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State of Play: WNY Youth Sports

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Tom Farrey, executive director of the sports & society program at The Aspen Institute, speaks during the presentation of State of Play: Western New York, a study on youth sports participation, Tuesday at the Holiday Valley Lodge in Ellicottville.

By Sam Wilson

An ESPN investigative journalist at the time, Tom Farrey published his book “Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children” in 2008, detailing the problems facing youth sports nationwide.

While well received and influential — “Game On” has been used as a college text — identifying the problem, Farrey said, wasn’t enough.

“(Game On) laid out the problems in our sport system, but when I did the lecture tour, it was very clear that people wanted solutions and they wanted shared solutions that they could really rally around,” Farrey said before a presentation at the Holiday Valley Lodge Tuesday. “That’s when we began to really work with the Aspen Institute and build up a team of terrific people who could help stakeholders figure that out. That’s when we ended up with Project Play.”

Farrey joined the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, The Aspen Institute, in 2011, founding its sports & society program and starting the Project Play initiative in 2013 to help communities build through youth sports.

Farrey and Aspen researcher Risa Isard presented their study State of Play: Western New York Tuesday in Ellicottville in the first of three “community conversations” aimed at informing youth sports communities and hearing feedback from the eight counties the study covers.

The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, along with the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, funded the report and two others in Eastern Michigan and the Rochester/Finger Lakes region. The late Buffalo Bills owner started the foundation and instructed his trustees to sell the team upon his death. Wilson’s foundation has a 20-year spend down goal of 2035.

“That’s kind of how we got our money,” said Jim Boyle, vice president of programs and communications for the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation. “Ralph, of course, (was) a lifelong athlete, played many, many sports throughout his life, played tennis into his 90s and really believed in the power of sports to build character, to develop kids and children and to keep people active and healthy throughout their lives. This was one of the areas that the trustees decided would be an area of focus for us.”

Published in June, the study includes Siena College household surveys of youth (17-and-under) sports activity and access. The survey found the eight-county area (Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie, Genesee, Niagara, Orleans and Wyoming counties) offered 31+ sports and 853 community sports facilities for 309,000 kids.

The Siena survey reported just 16 percent of WNY youth (against a national average of 27) get the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended one hour of daily physical activity, 18 percent for boys and 14 for girls.

Allegany County ranked lowest in the region for access, with 49 percent of youth residing within the rural census block of three miles (in urban areas, a census block is one mile) from recreational facilities. Cattaraugus was sixth of eight counties at 63 percent, while Erie ranked first at 95 percent and Niagara second at 88 percent.

“The $64,000 question that will literally never answered,” Farrey said, is ‘what is a sport?’

Aspen recognizes “any physical activity, whether competitive or not, whether structured or not, that promotes physical and mental wellbeing,” he said. So while he recognized the value of activities like hunting and fishing, Farrey wasn’t sure how to measure those as sports.

“Activities like fishing and hunting, we’re not here to tell anybody that those aren’t sports, but those are a little bit tougher for us to get our arms around in terms of measuring,” he said. “If someone just goes to a bridge and hangs a pole off of it, I don’t know, there’s not a whole lot of physical activity in there. If there’s any bias we have, it’s toward moving bodies.”

Farrey and Isard presented the Aspen Institute’s “eight plays,” stemming from a 2015 report, Sport for All, ideas to keep kids active regardless of ability, wealthy or region.

The plays are: (1) ask kids what they want, (2) reintroduce free play, (3) encourage sport sampling, (4) revitalize in-town leagues, (5) think small, (6) design for development, (7) train all coaches and (8) emphasize prevention.

Aspen’s study recommends five actions for Western New York: invest in more and better parks, build and indoor complex in Buffalo at the Johnnie B. Wiley Stadium grounds, engage diverse leaders (Farrey specified race, gender and class), turn college athletes into youth coaches, educate and empower parents and lastly, a “game changer,” embracing community schools.

Betsy Constantine, executive vice president for the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, said the organizers chose Ellicottville as one of three sites to present the study (along with Buffalo and Lockport) as a central location between Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties.

Those in attendance identified themselves as parents, volunteer coaches, educators, teachers, administrators, after-school program organizers, health care workers and a sports and rec facility developer.

Constantine focused on the 16 percent daily activity figure, saying the benefits of boosting it would extend beyond sports.

“That was a surprising statistic to us,” she said. “If we are able to increase that to 25 percent we would be able to prevent 7,400 children across the eight regions from becoming obese or overweight and have over $130 million in savings in deferred health costs. That was a huge learning for us and really a point to rally around, beyond just the benefits for youth sports of health and wellness, that helps you focus and be a better student, we also know that if you’re active an hour a day, by the time you’re 12, you’re more likely to continue that activity as an adult later on.”

The event concluded with a “Vision 2020,” asking the audience for defined goals to improve their youth sports communities by that year.

Some of the ideas Farrey found encouraging were more after-school busses, a regional facility strategy between towns, promoting family-based activities, getting input from kids and tapping into local college athletes as youth coaches.

“I have a lot of confidence as long as people come together meaningfully,” he said of putting the ideas into practice, “if they see as an opportunity and really begin to say, ‘Well, how can I be part of the solution here, and who else do I need to bring into this conversation and how do we attack this?’

“If people come together and apply the principles of what we call collective impact and develop mutually reinforcing actions that put the child at the center of the sport experience, we can absolutely build healthier kids and communities.”

More information on State of Play: Western New York can be found at http://www.cfgb.org/stateofplaywny.

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