As kids across the country turn away from sports, young Mainers can’t get enough

The pandemic has exacerbated a persistent decline in the number of American children who regularly play team sports, according to data from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, but local league organizers say Maine children have bucked the trend filling lists at impressive rates.

“Not here,” former Windham Youth Basketball Association president Pat Moody said when asked if attendance was down. “I think it’s growing more than ever.”

His organization normally runs programs for about 550 children in kindergarten through 8th grade, said Moody, who served as president for 15 years before taking on an advisory role. While distance requirements and space limitations forced the group to scale back some programs last year, they’re already back in full swing.

It’s the same story in the Midcoast, according to Pam LeDuc, director of Topsham Parks and Recreation.

“We’re really tied – just like any other year,” LeDuc said of taking part in the Ararat Youth Basketball League, which draws kids to Topsham, Bowdoin, Bowdoinham and Harpswell. “And our autumn program for the Topsham Youth Soccer League was the same situation.”

Interest in organized sports has plummeted during the pandemic, according to a report from the Sports & Society program at the Aspen Institute. Nearly 28% of American parents whose children played sports before COVID-19 said their children did not want to return to athletics.

In Portland, however, parents and children relished the chance to get back on the playground, according to Nick Cliche, recreation supervisor for the Department of Parks and Recreation.

“I think people are just looking for opportunities to take their kids outside,” he said. “Parents are super grateful that we have offers.”

According to Cliche, 775 children are currently enrolled in the department’s basketball programs, which range from kindergarten through high school. Although that’s below the 845 attendees who played before the pandemic temporarily shut down leagues last year, more kids have jumped to other department-run programs, including ultimate Frisbee, futsal and ski.

“We’re a bit off our ultimate best numbers,” Cliche said. “But for us to approach close to 90-95% of what we normally do says a lot about the rebound of the program.”

These high participation rates come even as fewer Maine teenagers are playing on high school sports teams, according to a survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

The Aspen Institute lists several factors contributing to the national decline in sports participation, including increased screen time among children and the high cost of travel sports programs.

Yet locally, access to facilities has been the biggest barrier to even higher turnouts, according to organizers like Moody’s and Midcoast Youth Hockey President James Dube.

Midcoast, which has teams from the Under-6 to Under-12 division, has been unable to book ice time at Bowdoin College for most of the pandemic, Dube said. The result was more trips for the practice, a commitment some families decided they couldn’t make.

Still, after a declining 2020, the organization’s numbers have largely rebounded, thanks to returning players who took a year off as well as a new generation of recruits, he said.

And while Midcoast’s long-awaited return to the Bowdoin rink this week marks a step towards normalcy, Dube has his sights set on the future: a new rink in Topsham which he says will ‘absolutely’ bring even more children to sports programs in the region.

“At the end of the day, that’s where we have to go,” Dube said. “That’s where there will be a huge improvement.”

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