Green turf, blue sky, white nets. In a world halted by a pandemic, the sights and sounds of dozens of kids in soccer practice sometimes still seem surreal.
After two years of shrinking numbers, enrollment in youth sports is surging back to pre-pandemic levels. For some organizations, it’s soaring even higher.
The teams at Emerald Youth Sports complex in Lonsdale are visible proof of spring’s annual miracle: Here comes life, again.
Emerald has some kind of sport happening seven days a week across its locations. Athletic director Sanford Miller said many of this year’s enrollees are playing a team sport for the first time.
“COVID allowed them who were sitting in the house to say they wanted to get out of the house and do something,” Miller said.
At Emerald, “something” ranges from baseball, trail running, swim lessons, volleyball, basketball and multiple leagues of soccer, which is typically its most popular offering. Emerald’s Premier League has 137 teams this year.
In some sports, they’ve nearly doubled participation.
The AAU basketball program grew from seven teams last season to 13 this season. Track and trail running, a newer offering, went from seven participants to 15.
About 230 kids are enrolled in Emerald’s academy soccer program compared to 150 last year. Another 35 are on a waiting list.
Knoxville families are ready for the world to open up, and they think activities for their kids should be a part of that.
“If Neyland Stadium is full, why can’t the soccer fields be full?” Miller said.
Relaxed guidelines have brought back some of the excitement for kids, who were able to watch others’ games once again.
“Kids are ecstatic to be out there and root for all their buddies, brothers and sisters,” said Chad Ragle, executive director for Knox Youth Sports. The organization has seen a “tremendous boost” in enrollment this spring.
What has changed?
What factors combined to make this spring — the third of the pandemic — more normal for youth sports?
For starters, there has been a steadily decreasing number of COVID-19 cases, including among children. Knox County Schools actually reported zero cases among its students and staff in recent days.
And unlike the previous two springs, the bulk of participants in youth sports are eligible for COVID-19 vaccines.
In Knox County, 23% of 5- to 11-year-olds and 49% of 12- to 15-year-olds are vaccinated. Their families, too, are more protected than they were last spring, when widespread vaccine rollout was just beginning and aimed at the most vulnerable populations.
And after two years of stops and starts, this spring a third factor may have won over families hoping to return to youth sports: pandemic fatigue.
That’s been a factor for Knox Youth Sports, which offers baseball, softball and lacrosse in the spring for children 12 and under. Ragle said Knox Youth Sports has added about 225 kids to its baseball and softball teams this year, up to 925 players total compared to 700 last spring.
Lacrosse, already a small sport in Knoxville, grew from 50 players to 75 this spring.
Everyone is hoping that this season will continue as planned, running the full stretch of spring without cancelled games and crowd restrictions.
“From what I’m hearing from our commissioners, there’s a lot of talk in their communities that players are interested, parents are interested again,” said Nathan Nease, athletics director for the city of Knoxville.
Nease coordinates leagues across the city for both adults and children. They’ve seen enrollment drop since the pandemic started, Nease said.
This spring, Nease thinks they will add back around 10 teams for a total of 90 — still shy of its peak, but recovering. Sign-ups are still going on for some leagues, but the early numbers show increasing interest.
”It’s been an uphill battle. But obviously, the numbers are there this spring and I feel like we’re finally kind of coming out it,” Ragle said.
With sports comes socialization
Among the many losses children have experienced during the pandemic is a lack of opportunities to meet new friends. Playing with others, whether at school, the park or at home, wasn’t the same, if it happened at all.
Youth sports provide a key avenue out of that loneliness. At practice, kids have the peer-to-peer interactions they’ve been missing.
“They have fun when they come to soccer,” said Tymier Johnson of her children.
Johnson is a mother of five. Her kids have been enrolled in Emerald Youth Sports for five years. Two of her sons are now playing soccer, and doing so has given them an outlet.
“I enjoy seeing them just be happy. He’s my most animated one so when he scores and does a cartwheel or does a little dance, it’s good to see their personality come out,” said Johnson of her oldest son.
Playing for a team gives kids accountability, communication, teamwork, work ethic – all things that apply to jobs and adulthood, Miller said.
“To be able to be back where we are now and to give kids a sense of hope. Yes, it’s a sport, but it’s a vehicle for life,” Miller said. “We give kids an opportunity and a chance at life.”
Recent seasons affected by COVID-19
In March 2020, youth sports organizations were in the midst of sign-ups, finalizing teams and beginning first practices.
Then came COVID-19. Most programs came to a screeching halt. Knox Youth Sports’ spring programs were cancelled completely.
But that absence only grew the hunger for youth sports. The following fall had one of the highest enrollments in KYS history, Ragle said, with over 800 kids, which is 200 more than the previous fall.
Emerald’s numbers started creeping up in 2021 but COVID-19 was still affecting activities.
“Kids started coming out, but we were still dealing with a lot of quarantining,” Miller said. “You would sign up and you would be done for 14 days.”
Dropping enrollment has been a year-round problem for the city’s programs, though. Nease said the winter youth basketball leagues have lost 50 teams over the last two years.
That number lurched down over two COVID-19 winters. In the 2020–2021 season, youth basketball was down to 325 teams from 359 pre-pandemic. This season, there were only 309 teams.
Nease said this decrease was probably attributable to COVID because the winter surges started right about the time sign-ups were happening. COVID cases among players and coaches led to several games being cancelled this year.
But rising enrollment in adult sports programs is indicative that the interest in group sports is returning, Nease said.
“Even our adult sports we’ve dropped off from COVID. But we are starting to see more now that things are opening up more, I’ve noticed our adult registration is a lot higher – probably not higher, back to normal,” Nease said.