Introduction & Methodology:
This is the third and final portion of a multi-part research series to analyze the state of youth sports and COVID-19’s impact. You can read the introduction, part one and part two of the series here. This post will cover both the positive and negative insights which we were able to gain during the various stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. To understand this, we analyzed 17,634 youth sports clubs, leagues and national governing bodies (NGBs), accounts across 29 youth sports. Due to the fragmented state of the industry, we’ve chosen to populate the largest sample size available through Tipevo’s patented system. This large sample allows us to penetrate the many layers and segments embedded in youth sports to gain the best insights and perspectives at an industry level. Additional information about the scope of this study can be found in the ‘data sample’ paragraph at the bottom of this post.
In April 2020, conversations with our youth sports business partners, including clubs, leagues and national governing bodies (NGBs), began to take a dramatic shift. The focus became, “How much disruption might the industry face and what might the long-term impact be?” We started listening to everything that was being said online, garnering results almost in real-time. By paying close attention to social media activity, website updates and changes within our digital network, we gained insight on what youth sports businesses were experiencing across the country. This post outlines our data findings and provides unprecedented industry insight around how organizations engaged their members and communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Section 1: Business As Usual
Given the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on youth sports, the first question we asked ourselves was how would it impact the industry long-term. Would programming be offered during the pandemic? Would participants still have an appetite to continue gathering for youth sports given the uncertain and sometimes unstable training environment?
Business As Usual Post-Lockdown
Beginning in June 2020, and extending through the summer and into the fall, we noticed a resurgence in youth sports programming, specifically in areas where guidelines and protocols allow. While the world around us is ever-changing, things appear to be business as usual in youth sports unless otherwise prevented.
Within our sample, 67.2% have posted about registration, tryouts and/or sign up being open. It should be noted that there are some sports who aren’t currently offering activities but remain included within our sample. While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused record unemployment and surly impacted household income, we found that only 3.5% have publicly posted about altering programming or payment structures to help accommodate parental financial hardships. While there are some who have been unable to move forward with their in-person offerings, we can clearly see that it is business as usual for those who have the ability to choose.
In addition to spotlighting those who have already been able to offer their programming, winter sports also appear to be ready to offer participation opportunities. While there is no guarantee the season will be completed, there is a clear willingness to offer programming when not mandated otherwise.
Section 2: A Lack of Standardization
While analyzing the data, it was assumed that there would be clear and consistent trends throughout the larger youth sports landscape. While it was clear to identify trends within specific sports, or when comparing specific sports with others, what Tipevo has actually confirmed is a lack of uniformity and standardization within the youth sports industry as a whole. In an already disjointed industry, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated weaknesses and issues which already existed.
No Specific Playbook on Return to Activity
While we’ve already acknowledged that each sports program may differ in their ability to offer programming due to local and regional guidelines and protocols, there appears to be a subjective approach to how each business approaches COVID-19.
One may assume that implementing social distancing and other protocols such as requiring masks and limiting spectator count is occurring across the board, but our data tells a different story. Of the 17,634 businesses included in our sample, only 1,840, or roughly 10% of organizations communicated using references such as guidelines or protocols from their digital footprint. One consideration which must be taken into account is the possibility that businesses such as clubs and leagues are relying on other sources to communicate changing guidelines, such as a larger governing body, employees or a local municipality. That said, we have to ask; are they choosing to communicate at all? It may seem unlikely, but are some organizations choosing to ignore government protocols? While there are some programs who will not need to communicate since they have already cancelled programming, there is a large number of programs within our sample who aren’t doing anything.
In addition to a lack of standardized communication, the COVID-19 pandemic and varying guidelines and protocols have impacted the organization’s ability to reasonably navigate what is considered acceptable, specifically when it comes to competition which requires travel, whether for a series of games or a regional tournament. In some cases, games and tournaments have been able to continue in some capacity. In other instances, teams are leaving their community to play in other areas where guidelines and protocols are less stringent. Whether this is a good thing or not, it is occurring, as 14% of our sample have posted using the word tournament since the lockdown, whether they’ve had a team travel to an event or they are hosting a tournament for their team and others in the region. This means that at present, there are more people who are talking about playing vs the guidelines and protocols associated with competing in today’s environment!
Due to the lack of a standardized approach to competition during the pandemic, each team, club or association appear to be making decisions based on their individual priorities and the priorities of their membership.
Sporting Construct Matters
When considering standardization, there are sports which we’ve analyzed previously (part two, here) who have a better chance of being less disrupted than others, and this is no different as we head towards the winter.
It is particularly interesting to note that of those organizations who offer programming in the winter, most, such as ice hockey, basketball and wrestling are contact-based sports. While we cannot predict the future, there is a greater chance of disruption due to those previously identified constructs when compared to non-contact sports such as swimming.
Section 3: Communication Trends & Transparency
In an era where everything is expected to be digital, communications about youth sports (specifically dates, times and reminders) aren’t any different. While there are a certain number of communications which will always be sent internally, the results which we’ve analyzed in our sample tell a slightly different story.
With only 25% of youth sports programming posting using references such as press, release, announcement and update, how are the other 75% communicating? Are they not communicating these updates publicly and instead relying on other methods to share information? Perhaps many are holding off on public announcements because of the ever-changing guidelines and mandates, in hopes of returning to play soon. Or possibly as an effort to keep local competitors in the dark to gain a competitive edge? While we can only speculate as to why, we have to assume there is a pressing reason to withhold this information from the general public.
That said, there are some additional factors to consider as to the reasons some businesses may or may not publicly communicate changes in operations.
- Where is the sport at in their season?
- Is it the off season where communication ceases?
- Do they have a reason to communicate at the current time?
What’s the Point of Social Media?
Within our sample size, we were able to identify and split programs into two very clear groups; those who actively use social media (have posted in some capacity over the past thirty days) and those who have it, but as more of a formality (have not posted in any capacity over the past thirty days). When comparing those two groups, it is easy to identify a clear correlation between usage and follower count. For those who actively used social media over the past thirty days, their average follower count was 1,119. For those who appear to be dormant on social media (have not posted in any capacity over the past thirty days), that was reflected with an average follower count of 489, a sizable difference vs the first segment.
One can make the assumption that a youth sports program would utilize their social media channels for marketing and promotion, and that isn’t wrong. What we’ve learned through analyzing the content of each posting is that there is no rhyme, reason or methodology within the industry as a whole. At a high-level, program content includes:
- Partner promotion, fundraising and reminders
- Promotion, fundraising and reminders
- Milestone or achievement
- Player milestone or achievement
While there isn’t a consistent methodology for how a program may utilize social media, the data is further impacted by the sentiment associated with each post. For example, was the post something positive in nature vs something negative? While there wasn’t specific uniformity relating to social media and our sample, we analyzed 108,852 social media posts. Based on that analysis, our open-sourced sentiment analysis provided us with the following insights.
It is those details that have led us to the conclusion that youth sports organizations aren’t generally using their social media channels as a way to inform the community about changes in operations due to Covid-19. If that was the case, there would be a greater demonstration of negative sentiment. We can use the same line of thinking when considering positive sentiment. The high percentage of positive sentiment indicates organizations are using their social media channels to showcase their community, whether it be the celebration of milestones, athletes, birthdays and significant events.
Section 4: Conclusion
In conclusion, youth sports businesses including programs, leagues and national governing bodies (NGB) have and will continue to endure massive challenges in the face of COVID-19. Through a state and territorial stay at home orders which forced all programming to go virtual in the spring, to the continued stopping and starting in the summer and fall seasons, we’ve been able to identify which sports and areas have been the least and most dramatically disrupted. While there isn’t a national standard for when and how to return, we can clearly see that youth sports businesses are trying to remain open. Not only for the sake of their bottom line but for the sake of the athlete and their mental health. By publishing these insights, we at Tipevo hope that we’ve not only provided transparency into what has already occurred, but also what may occur in the winter of 2020 and the spring of 2021 as we continue to fight the COVID-19 pandemic!
Data Sample Details:
We analyzed 17,634 youth sports businesses including programs, leagues and national governing bodies (NGBs) across all sports, states, and levels. Despite the significant differences, Tipevo’s patented system allows for standardization, making it possible to analyze these once dissimilar populations by creating the largest data sample possible. Due to the complex fragmentation within the industry, it is vital to analyze the largest and most diverse sample possible. Results taken from a smaller sample size would only provide an extrapolation from a statistically insignificant segment of the youth sports community. This level of coverage is unprecedented among researchers within this industry.
This analysis contains information grabbed directly from these businesses through their digital footprint. In addition, we’ve also performed a proprietary sentiment analysis on every piece of content we process to monitor the evolution of certain topics such as ‘COVID-19’ or ‘fall season’.
Youth sports organization defined as a formally organized for-profit, non-profit or education-based entity which offers participation opportunities through practice and competition for children under the age of 18.
Digital footprint defined as the program’s website, Tipevo and social media accounts.
Open-source sentiment analysis defined as an interpretation and classification of emotions (positive, negative and neutral) within text data using text analysis techniques.