Competition, higher costs for youth sports in Minneapolis


Paddy Mittag-McNaught, 11, is entering his third year playing for the Minneapolis Youth Baseball Association (MYBA). He had played on Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board teams before, but he and his family wanted a more challenging experience.

For more on this topic, see Youth sports in the cities

Paddy and 250 other kids recently went through MYBA’s 2009 tryouts, a record turnout. They did fielding, hitting and running drills at the Midtown YWCA and got rated by a consultant. “It is way more competitive than just Park Board,” Paddy said. “They draft you on your skills.”

Playing on MYBA costs between $250 and $450, depending on age. The fee covers uniforms, umpires, equipment, field time and tournament fees. Meanwhile, on the city’s north side, long-time coach and Farview Park institution Gary Wilson said they struggle to keep teams affordable. If he tells kids it would cost them more than $25 to play on a recreational basketball team, ”they just walk away,” he said. “They say, ‘No way.’”

Getting kids engaged in youth sports is a good thing, and the benefits go beyond the exercise. Students who participate on sports teams or other extracurricular activities are more likely to do their homework and have better relationships with their parents and are less likely to get into trouble. (More here.)

Minneapolis long has tried to increase youth sports participation. Hurdles to participation go beyond fees. Children from low-income families often lack transportation to get to practices or games. The city has a fragmented youth sports system, and some families might not know what opportunities exist.

How well is Minneapolis doing engaging young kids in sports? Park teams are generally declining, middle school teams are taking a dip, and independent traveling teams, while smaller in number, are growing.

The system

Many suburban youth sports programs have an umbrella athletic association that coordinates advertising, sign-up, try-outs, fundraising and scheduling for a particular sport, handling both the recreational in-house leagues and the more competitive traveling teams. In contrast, Minneapolis has a more complex system.

Youth sports: Win, win, win
by Scott Russell, TC Daily Planet

Getting young kids involved in sports has all the warm fuzzies about team-building, skill-building and positive youth development. And then there is the background radiation of winning.

This is not to disparage winning. I like winning. But it needs some perspective. Winning and fair play are smoldering issues between city and suburbs—even at those 14 and under years

The buzzword is “All Star teams”, a reference to coaches who seek out top young talent—no matter what neighborhood—to get the competitive edge.

Dan Klinkhammer, executive director of the Minnesota Youth Athletic Services (MYAS), says it gives the suburban teams “heartburn” when Minneapolis and St. Paul teams can create All Star teams by recruiting young kids from all across the city—a huge talent pool. (MYAS promotes youth sports and organizes tournaments.)

Klinkhammer said some sports, such as hockey, have strong governing associations. But basketball, baseball and volleyball don’t have governing bodies in Minneapolis. Most of the time it doesn’t matter. But each sport has a community season. For instance, for basketball it’s November to March. Kids are supposed to play with teams in their own home community.

“The suburbs are all paranoid that they are going to be beat up by the All Star teams coming out of Minneapolis,” Klinkhammer said. “And the Minneapolis teams are all paranoid because they think that everyone in the suburbs hates them. It is a vicious little circle that seems to have no end right now.”

Then there is the competition for young stars themselves. Kelby Brothen, director of the Minneapolis-based Urban Stars basketball program, said coaches from other teams have come to Urban Stars games to recruit his players. “They offer them shoes and bags and warm-ups,” he said.

Art Harlow, a parent involved in the Minneapolis Youth Baseball Association, said Minneapolis might have a larger population, but if you look at the number of youth trying out for baseball anyway, the city numbers are on par with the suburbs.

“In the suburbs, they think Minneapolis is stacking teams,” he said. “I know it’s not true. We’ll take that psychological advantage. It’s worth at least one run a game.”

The Minneapolis Park Board offers the sports safety net, which provides access for any young kid who wants to play. Park teams are relatively low cost. They focus on participation, with a no-cut, everybody plays policy. They stay in the city, playing other Park Board teams.

Some Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) middle and K-8 schools have teams for a limited number of sports in an MPS league. This league connects kids to school and builds school spirit. Because of budget limits, not all schools have teams for every sport.

Other independent groups organize their own teams. Some play in park leagues and others, called traveling teams, play in more competitive independent leagues and tournaments. The traveling teams typically practice more and play more games and travel all over the metro area. MYBA teams play 30-40 games a year. Minneapolis United and other groups organize traveling soccer teams. Urban Stars organizes traveling teams in several sports, targeting low-income southside youth. The list goes on.

Competitive programs often offer scholarships to low-income students. Scott Zosel, MYBA president said, “If a kid wants to participate in sports, they have more choices than ever.”

Yet traveling teams lean heavily on active parent involvement —and parents’ ability to get kids to and from practice and to games across the metro area. As MYBA parent Art Harlow said, “The commitment is quite a bit when you are talking about driving 40 miles to New Prague.”

In contrast, Terrence Hicks coaches for Farview’s 14 and under basketball team, which includes son T.J. Hicks said transportation is a challenge. Before a recent game, he went to Farview to pick up kids to make sure they got to Bottineau Park in northeast Minneapolis. “We have a lot of kid participation. We are just missing a lot of the parents,” he said. “That would help a lot.”

As traveling teams grow, their presence on the scene could affect park teams. To the extent that active parents opt for independent sports clubs over park teams, park teams lose volunteer help.

The data

The number of Park Board sports teams has fluctuated over the years, but generally trended downward since the early 1990s. In 1992, a successful recruiting year, the Park Board fielded 705 youth sports teams. In 2008, it had 543 teams.

Mimi Kalb, the Park Board’s community services manager, said part of the drop could reflect a trend towards specialized athletes. Kids get good at soccer or baseball and play it year-round with traveling teams. In some cases, families hope a child can get a college sports scholarship. It’s not like years ago, when a kid would continuously go from one sport to the next in the park system, she said.

John Washington, MPS Athletic Director, said middle school sports participation fluctuates year to year, but this year some middle schools are dropping their sports. Their decisions were mainly because of lack of interest, he said. Some schools signed up for the program, but realized two or three weeks into the season that not enough kids want to play. Or the kids didn’t get the paperwork done, including a physical. “If you don’t get enough kids with a physical, you won’t have a program,” he said.

Meanwhile, traveling teams are doing good business. There is no centralized data for other Minneapolis-based traveling teams, but soccer and baseball illustrate the growth.

In soccer, Park Board data said it fielded 126 teams in 2001 and 126 teams in 2008. Meanwhile, metro area youth soccer clubs such as Minneapolis United, Southeast Soccer, and Keliix grew from 34 teams to 81 teams between 2001 and 2006. In 2006, independent soccer clubs played nearly half of all youth soccer games on Park Board fields.

When MYBA started in 1997, it focused on the Washburn High attendance area. It now covers south Minneapolis and has grown to an estimated 18 teams this year. That’s nearly 20 percent as many teams as the Park Board’s 95 teams citywide in 2008.

Demographic shift

The Park Board’s Kalb said demographic changes could affect park sports participation. For instance, new immigrant communities aren’t comfortable or familiar with the park system.

Abdiasis Warsame, youth program manager for the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, said his culture is very protective of its community and its children. People would feel more comfortable using Park Board facilities if they saw more Somali faces on the staff, and if the Park Board did more outreach.

The Confederation has organized its own youth basketball and soccer teams. The soccer teams play through the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association. Warsame said he is frustrated over his inability to secure Park Board fields for his home games. Ninety percent of his kids live in south Minneapolis, he said. The Confederation’s “home field” is in Blaine.

Kalb said there are more demands for soccer fields than the Park Board has space. She did not know the specifics of the Confederation’s problem, but said she would look into it.

As the face of city youth change, so does participation in different sports. For instance, while softball teams are down (125 teams in 1988 compared to 32 teams in 2008); new track teams have been successful. “You don’t need a lot of money to participate in track, or a certain number of players,” Kalb said. “Some teams have ten, some have 70.”

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.