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The increasing cost of youth sport participation has long been a concern for parents and policymakers alike. How issues of affordability show up varies depending upon intersectional realities of income, geography, ability, accessibility of appropriate spaces and more.

The Maple Leaf Sport and Entertainment (MLSE) Foundation Change the Game research program, in collaboration with the University of Toronto, engages youth and parents on how issues of access, barriers and equity show up for them. The research is representatively diverse regarding age, gender, race, geography, ability, household income, and whether or not a youth was currently accessing a sport opportunity or not. 

This blog draws on recent insights from the Change the Game open data portal. We reflect on study findings concerning affordability, why it is important to prioritize free or low-cost opportunities when a multitude of barriers exist and share calls to action for sport funders and policymakers. Through reading this blog you will:

  • Gain insight about Change the Game data concerning cost and affordability of youth sport, and why a holistic conceptualization of affordability that considers cost, transportation, equipment and time as interdependent factors is important
  • Understand why free or low-cost opportunities should weigh heavily in actions and investment, and why the perspectives of youth and parents from lower income householders should be prioritized
  • Learn about approaches youth sport funders can take to reduce barriers and invest in more equitable opportunities for youth at a community level

Research Insights

A young Black girl in a purple shirt smiles at the camera with hands framing her faceEven in our current context of increasing youth sport access post-pandemic, affordability of programs, geographical accessibility of programs and competition opportunities, and transportation and equipment costs continue to present barriers to sport access. These significant affordability issues combine with health and safety and social factors to leave many youth and communities on the sidelines. As a sector, we’ve re-opened sport, but for who?

MLSE Foundation’s 2022 Change the Game Research Project (published in Fall 2022) explored youth sport access, engagement and equity throughout Ontario to provide actionable data insights for sport funders, providers and researchers. Over 8000 youth and parents of youth aged 6-29 indicated their obstructions to sport engagement.

Cost of programs and equipment was identified as a barrier by 43%. This trend was most notable among youth aged 6-10 and 19-29. The issue shows regional variation, with the deepest affordability issues felt in the Greater Toronto Area and Southwest Ontario. Youth or parents from Northern Ontario were more likely to cite the cost of transportation and capacity to travel as barriers.

Predictably, both household income and (dis)ability represented the strongest demographic relationship to the ability to afford access to sport programs, with more than half of youth from the lowest income bracket reporting cost as a reason why they do not play sports.

The importance of prioritizing free or low-cost opportunities for youth

There is a large portion (43%) of youth and parents who are telling us that the cost of programs and equipment is a barrier. This trend is also most notable among youth aged 6-10 and 19-29, when you are typically entering or aging out of a sport. More than half of youth from the lowest income bracket reported cost as a reason why they do not play sports. Nobody is negatively impacted by increased accessibility, and everyone can experience the life skills sport can teach.

Quazance Boissoneau, a Change the Game research advisor, says:

“Playing basketball in Northern Ontario was hard because there wasn’t many options and then additionally limited because it is female sports. I was able to access an all-girls basketball house league in elementary because of a low-cost program that was $25 for like six weeks and ran at a high school. I was in that exact same stage of entering and exploring a sport and I stayed with basketball because it was fun but also because there wasn’t many other sports for girls to play then hockey.”

What can we do about it: Funder perspectives

Here are 5 approaches sport funders and policymakers can take to support equitable access in the communities they support or are intending to reach in their return to play investments.  

1. Prioritize community-led organizations

In order to create more opportunity in sport, funders should partner with organizations that are led by the demographics they are trying to serve. For example, if you want more Black youth involved in sport, it is important to support Black-led organizations who do sport. Local organizations understand the nuanced perspectives of their communities, and how different aspects of the affordability equitation show up and are experienced by the diversity of their communities. Aim to be local and community-centred to attract the widest range of youth to sport.

2. Prioritize safer spaces

Sport is not always welcoming and safe for youth from intersecting, often marginalized identities. Investing in spaces and programming that center on a single demographic group (for example, Black youth, Girls, 2SLGBTQ+ spaces) can enable the prioritization of operational frameworks on the ground and learning from modalities that best engage and address barriers specific to the perspectives and lived experiences of youth from those communities.

3. Provide unrestricted grants

Most of the time, organizations are skilled in delivering impactful, culturally relevant sport programming in ways that are safe and appropriate for the communities they serve, but these organizations struggle to pay staff and keep the lights on. Operational costs are essential to quality programming. Supporting the people on the ground with fewer budgetary restrictions on how resources can be spent enables additional flexibility to respond to nuanced or unforeseen barriers as they emerge.

4. Give multi-year funding

Girl dribbling basketball wearing a Raptors shirtThe sustainability of good quality programming and retention of skilled coaches depends on continuous funding. If we want to change the dynamic of sport and prioritize culturally relevant programming, we need to think and invest for the long term. Providing organizations with the security of long-term funding enables long term planning and strategies, with a higher likelihood of attracting and retaining young for the long term. In addition, it will benefit youth because they are able to have an environment that is predictable, giving them a sense of safety and security.

5. Focus on reciprocity and consider non-monetary contributions

Build relationships that allow you to understand the need and impact of the work. It shouldn’t be a transactional flow of funds, but rather a symbiotic flow of learning and resources that includes a monetary component. In addition to a monetary investment, what are you doing to support the grantee or partner and the development of the organization to support their ability and sustainability? For example, what opportunities are there to build data capacity, amplify storytelling, and position them as leaders in the space? At times, these non-monetary contributions end up being the most impactful, as it positions the organization for future success, grows awareness of the impactful work they are doing, and supports the sustainability of organizations who already have reach and legitimacy in communities with youth who have been left on the sidelines of sport. 

Concluding thoughts

For providers, funders and policymakers investing to attract new youth to their sport or retaining existing youth within their sport, it is important to consider how barriers to access can vary for youth and families from different lived experiences. The diversity of youth voices challenges us to consider access holistically, including the cost of a space on a team or club, equipment, travel and local transportation, and the culture of spaces and environments. Intersectional challenges necessitate intersectional partnerships which engage communities and local cultural, religious, or social service organizations who are often most knowledgeable and have legitimacy to respond to youth needs if they are supported with the right tools, resources and capacity.


About the Author(s)

Bryan Heal (he/him) is the Social Impact Research Lead at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), leading initiatives such as the Change the Game research program for the MLSE Foundation, MLSE LaunchPad and MLSE Community Engagement and Social Impact departments to advance access, engagement, equity and positive outcomes for youth to recognize and reach their potential through sport. Outside of work, Bryan is a settler on Treat 13 lands in Toronto and chairs the Quality Committee on the Strides Toronto Board of Directors. His favourite hobby is long runs and hikes through trails and parks, and he spends much of his waking life thinking about what to eat for his next meal.

Marika Warner is the Director of Research and Evaluation for Community Engagement and Social Impact at MLSE. Her portfolio includes program evaluation, academic research partnerships, and technology and innovation. Marika uses data to enhance practice in Sport For Development, positive youth development, sport equity, and corporate social responsibility in professional sport. She led the creation of MLSE Scoreboard, a digital platform for youth sport engagement and evaluation. Her team leads the annual Change the Game Research Study, a collaboration with University of Toronto to assess youth sport access, engagement and equity issues across Ontario. She is an invited author of a chapter in the Routledge Handbook of Sport and Sustainable Development and has authored publications in Sociology of Sport, the International Journal of Sport & Society, Advances in Physical Education, and the Journal of Sport for Development. Marika is also a retired professional dancer, former physical therapist, and mom.

Quazance Boissoneau is an Anishinaabekwe from Garden River First Nation. She is an advocate for Indigenous mental health and wellness through physical movement. Her passion is advancing Indigenous youth through sport and education. In her work she strives to promote balanced lifestyles for Indigenous people living in two-worlds and is currently the Manager of Indigenous Education and Engagement at Humber College. Born and raised in Northern Ontario, Qua is a former varsity athlete who studied at Algoma University, and now calls Toronto her second home. This Fall she has gone back to school at Toronto Metropolitan University where is completing her Masters of Science in Management. Prior to this she has two post-graduate certificates in Public Policy specializing in Indigenous Governance (Carleton University) and Sports & Event Marketing (George Brown College). She believes that the skills she used while attaining her goals were fostered in sport.

Kendra Kerr hails from the Treaty #20 territory of the Chippewas of Georgina Island. Kendra’s walk-up song would be Big Poppa by the Notorious B.I G. This is exactly the kind of swagger you need when managing the investment of more than $10 million in strategic social impact projects. At MLSE Foundation, Kendra works with community partners and corporate investors to amplify impact, scale successful projects and build capacity in grassroots youth-serving organizations, while simultaneously driving brand affinity for MLSE’s sport teams. Driven by an endless pursuit of knowledge, Kendra is passionate about equity-driven philanthropy, Indigenous sovereignty, and the realized inclusion of girls and 2SLGBTQIA+ youth. She also lives to find the perfect slice of pizza.

The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.