How Brands Can Support the Safe Return of Youth Sports to Communities

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As the school year kicks off virtually for many children and families across the nation, all eyes are turning to the possibility that youth sports could help provide much-needed activity, socialization, and emotional support during an otherwise overwhelming and disorienting time. Without a doubt, youth sports in a pandemic must look a lot different than they did in pre-pandemic times, but one thing is truer than ever: Brands can play a valuable role in helping youth sports return safely to the field and enabling the kids who need these activities the most to participate. 

While there are many examples in the news right now of schools, leagues, and clubs that have decided to suspend play amid the pandemic, there are also a tremendous number of youth sports teams that are already back on the field or planning to resume this fall. In fact, a recent LeagueSide survey of parents of youth sports athletes found that 83% expect their kids to be playing sports this fall. 

That said, safety and access remain of paramount concern when it comes to bringing young athletes back to the field. Sponsors have long played an important role in underwriting the costs of youth sports for athletes and their families. This season, the importance of that role is heightened—and yet the business landscape is anything but “business as usual.”

For years, community sports leagues have relied on local stores and restaurants for sponsorship. However, in 2020, these businesses have been hard hit by the pandemic and, in many cases, cannot continue their usual altruistic endeavors as they struggle to keep their doors open. As such, youth leagues are turning to larger corporate sponsors to help fill the void, and these national brands are finding valuable new ways to connect on a local level through meaningful initiatives that bolster communities and kids alongside their brands. 

Enabling Safety, Ensuring Access

In 2020, brand sponsorship of youth sports is about much more than putting a logo on a jersey and calling it a day. With the resumption of sports comes the need to keep athletes and their families safe, and such measures represent incremental costs for youth sports leagues that are already struggling to keep the (stadium) lights on. Likewise, financial support for athlete participation, particularly in underserved communities, is in greater need than ever. In fact, 26% of youth sports organizations report that they’ve had to cut scholarships or financial aid for players. Brands can and should work with leagues to be a part of the much-needed protective measures and financial aid that bring youth sports back to the field. 

Personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer have become a part of everyday life in the pandemic, and youth sports fields are no exception. Wherever possible, masks should be worn by athletes, coaches, and game officials alike, not to mention spectators. Leagues and their brand sponsors must take a leadership role in not just encouraging adherence to recommended safety measures, but actively integrating them into the fabric of the games themselves. For example, masks can become a standard part of league uniforms, while hand sanitizer application can become an expected part of the player rotation process. 

Likewise, social distancing and Covid-19 safety signage are important elements that need to be incorporated throughout player and fan spaces, especially where transmission is possible. Field signage will be a must-have for reminding parents and children to maintain proper distance and to keep face masks on, and for normalizing these behaviors as a fundamental part of youth sports. 

Compounding the financial challenges of the leagues themselves, countless families nationwide have suffered economic hardships in the pandemic, making it harder than ever to afford the registration, equipment, and travel required for their kids to participate in youth sports. These financial hardships disproportionately affect low-income families, many of whom already struggled with the costs of sports participation before the pandemic.

A Win-Win Scenario

In all of these areas, brands have an important role to play as league sponsors by both underwriting participation for families and funding key safety resources. These league-corporation relationships represent a win-win pairing: Leagues are able to secure the support needed to enhance their safety protocols and supply much-needed assurances and resources to their returning families, while the brands are able to connect with local communities in an authentic way and align themselves with key messages of health, safety, and responsible togetherness.

According to LeagueSide’s latest survey, three quarters (74%) of parents say a company’s sponsorship of youth sports improves their perception of the company. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, 29% of parents also say they’d like to see sponsors providing more scholarships for kids to play, and 27% say sponsors should be helping to make the game safer for kids. 

For brands, the benefits of such sponsorships are also numerous. Consider:

  • Local sponsorships have always been valued by companies for how memorable and customizable they are. But now, they are also scalable through digital platforms and measurable according to metrics around brand awareness and favorability, not to mention net promoter scores and conversions.
  • Local sports sponsorships represent a community-oriented way for brands to shift their local ad budgets away from divisive social platforms and toward corporate responsibility initiatives that represent a non-partisan way of spurring word of mouth and goodwill locally. 
  • These days, youth sports sponsorships bridge both the physical and digital worlds, with a great deal of the impact happening through organic sharing and buzz among parents and league organizers. These sponsorships can also extend into special event executions. 
  • The budget required to support a youth sports league is relatively modest compared to many other CSR efforts. A $10,000 outlay can provide personal protective equipment for an entire league or cover registration fees for 50 children who might not otherwise be able to participate in youth sports. 

The health benefits, both physical and mental, of youth sports programs for kids are substantial, but everyone recognizes that a successful return to the fields for kids and their families will have to look a lot different than in years past. Sports organizations have a responsibility to ensure kids can return safely to sports without contributing to the spread of Covid-19 within their communities. Strategic alliances between leagues and corporations will be essential to providing and normalizing the new essential precautions required to keep kids active, healthy, safe and engaged throughout these anything-but-normal times. 

Evan Brandoff is Co-Founder and CEO of LeagueSide.