Today’s guest columnist is Mark M. O’Brien, president and CEO of LakePoint Sports.
The recent announcement by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that baseball, softball, lacrosse and flag football will be among the sports added to the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles has brought a new level of excitement to the travel and youth sports industry and across America, as the potential of a gold medal and global audience are now attainable for some of the most popular youth sports in our country.
The announcement comes at an important time for our industry as we seek to ensure that the next generation of athletes is ready to greet the world in 2028. Travel and youth sports, which encompasses community-based sports, interscholastic sports and travel/club sports, is a $40 billion industry that is healthy, vibrant and well-positioned to continue on a path of sustainable growth. This growth has led to discussions around the real or perceived negatives of travel and youth sports, particularly regarding participation and affordability. As the leader of LakePoint Sports in Atlanta, a board member for the National Council of Youth Sports, a former college athlete and a father to multiple daughters competing in travel cheerleading, I can attest that few things can deliver the positive and transferable life skills athletes learn by competing on the court or the field: teamwork, sportsmanship, work ethic, leadership, communication and perseverance, to name a few.
As an industry, it is vital that we come together and put forth solutions addressing current participation trends and affordability by creating more value and reducing costs to ensure that youth and their families continue to experience the positive impact sports can have on their lives and future.
Propel Participation: As the landscape of travel and youth sports has evolved, we have seen specialization occurring at younger ages, as well as decreased team sport participation and burnout of young athletes. This seems to be happening more in young boys, where participation is declining, while girls are showing their highest participation rates in a decade. Regardless of gender, we must approach participation and motivation differently as kids age if we want them to truly enjoy athletic endeavors.
For developing athletes (13 and under), much of their participation takes place through school and community recreation departments. At this formative age, young athletes should play multiple sports, and fun should be the priority. Enjoyment leads to continued participation, delivering the life skills athletes gain by competing on the court or the field.
As athletes begin to compete at the high school level (ages 14-18), it is imperative to balance the desire for improvement and exposure with the elements of joy and character-building that sports deliver. Playing for the love of the game should never be surpassed by the business elements of college recruiting and professional draft position. Additionally, rec and club sports must still be an option for kids this age who don’t want to compete at the highest levels. I wholeheartedly support the Aspen Institute’s efforts to expand and reinvigorate school sports, especially embracing emerging sports (esports, martial arts, flag football and others) as a way to keep kids engaged through high school.
Create Value: For many, the greatest barrier to participation in travel and youth sports is cost, including equipment, training, and transportation. The Aspen Institute’s State of Play report estimated the average U.S. family spends nearly $900/year for their child to play their primary sport. The same study said that “half of survey respondents who played youth sports or who have children who have played said they have struggled to afford the costs to participate.” Sadly, this figure may be conservative and could grow in the wake of new monetization opportunities for young athletes through social media and the NCAA’s allowance of Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) earnings.
One solution is to decrease the dependence on the family as the primary source for revenue in the industry. I believe that brand partnerships and sponsor participation are vital to help defray the costs for young athletes and their families. At LakePoint, we have seen tremendous momentum from corporate partners like Coca Cola, Johnsonville, Publix, Pixellot, Academy Sports + Outdoors, Audi and Wilson, to name a few of our over 60 brands that are allocating marketing dollars to elevate the travel and youth sports experience and drive brand visibility, trial and sales.
In most instances, the investment for brands is far less than in college and professional sports, and the return can be significantly higher. First, travel and youth sports are naturally a family affair, where many athletes who walk through our gates are surrounded by family members to support them. Second, travel and youth sports align with their core values, highlighting health and wellness, education, sportsmanship and hard work. Finally, travel and youth sports feed long-term passion and revenue for the broader sports system. According to Deloitte, “When asked to pick a single reason for the genesis of their fanhood, approximately a third of fans attribute it to their participation in youth sports—the top overall reason.” Travel and youth sports can create an emotional connection and brand loyalty with consumers that is hard to replicate anywhere else.
Engage the Entire Industry: The benefits of youth sports participation are too important for the industry to ignore potential barriers to increased participation and enjoyment. Only with a concerted effort from the entire industry, including sports leagues, properties, manufacturers, host facilities and organizing bodies, can we truly address these issues and ensure we don’t lose a generation of athletes and their families.
Develop a Purpose Driven Future: I firmly believe that the future of travel and youth sports focuses on purpose, inside and outside the lines. At LakePoint, we’re pursuing a holistic and vertically integrated, guest-centric, national travel and youth sports ecosystem, with our 1,300-acre campus at the center. Our top-tier competition and state-of-the-art venues are paired with partners, sponsors and educational programming (character and leadership development, college selection process guidance, NIL instruction, etc.), resources and amenities to have a positive and lasting impact on young athletes, coaches and families.
We must be intentional as we create a better experience for all involved and prepare our young athletes to succeed off the field—and maybe even win gold on it.
O’Brien is president and CEO of LakePoint Sports, the premier travel and youth sports destination in the country, based in greater Atlanta with over 2.5 million visitors annually. His prior experience includes serving as president and CEO of Mizuno USA, and executive leadership roles at Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Johnsonville Sausage and Miller Brewing (now Molson Coors).