Youth Sports Initiative aims to improve city sports teams

New citywide sports association could organize parents, create stronger traveling teams

Minneapolis youth sports programs are failing to provide consistent, competitive programs, and the city needs a way to improve the quality of play and participation, say several city leaders and coaches. On Wednesday, June 4, a city consultant will propose a new nonprofit, citywide youth sports association, with a full-time executive director and a full-time fundraiser with a start-up budget of between $135,000 and $175,000.

Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board President Bob Fine and Minneapolis School Board member Dennis Schapiro are members of the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board, a multi-governmental group that will hear the proposal. They are working with consultant McKinley Boston and others on the Youth Sports Initiative.

Fine, himself a long-time coach, said a lot of people are concerned about the lack of traveling teams for more competitive city kids. A given program's quality depends on the neighborhood and the parents involved, he said.

"The concern is, when you get better kids who want to play at a higher level, there is no real higher level other than a hit-and-miss program throughout the city," he said. "We don't have a coherent program around the city, and you can tell in a lot of the high school sports as a result."

Schapiro said he worries about the sports participation drop-off that happens in middle school. Sports give kids constructive alternatives to the "distractions" that push them in the wrong direction, he said.

At the most competitive level, the city relies more on a few individuals' initiatives -- what Schapiro called sports "entrepreneurs." Suburban areas, he noted, have youth athletic associations that raise a lot of money and provide a lot of support.

If the new Minneapolis youth athletic association moves ahead, the tentative timeline includes a fall fundraising campaign, Boston said.

In addition to traveling teams, Boston said Minneapolis needs to raise money to increase girls' sports opportunities, where participation is low. Among Park Board sports teams, for instance, girls account for only 30 percent of participants.

Sports entrepreneurs

One current "sports entrepreneur" is Kenny resident Bill Butler, a Washburn High alumnus and father of four. Butler coaches for the Minneapolis Youth Baseball Association (MYBA), which has traveling teams independent of the Park Board.

He criticized the Park Board's current sports efforts during a recent Park Board meeting.

"I think youth sports needs two things; it needs to be competitive and inclusive," he said. The Park Board "has erred on the side of inclusiveness. You need to do both."

Some cities, like Eden Prairie, have both recreational teams, called house teams, and competitive traveling teams. "They do a complete job," Butler said.

Butler is also a board member of a group called the South Side Athletic Association, a nonprofit running a couple of traveling teams out of the Pearl Park area. He asked the Park Board for the opportunity to let a volunteer organization run a program for a season, such as 7th- and 8th-grade football, baseball or basketball.

Scott Zosel of Kingfield heads MYBA, which grew out of Washburn Youth Baseball Association (WYBA). MYBA now has 150 kids playing in the Metro Baseball League, competing against teams in the southern suburbs, he said.

He did not want to throw stones at the Park Board, Zosel said. It faces a lot of challenges serving kids with a wide range of talent and background.

"The goal of MYBA is so when you walk into a freshman practice in the city of Minneapolis, you will see more kids who actually have a clue as to what the game of baseball is all about," he said.

It costs $185 to $225 to play on a MYBA team, but scholarships are available, he said.

"Not only is it more competitive, but you have a 95 percent chance that an umpire will show up and about a 100 percent chance the other team will show up," he said. "In the Park Board, they [parents] are frustrated that that doesn't happen with enough consistency."

Schapiro said the suburbs have more volunteer coaches than Minneapolis. A more structured and coordinated citywide effort could help provide training and financial support to start-up teams, he said.