYBA), a traveling baseball program for youth 9-14, asks parents and players not to do other sports during baseball season. Scott Zosel, MYBA president, said kids play 30-40 games a season, and, between games and practices, they might play ball five nights a week. Sometimes, they want to do other sports, too.

“I see too many kids overscheduled,” he said. “Kids show up and the are pale and listless. … We ask parents to be aware of that.”

In some cases, teams compete for the same young athletes. Urban Stars and the Minneapolis middle school basketball offer one example.

Urban Stars is a youth sports program serving low-income youth in south Minneapolis. Kelby Brothen, basketball program director, said students who play on middle school basketball teams also play on traveling teams, including Urban Stars. That means kids get double practice nights. They practice at school until 6 or 6:30, then with Urban Stars until 9 p.m. They get home late, don’t get homework done and get worn out. “It’s still going on,” he said.

Brothen said he suggested the following rule: If a kid plays on a traveling team, they can’t play on a middle school team. That would have the added benefit of opening spots for more kids to play on teams. The schools said no, according to Brothen.

“They want the best team,” Brothen said.

Minneapolis Public Schools Athletic Director John Washington said he did not know how much overlap existed between students on middle school and traveling teams. “It is tough to tell a student who wants to play that ‘You can’t,’” he said.

Missed opportunities?

Not every family necessarily wants their kid to play on the most competitive teams. Greg Sebald said his nine-year-old son played on Park Board baseball teams and enjoyed them. His son participated in the MYBA tryouts. “It seemed like the next step up,” he said. “We’ll see how intense it is. We may still do Park Board.”

On the other hand, some Minneapolis and St. Paul youth in recreation programs could be playing at a more competitive level but don’t get the chance, said Dan Klinkhammer, executive director of the Minnesota Youth Athletic Services (MYAS). MYAS promotes youth sports and runs tournaments.

Among its offerings, MYAS runs a state tournament for recreational programs. It’s an opportunity for recreational teams to play against teams from other cities, he said. A lot of the suburban recreational teams don’t want to compete against the Minneapolis recreational teams because Minneapolis teams are usually better. That’s because some kids should be on traveling teams but are not, either because they can’t afford them or they don’t know about them, he said.

Minneapolis needs to do a better job of getting kids into appropriate opportunities, Klinkhammer said. “Anytime you have a more coordinated effort, you will get more kids playing.”


Ann DeGroot, executive director of the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board (YCB), said the board had no sports-specific initiatives. It is working to coordinate information on all out-of-school activities offered by the schools, the parks, the county and the city.

One of the biggest challenges for parents is finding out what after-school activities are available and where, she said.

The effort appears to recreate an earlier YCB program called “What’s Up?”, a hotline and website which served as a clearinghouse for youth activities. It eventually spun off from YCB, went to a nonprofit, then folded for lack of money.

DeGroot said such a service needs to be integrated into an existing program. “We are looking at that right now,” she said.

Scott Russell is a journalist. He wrote for the Southwest Journal and Skyway News (now the Downtown Journal) in Minneapolis from 1999-2005. He also wrote for The Capital Times, a Madison Wisconsin daily, from 1993-1999.

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Scott Russell's picture
Scott Russell

Scott Russell (scott [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) wrote for the Southwest Journal and Skyway News (now the Downtown Journal) in Minneapolis from 1999-2005. He also wrote for The Capital Times, a Madison Wisc


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youth sports

This is a significant story. The city needs to do a better job of providing free activities for young people in public facilities. Instead of setting up boards, maybe we need to hire lower-priced staff to keep facilities open for longer periods. There's plenty of money out there; it needs to be redirected.