Why Equity Matters in Youth Sports

by Rob Marcus – Chief Community Impact Officer, PCA


We often speak of sports as a unifying force that transcends differences and brings people together. Participating in sports can help young people develop healthy habits that last a lifetime(1). However, beneath the surface of fun and games lies a serious issue that deserves greater attention. To truly celebrate the profound impact of sports, we must first champion equity. This is especially crucial for youth sports, where the youngest athletes are just discovering their passion, unaware of the numerous systemic barriers that threaten their fundamental right to play.

Kids growing up in marginalized areas have disproportionately limited opportunities to engage in sports compared to their peers, which can deprive them of many associated benefits: positive physical and mental health, socio-emotional support, academic success, and future career options. Championing equity means advocating for equal access, and opportunity for all young athletes, so all communities have the capacity to create positive and empowering youth sports experiences. We’re in a moment where youth sports providers, advocates, and community leaders must pay attention to the issue of equity—something we’ve all been reexamining over the last few years of racial uprisings, economic downturns, and a devastating pandemic. It’s our collective responsibility to bridge the equity gap and reshape sports culture for generations to come.

What is the sports equity gap

Systemic barriers, such as pay-to-play fees, constrained school budgets, lack of diverse coaches, and the poor quality of facilities and equipment marginalize low-income and communities of color, putting kids on the sidelines. The disparity between youth from lower-income families and middle- and higher-income families has been found to be somewhere between a 16 and 25 percent participation gap(2). They also abandon these activities due to financial constraints at a staggering six times the rate(3). There’s also a racial divide with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) youth playing sports at a significantly lower rate than wealthier, white youth(4). The consequences of this are immense. 

Research has shown that kids who play sports not only experience improvements in physical fitness, overall health, and mental well-being(5), but also develop essential life skills such as discipline, perseverance, teamwork, and goal-setting(6). Identifying and nurturing athletic talent at a young age is not just about professional sports ambitions. Communities that encourage youth sports and physical activity also benefit from being healthier and more productive(7). So, ignoring the sports equity gap not only means denying low-income youth the joy of play, but it may also deny them the chance to become thriving, engaged community members. 

One youth sport that has particularly struggled to be accessible, especially in urban areas, is baseball(8). Pricey fees for traveling teams and limited access to fields to practice on in Black and Brown neighborhoods has resulted in a low number of Black American baseball players at the college and professional level. Here in Oakland, where Positive Coaching Alliance convenes one of our local Sports Equity Coalitions, the Oakland Babe Ruth League has seen a significant decrease in participation over the past few decades. According to a KTVU news report, in the late 80’s through the mid 1990’s, the league had 1,200 players and 92 percent of them were Black. As of 2021, there were 250 players, 40 percent of them Black.

“As an organization deeply rooted in our community, we’ve witnessed with concern the decline in participation in our youth baseball program over the past few decades. It’s a trend that we cannot ignore. While our program has always been a source of pride for us, we recognize that the changing landscape of youth sports, including the shift towards expensive travel leagues and the lack of access for marginalized communities, has taken a toll on our beloved sport” says Louie Butler, President of Oakland Babe Ruth Little League.

The sports equity gap also affects girls and women of color, both as players and coaches, as they face additional and unique barriers. Equal pay and quality facilities for women soccer players has been a mainstream debate in the United States, even as our National Team is recognized as one of the most successful soccer teams in the world. Research shows that girls enter sports later and drop out earlier and at higher rates than boys(9). Youth sports also struggle with the low number of women coaches and women in leadership positions who have a tremendous influence on girls’ self-esteem, confidence, and long-term commitment. And while Title IX has contributed to improving overall gender equity in sports, girls of color are disproportionately faced with limited access, opportunities, and support for them to play alongside their white peers successfully(10)

Changing communities, changing systems

So how do we begin to address the Sports Equity Gap? It cannot just be on an individual level—not if we want better than incremental progress. We must see youth sports as a system, akin to education or criminal justice. Systems prioritize functionality over equity. To drive meaningful change for our children, we must scrutinize the youth sports system holistically, assessing all its components and stakeholders.

Through Positive Coaching Alliance’s Sports Equity Initiative, we’re actively pursuing systemic change through a collective-impact approach to battle racial and gender equity gaps in the youth sports system. We believe in the transformative power of collective action and coalition building as our strategic approach, working closely with local stakeholders to realize their vision of an inclusive and positive sports environment that reaches all young people and their coaches. Our commitment extends to identifying the root causes of inequities and implementing targeted solutions, including collaborating with community leaders to develop community-based interventions, conducting outreach and inclusive volunteer coach recruitment, providing access to high-quality coach education, and actively advocating vigorously for necessary policy reforms.

While we’re active in this space, other amazing organizations are also critical players in the sports equity movement.

  • The Play Equity Fund is focused on bringing the transformational power of sport and play to all children, regardless of their race, gender, zip code or socioeconomic status. The Play Equity Fund is the only nonprofit focused solely on Play Equity as a social justice issue. The Play Equity Fund was established by The LA84 Foundation as its 501(c)3 public charity partner.

  • King County Play Equity Coalition is a Seattle-based network of organizations dedicated to shifting power and centering physical activity as a key part of health and youth development. Read their latest findings from their Youth Action Team on how to make white-dominated sports more inclusive and welcoming for youth of color.

  • Coalitions for Sport Equity is a national group of city and region-based collectives representing sport, physical activity, and play-based organizations in communities nationwide. Supported by the Center for Healing and Justice through Sport, this collective is working to empower local communities to organize for positive change in youth sports.

  • Project Play is an initiative that connects the silos across the disjointed landscape of youth and school sports and develops systems-level solutions. Launched in 2013 by the Sports & Society Program of the Aspen Institute, the award-winning initiative convenes leaders, identifies gaps in access to quality sport activity, and mobilizes organizations for action. 

  • Laureus USA is a grant-making, nonprofit organization that supports the growth and deepens the impact of programs that use sport for social change. Working globally, Laureus’ purpose is to change the world through the power of sport. Through their Sport for Good Cities program, they play the backbone role in uniting stakeholders, providing resources, and driving collaboration at the local level.

While these dedicated organizations stand at the forefront of the sports equity movement, their collective efforts underscore the significance of unity in reshaping youth sports.

“Collective action is crucial for empowering communities to tackle systemic challenges by uniting voices, resources, and efforts towards the shared goal of achieving equity in youth sports in Seattle. For our coalition, it’s a model that holds the promise of creating enduring and meaningful change. We are committed to centering young people and communities of color, and we actively work with and through our community partners to break down barriers hindering access to youth sports, play, and movement in historically underserved areas,” stated Bookie Gates of the King County Play Equity Coalition and Founder of Baseball Beyond Borders.

The future of sports equity 

Looking ahead, we aspire to achieve equity in outcomes, not just access. We want kids to not only enter sports, but to stay in them. Participation in youth sports is done right when kids have the opportunity to reap the long-term benefits. We aim to see increased youth participation rates in low-income communities of color, amplified BIPOC coach representation, and greater involvement of girls and women of color as players and coaches. We seek improved access to quality coach education, fostering a positive culture in youth sports through collaboration with local stakeholders.

If this future excites you, then we hope you will take time to think about your role in this work. We will continue to discuss more issues on equity, inclusion, and belonging in sports over the next year, focusing on different groups and issue areas. You can get involved with your community by signing up to become a coach, attending one of our coach workshops on how to create a positive youth sports experience, or searching for a local sports equity coalition near you. Please also check out PCA’s Women and Girls Initiative to learn more about why equity initiatives must explicitly include girls.