Crippled by COVID-19, Canada's youth sports sector requires flexibility for families, businesses

Like most businesses in this country, Canada’s billion dollar youth sports industry has been devastated by COVID-19. Thousands of leagues have been sidelined. So, too, have the wide array of businesses that support and supplement young athletes.

Youth development organizations facing difficult financial decisions due to shutdown

An amateur baseball field sits dormant as the youth sports sector continues to feel the devastating effects of sweeping virus-related shutdowns. (Will Graves/File-The Associated Press)

Scott Oakman knows that whenever Canada emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, his sport and others will be confronted with a new economic reality.

The Executive Director of the Greater Toronto Hockey League, Canada's largest and most powerful minor hockey league, says it can no longer pay lip service when it comes to actually making hockey more affordable. Oakman and other industry leaders are acutely aware that many families' sports budgets are more limited than ever.

"We were able to get by without doing much about it in the past. Now we have to do something about it," Oakman told CBC Sports. "There is a greater degree of motivation to make sure that we can make hockey available to all the families that are going to need it even more."

Like most businesses in this country, Canada's billion dollar youth sports industry has been crippled by COVID-19. Thousands of leagues have been sidelined. So, too, have the wide array of businesses that support and supplement young athletes.

Already, many baseball and soccer leagues across Canada have cancelled their seasons. Countless tournaments, the highlight of most seasons, have also been wiped off the schedule.

WATCH | Youth sports take hit from COVID-19:

The National: Kids and minor sports leagues sidelined by COVID-19

2 years ago
Duration 2:21
CBC Sports' Jamie Strashin reports on the effects COVID-19 is having on minor sports in Canada.

While organizations would usually roll over registration fees as a credit for next year, many have moved quickly to put money back in the hands of parents.

On the hockey side, closed rinks meant many organizations had their playoffs cut short. Even though there is no action on the ice, most clubs and associations are in the midst of registering players for next season.

The Leaside Hockey Association in Toronto is home to more than a thousand players and offers programs from learn-to-play to more competitive teams. It has decided to delay registration for now and will offer parents different ways to pay for next season.

"There's so much uncertainty right now, we didn't think it was the right time to be taking money from families," Leaside's president Susan Irving told CBC Sports. "There are a lot of people that are going to be unemployed, especially given we're going into a recession and we want to do everything we can to make sure that we get all players back on the ice."

Susan Irving, president of the Leaside Hockey Association, is considering various options to reduce spending for families with tight sports budgets, including limited tournament travelling. (Michael Drapack/CBC)

Irving says it's too early to know how the country's battered economy will affect the number of families registering their children to play hockey.

She points out that for Leaside and most organizations across the country, the cost of ice time eats much of the budget but says they are working hard to find savings elsewhere.

"We do have paid coaches for a lot of our teams for skills [development]. So that's an area that you could possibly cut back," Irving says. "But I'm hoping that's not where we cut back because that's where the kids get development and just a different voice."

Irving says savings can also be found by limiting travel and reducing tournament participation.

"It's the tournaments that then turn into hotel bills that also turn into food bills. So you know there's a lot of leeway in that area that you can kind of cut back as well."

Irving says when this all over it's imperative that no family is excluded because their financial situation has changed.

"We have player assistance programs already and we're now looking at whether we need to increase that. We will do whatever we can because at the end of the day it's important for that player to be on the ice."

The GTHL has recently formed a working group that Oakman says will offer parents and struggling clubs some financial relief.

"Everything is on the table right now to find tangible changes that we can make to save money," he says. "It's going to force us, our organizations and our teams and everybody involved in the game to think very differently than … the traditional game has been offered."

Scott Oakman, executive director of the Greater Toronto Hockey League, says his organization has created a working group aimed at providing financial relief for parents and struggling clubs. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

Oakman says a number of things are being explored but initially the league is looking at things like younger teams sharing practice ice. It's also looking at having all teams possibly playing fewer games.

He says there are some quick fixes as well like the extra swag teams purchase every year.

"Do players need the track suits, the new hockey pants, new jerseys, new hockey bags every season?" Oakman asks.

'Critical point' for businesses

It's not just leagues, clubs and associations who are facing financial pressures and uncertainty.

For example, take Baseline Sports in Toronto. It would usually be a hive of activity this time of year — alive with the sound of bats and balls. Usually about a thousand players a week from dozens of teams use the space to sharpen their skills. Instead the 10-thousand square foot facility is eerily quiet. Like everyone these days, owner Raf Choudhury has tried to stay connected to players and coaches.

"Zoom lessons is good for the spirit and soul but it doesn't really pay the rent," Choudhury says. "Getting back up and running is going to be critical to us in the next two months. Once we get to July, we're going have to make some hard decisions about whether to shut down.

"It will be a critical point for us, for sure."

Raf Choudhury, owner of Baseline Sports in Toronto, faces the reality of potentially shutting down his youth sports development business if virus-related closures continue into July. (Michael Drapack/CBC)

Down the highway in London, Ont., former Major League Baseball player Adam Stern is facing similar concerns. He runs an even larger facility and this would usually be his busiest and most profitable time of year.

"There are ebbs and flows of every business. But I think this is just a stark contrast of basically nothing, you have nothing, you don't have any revenue coming in," Stern told CBC Sports.

Stern continues to pay rent even though the 45-thousand square foot facility is dormant.

"That's what I've chosen to do," Stern says. "When your door is closed I don't know how much longer you can do it that way when you're not bringing in anything and everything goes out the door."

Youth sports turns to federal aid

In the United States, the youth sports sector has tried to quantify the impact COVID-19 has had on the industry.

According to a poll conducted by the Aspen Institute Project Play Initiative, nearly 60 per cent of local sports leaders said their organizations will project to lose at least 50 per cent of their revenue over the next year due to COVID-19. Earlier this month, a coalition of more than 500 leagues and affected businesses asked Congress for an $8.5 billion US economic stabilization fund for youth sports providers and the formation of a youth sports COVID-19 Task Force.

In Canada, money is already flowing. Last week, the federal government earmarked more than $30 million dollars that should soon trickle down to local leagues and businesses through provincial sport organizations.

There are many businesses like Stern and Choudhury's and entrepreneurs — the power skating and pitching coaches — whose livelihoods depend on youth sports and parents willing to spend extra money to bolster their child's skills.

It's unclear how these businesses will emerge from all of this.

"It isn't a necessity, it's more, you know, bred from working towards goals and long term development," Stern says. "So you hope that that confidence comes back in the parents and the players once the initial impact subsides."


Jamie Strashin is a native Torontonian whose latest stop is the CBC Sports department. Before, he spent 15 years covering everything from city hall to courts and breaking news as a reporter for CBC News. He has also worked in Brandon, Man., and Calgary. Follow him on Twitter @StrashinCBC


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