The History of Youth Sports

Sports are a fundamental part of most kids’ childhoods. Both children and parents enjoy youth sports because they keep kids active, help them make friends, and teach life lessons. But where did youth sports begin? 

These days, it’s normal, even expected, for kids to play flag football, soccer, baseball, or basketball. But youth sports haven’t always been as popular as they are now. Here’s a look at the history of youth sports in America over the past 170 years to help you understand how we got to where we are today.

States made school attendance mandatory for children in 1852.

Massachusetts was the first state to pass a compulsory education law requiring all children to attend school. Every state had a similar requirement by 1918. Before school was mandatory, a child’s day consisted of helping out at home or on the farm—as well as getting into trouble.

The advent of schooling filled a lot of free time, but kids still had all afternoon to cause mischief. A common solution was to build parks and playgrounds where children could play. The introduction of organized youth sports soon followed, which offered more structure than playground games.

Cities began establishing Athletic Leagues in 1903.

New York City established the first Public Schools Athletic League, which pitted schools against one another for championship titles. The idea was to bring more competition to youth sports. The trend caught on, and by 1910, 17 other nearby cities had similar organizations. Athletic Leagues only continued to spread from there.

Pay-to-play youth sports popped up in the 1930s.

Following a few decades of growth, publicly financed youth sports took a big hit during the Great Depression. This started a shift toward pay-to-play organizations like Pop Warner Football and Little League Baseball.

In 1929, Joseph J. Tomlin founded the first youth football league as a crime prevention initiative in an especially troubled area of Philadelphia, PA. The four-team league was originally called the Junior Football Conference, but it changed its name to Pop Warner in tribute to Glenn “Pop” Warner, a legendary coach at Temple University.

Junior baseball launched in 1926 as a creative effort of the American Legion to promote patriotism and good citizenship, three years before its football counterpart. However, it wasn’t until 1939 that Little League baseball officially debuted in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Its founder, Carl Stotz, reportedly wanted to expose his young nephews and other boys to rules and life lessons designed to suit them.

Pay-to-play leagues grew in popularity in the 1940s-1960s.

During this era, organized youth sports programs truly began to thrive. Still, not everyone was smitten. Debate raged over whether the fierce competition and high-pressure elements of youth sports were unhealthy for young kids. There was also concern surrounding talented children earning all the attention while less athletically gifted youngsters were left behind.

By the 1960s, these attitudes had grown into a full-blown movement surrounding self-esteem. The results of this movement are still evident today. After all, while children as young as 3 years old can participate in youth sports, interscholastic programs tend not to begin until middle school.

AYSO soccer was founded in 1964.

Hans Stierle founded the American Youth Soccer Organization in Los Angeles with nine teams consisting of any youngsters who wanted to play. Even players who had never kicked a soccer ball before were welcome to learn and join the league.

Title IX passed in 1972.

Up to this point, all organized sports had one thing in common—they largely catered to boys. Title IX changed that by prohibiting sex-based discrimination in schools, educational programs, and youth sports.

Before this landmark civil rights legislation, about one out of 27 girls played sports. Almost half a century later, two out of five girls were on organized youth sports teams. Statistics from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) also reveal that about 43% of US high school athletes during the 2018-19 school year were girls.

Scholarships for athletic performance became every athlete’s dream in the 1970s.

US colleges started offering athletic scholarships in 1950 under the guidance of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). But the desire to obtain one really skyrocketed when Baby Boomers began graduating from high school in the 1970s. With so many people applying for college, simply having good grades suddenly wasn’t enough. Athletes began garnering more attention as their sporting careers made them stand out.

Since this mindset shift 50 years ago, it has now become more common to pursue sports in hopes of landing a scholarship. While it’s good to set goals, it’s also important to have reasonable expectations. The drive to earn a scholarship shouldn’t be any parent’s or child’s primary reason to get involved in youth sports. After all, figures from the NCAA and NFHS reveal that only 3.5% of high school basketball players, male or female, go on to play at the collegiate level. And only 2% of college players in any sport earn an athletic scholarship.

i9 Sports® Changes the Game.

i9 Sports® founder, Frank Fiume, identified a destructively competitive, highly political culture that was turning sports into a negative experience for kids. He felt that all kids needed the opportunity to learn how to play sports and have fun. But how could this happen if kids were constantly told they were not good enough to play or made to sit on the bench? Kids who didn’t have fun, or who didn’t get playing time, often dropped out of sports entirely. Instead of building kids up, sports were often tearing them down. Frank set out to fix it. In 2003, i9 Sports® was born with a simple goal of putting fun back into youth sports. Today we have thousands of kids enjoying youth sports every week throughout the country! 

Understanding the history of youth sports gives you a greater appreciation for the opportunities available at i9 Sports®®. We’re the nation’s first and largest youth sports league franchise, with over 3.5  million registrations in communities ranging from New York to Hawaii. We focus on fun, instruction, and sportsmanship, with highly convenient, once-a-week programs that won’t take up too much family time. If you’re ready to enjoy a positive, stress-free experience for the whole family, get in touch with your local i9 Sports® office today.

i9 Sports sportsmanship medal winner smiles with his medal and his instructor