Is sports technology creating a more just society or widening the gap?

By Dave DuPont

Athletics has historically been one of our great equalizers. No matter who your parents are or how much money they make, you still have a chance to play and excel. 

Even if you don’t play at an elite level, sports have often been a bridge to a successful career by instilling the benefits of teamwork and providing a network. New employees at investment firms often have significant sports experience, for example, and 95% of all of Fortune 500 CEOs played sports at some level.

When you look back over 20th-century American history, examples of sports helping to create a more just society abound. Consider how Jackie Robinson won over many of the least progressive Brooklyn Dodgers fans because he was thrilling to watch. He led the team to six pennants and a World Series win — which ultimately paved the way for Major League Baseball to be fully integrated. In the 1960s, Black and Latino athletes like Roberto Clemente, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell became heroes to fans across the political spectrum against the backdrop of deep societal fractures. 

I can speak from personal experience about the power of sports to foster diversity. Most of my high school years were spent in a small town northwest of Sacramento called Wheatland, Calif. Sports, like the armed forces, bring people together from all walks of life. Since 90% of my fellow students' dads lived on the nearby Air Force base, we had a diverse student body, unlike in the surrounding towns. We all played together for the “front of the jersey,” and it taught me to value diversity from a very early age.

Alarmingly, youth sports are now becoming less diverse, which may threaten the role sports has always played as an equalizer. According to a 2017 report from the Aspen Institute and the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, children from low-income households are half as likely to play a day’s worth of team sports than kids from households earning $100,000 or more. This trend is likely to be exacerbated by the pandemic, since the economic impact of COVID-19 has been much worse for vulnerable communities.

Diminishing access for low-income kids is a result of skyrocketing participation costs, including league and tournament fees, travel, equipment and coaching. The average annual cost across sports is $693, according to the Aspen Institute, but annual costs can balloon into five figures for more expensive sports like ice hockey and gymnastics. 

Some youth sports are especially lacking in diversity, which can have consequences for children’s future career prospects. Consider that lacrosse over-indexes for kids from affluent families, and it’s also one of the most important sports from a professional networking perspective. Since lower-income kids are mostly unable to play lacrosse, they also miss out on the long-term benefits of being part of the larger lacrosse community.

In some ways, the emergence of sports technology has put underprivileged kids at an even greater disadvantage. Many affluent parents paid for virtual coaching during the pandemic to help their kids keep developing skills when youth sports leagues were shut down, for example. This simply wouldn’t have been an option for low-income families, especially when you consider that 24% of people with household income under $30,000 don’t even have a smartphone. Well-off families can also afford a host of new consumer tech aimed at sports skills development, such as a $100 smart soccer ball that runs drills. 

The good news is that sports technology can be also deployed to help close the gap between affluent and low-income families. There are a number of new skills development mobile applications that offer free versions — or even premium versions at a low price. Consider HomeCourt, an AI-powered mobile app that helps basketball players improve their shooting and track their progress, which is available for free or $7 per month for the premium version. 

Another arena in which technology can help low-income families is in lowering the cost of athletic gear. Helmets, protective equipment, sticks and bats, and skates and cleats can all be prohibitively expensive. Online sites like SidelineSwap provide a way to acquire used but high-quality athletic gear for much lower prices than retail, and also to sell back articles that young athletes have outgrown. 

Last, there are a number of software platforms that let organizations more effectively perform key operations like registration, game scheduling, facilities management and fundraising, enabling them to lower participation costs.

Technology can play a powerful role in the future of youth sports, but it needs to be harnessed in the right way so it doesn’t end up inadvertently widening the gap. When considering how technology can best be integrated into youth sports, we have to look at what each potential solution will really do in practice. Will it increase access to virtually any kid who’s interested, or will it contribute to making the sport more niche and elitist? The stakes of getting it right are high, but if we leverage technology in the right way, we can reverse the current trend line and ensure that sports continue bringing people together, just as they always have.

Dave DuPont is founder of TeamSnap, a platform to help people manage sports and group activities.