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Twelve-year-old Alex Esparza thinks of himself as a trainer and coach.

Now a sixth-grader at Henry World School in southwest Denver, he likes to return frequently to his southwest Denver elementary school to work with younger kids involved in America SCORES Denver, the combined soccer and poetry nonprofit program that transformed his life.

When Alex joined SCORES at nearby Traylor Academy, he was a “very shy, withdrawn” eight-year-old, fresh out of chemotherapy treatments for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, said his mother, Jessica Kirkpatrick.

“SCORES opened him up,” Kirkpatrick said. “It gave him an opportunity to come out of his shell and be a team leader.”

Alex agrees. “SCORES made me stop being shy,” he said. “Once I started playing soccer, I started answering questions and participating in things.”

Had it not been for SCORES, Alex, and his younger sister Alayna, 10, would have had no access to organized sports. Kirkpatrick describes herself as “a part-time student, part-time worker, full-time parent.” Her husband works full-time, but their combined income is modest, and they are still paying off a mountain of medical bills related to Alex’s illness.

There’s no way they could afford several hundred dollars per kid to participate in programs at the local YMCA, let alone the many thousands of dollars it costs to participate in competitive club sports and travel teams.

“I hate to say it, but had it not been for SCORES, [Alex and Alayna] probably would have been focused on video games,” Kirkpatrick said.

Gaps are growing
And therein lies a huge and growing problem, in Colorado and across the nation. Despite the dogged efforts of a number of programs like America SCORES, children from low-income families find their access to organized youth sports programs limited by high and ever-escalating costs.

“The (youth sports participation) gaps are definitely widening,” said Risa Isard, a staff member with The Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program. “Youth sports has never been a bigger business, and we have never had a lower rate of participation from low-income youth.”

Isard pointed to a telling statistic from The Aspen Institute’s recent Project Play Sport for All/Play for Life report: In 2015, just 38 percent of children from U.S. homes with annual incomes of $25,000 or less participated in team sports, compared to 67 percent of kids from homes with incomes of $100,000 or above.

Numerous research studies over the years have shown that participation in youth sports wards off obesity, promotes overall child physical and mental health, improves school performance and graduation rates and reduces the incidence of risky behaviors.

That’s why experts and advocates find the barriers for low-income kids so troubling: they exacerbate health and education gaps between low-income children and their more affluent peers. While a host of factors contribute to these gaps, access to structured sports opportunities is without question one of them.

“It should be a right of children to be active,” said Shale Wong, MD, a pediatrician and director of child health policy and education at the University of Colorado School of Medicine’s Eugene S. Farley, Jr. Health Policy Center. “If you can establish playing sports as normal early, then it becomes engrained in kids’ lives and makes them want to stay involved in sports through their adult years.”

Low-income kids, however, face what Wong called a “triple whammy” that makes sports participation less likely. First, she said, in some low-income communities, playing outdoors might be perceived as unsafe. Second, many low-income communities lack organized sports programs.

Finally, and arguably worst, she said, “kids who could be extremely talented get priced out. And that just breaks my heart. It’s a huge societal mistake we’re making.”

That mistake has major ramifications because it affects not only children’s physical health, but their mental and social health as well, Wong said.

“There is so much in sports that enriches a child’s growth and development towards being healthy and happy,” she said. “That’s why I see it as a right.”

A 2016 study commissioned by the Colorado Health Foundation found a multitude of reasons why low-income Colorado families can’t get their kids into structured sports programs. They echoed Wong’s three primary factors.

While enrollment fees and equipment costs were the biggest barriers, low-income parents across the state also cited a lack of nearby parks and recreational facilities, work schedules conflicting with ability to transport kids to games and practices, and a lack of up-to-date information about affordable opportunities.

Some parents succeeded in locating “financial support systems” so their kids could participate in sports, but still ran into problems, said Daniel Finkelstein of Mathematica Policy Research, one of the study’s authors. “We heard from parents that some of these systems were difficult to navigate, and that parents were asked to divulge private financial information.”

Early specialization exacerbates gaps
Health professionals and youth sports advocates point to another trend that has made access to sports for low-income youth more difficult: early specialization. Since 2008, the number of sports the average child athlete plays has declined from 2.3 to 1.9, according to The Aspen Institute’s State of Play report.

Coaches and parents often pressure kids beginning in elementary school to specialize in a sport “to fully develop their talents and play at a college, pro, or other elite levels,” the report says. But “it’s a myth.” In fact, a survey of U.S. Olympic athletes found that seven in 10 grew up as multisport athletes. Yet the trend persists.

Specialization hurts low-income kids in particular because focusing on one sport early funnels athletes into expensive travel and for-profit club teams, the State of Play Report says:

The flight to travel (and to for profit club) teams thins rosters and the number of teams that can be created. The kids left behind can get the message that they’re not good enough, and start checking out of sports. By the end of grade school, in some areas, in-town leagues in sports like soccer and basketball have lost enough participants that they are no longer viable. That’s a major loss, especially as local play is the only affordable option for many families.

Tom Robinson, associate commissioner of the Colorado High School Activities Association, has seen the impacts of sports specialization first-hand. “It really does in some sports have to do with haves and have-nots,” Robinson said.

While opportunities for low-income kids exist for more popular sports like football and basketball, the gaps are biggest in smaller sports, Robinson said: “Volleyball, for example, is very club-intensive, so if you haven’t been participating in a club from an early age, you probably can’t play [in high school].”

If you’re a low-income parent, getting your kid on a club team is usually well beyond reach financially. Brandon Blew, executive director of America SCORES Denver, knows this from personal experience.

Blew, who played college soccer, has two children, ages 10 and 12, playing for a local private soccer club. When he adds up club fees, uniform, equipment and travel costs, it totals close to $6,000 per kid per year.

“That’s insane,” he said. Considering that he runs a small nonprofit and his wife is a public-school teacher, “it’s a serious budget line for us.”

Gap-narrowing efforts
Programs like America SCORES Denver, aimed at low-income aspiring athletes, have proliferated across the state in recent years (see below for information about several such programs). But every one of them is at capacity, and many have lengthy waiting lists.

“We have much more demand than capacity,” said Ryan Plourde, director of the Greeley chapter of Soccer Without Borders, a national nonprofit that fields soccer teams made up of refugee youth from across the globe. “We are wary of spreading ourselves thin, but if we had the capacity, we could easily enroll two to three times the 130 kids we serve now.”

In some areas, partnerships between nonprofits and local governments can help provide sports opportunities for families of modest means. In Alamosa, the Boys and Girls Club of the San Luis Valley partners with the city parks and recreation department to help kids play in city football and basketball leagues, said Chris Lopez, the club’s executive director.

Lopez’s club fields its own football and basketball teams, and the city and local businesses pitch in and waive fees for families who can’t afford to pay. “This community is good about supporting these kids,” Lopez said. About 50 members of the Boys and Girls Club participate on the teams, he said.

The club also sponsors a more competitive, 12-and-under travel soccer club. The club provides uniforms and equipment, and covers the full costs of about $500 per kid for several kids who otherwise couldn’t afford to participate.

“As a matter of principle and philosophy, we believe getting kids into these opportunities is a good thing,” Lopez said.

Public school athletic programs also do what they can to help aspiring low-income athletes participate in competitive sports. Aurora Public Schools is notable among Colorado school districts for fully funding middle school as well as high school athletics out of its budget. Most other school districts with middle school sports programs raise private funds to help pay for them.

Aurora has funded its middle school sports programs for many years because being denied access to sports at younger ages leave kids unprepared to play team sports when they enter high school, said Mike Krueger, the district’s athletic director.

The APS board and superintendent “understand and appreciate the role athletics play in getting kids connected,” Krueger said. The district has found that middle school students who participate in sports have higher grade point averages, better attendance and fewer discipline problems.

Middle-schoolers pay $30 per season to play a sport, but the fee is waived for those who can’t afford it, Krueger said.

Part of the goal of the APS middle school sports program is allowing kids to compete who might otherwise not get the chance, Krueger said. But the benefits go far beyond the opportunity to compete.

“It’s not just the competition, but what more do they get out of being involved in it,” he said. “They develop leadership skills, teamwork, and a sense of cooperation and servant-leadership.”

Alex Esparza gained many of those skills during his years with America SCORES Denver. Now that he’s in sixth grade, he plans to take his soccer playing to the next level. His dad found him a competitive team to play on, fulfilling a long-time goal.

“I’m now obsessed with soccer,” he said.

Youth Sports Programs in Colorado

While a child from a low-income family is far less likely than his or her more affluent peers to have access to youth sports programs in Colorado, there are several organizations providing sports opportunities to kids who would otherwise be left to their own devices. Here are a few stand-outs, but please note: this list is but a sampling of the many organizations dedicated to closing these gaps.

America SCORES Denver: This local branch of a 23-year-old national nonprofit serves 300 students—half of them girls, half boys—in 10 elementary schools in southwest Denver. It provides “physical activities through the sport of soccer, and literacy lessons through creative writing every day after school. Soccer, poetry and service-learning activities are used as tools to emphasize good decision-making, discipline and positive self-expression.”

“The goal of the program is more developing the whole child than developing the next professional soccer player,” says Executive Director Brandon Blew.

Boys and Girls Club of the San Luis Valley: Among its many programs, this Alamosa-based club offers about 50 low-income youth the opportunity to participate in city football and basketball leagues and even a travel soccer team.

“I’m so proud of our kids,” says Executive Director Chris Lopez. “A lot of them had never been involved in competitive sports before. Sometimes we looked like the Bad News Bears, but we had a gym filled with enthusiastic parents. We like the culture this creates.”

Soccer Without Borders: This international nonprofit organization has had its Colorado branch in Greeley since 2011. It serves 130 refugee children (as well as children whose families have received political asylum in the U.S.), many of them Somali and Burmese. More than half the program participants are girls. The age range is 9 to 18. Soccer Without Borders activities center around sports, but also feature educational support, civic engagement, team building and cultural exchange.

“Soccer is the uniting factor; it really brings people together,” says Ryan Plourde, executive director of the Colorado operation. Several youth who have participated in Soccer Without Borders have gone on to become star players on Greeley-area high school soccer teams.

Playworks Colorado: Playworks is a national nonprofit focused primarily on making school recess more structured, “fun and energetic and safe and inclusive.” Schools involved in Playworks have full-time coaches on staff.

Playworks launched in Colorado in 2010. Its program here has five components, one of which is a developmental sports league for fourth- and fifth-graders. It operates league teams in 19 schools in Denver, Aurora, Adams 12 and Mapleton school districts. Students can participate at no cost in co-ed volleyball, flag football and street hockey, or girls-only basketball.

Many students in Playworks leagues are playing those sports for the first time, and almost all report in surveys that they would like to keep playing. Sports teams compete but the program does not allow scorekeeping, which “is most challenging for parents on game night,” said Executive Director Andrea Woolley.

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