Summer in New York City has always meant venturing out to enjoy the warmth, energy, and life of the City. For many young people, this has meant playing sports. Whether it be heading to the nearest basketball court for a pickup game, the local park with a soccer ball, a community pool to help cool off, or to a little league game, for years, kids across the city have turned to sports as the summer recreation activity of choice.
However, since the pandemic, as kids were kept inside and their normal activities canceled, nearly 36% of young people across New York State have lost interest in organized sports. Not only have kids lost interest, but over the past few decades, communities have also lost interest in investing in infrastructure to support youth sports. Mayor Eric Adams promised to allocate 1% of the city budget to just over $1 billion for the Department of Parks and Recreation, but his finalized budget cut that number in half.
Disparities along racial and income lines persist when it comes to access to recreational facilities, youth sports, and programming. According to the Aspen Institute, children whose parents make less than $25,000 are three times as likely to be “inactive” than kids of parents who make over $100,000.
The benefits of recreation for young people are clear. Those who participate in sports show better social skills, mental health skills, and, obviously, physical fitness. Youth recreational opportunities also provide a key source of a less-quantifiable resource: Community social capital. Social capital, as popularized by sociologist Robert Putnam, is made up of the “connections among individuals—social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trust that arise from them.” The downstream effects of social capital include communities with less crime, better educational systems, and a slew of positive residual effects on individuals.
Sports, and particularly youth sports, have a direct link to social capital by creating associational bonds between disparate groups of people. In Beacon, NY, a small town on the banks of the Hudson about 2 hours north of New York City, a crowd gathers on a neighborhood corner every Tuesday night to watch the youth basketball league. Under bright white halogen lights, players in jerseys emblazoned with the logo of the pizzeria down the street or the community plumbing company run up and down the outdoor court. The court is surrounded by a chain-link fence and lined with lawn chairs full of parents cheering their kids on, or simply neighbors out to spend time with their friends. The teams are made up of kids from all over the city. Sports and recreation, particularly community-focused sporting events, can create an immeasurable social benefit to communities by creating networks across class, race, and neighborhood lines and building the connections that create social capital.
In contrast to this spectacle of community-oriented sports, New York City poured taxpayer dollars – $71 million to be exact – into building a state-of-the-art ballpark in Fort George, right next to the ferry dock. At the time of construction, the ballpark was to be home to the Staten Island Yankees, a low-level minor league team for the New York Yankees. The ballpark is only a 25-minute ride from Manhattan, something that community members thought would attract fans not just from Staten Island but from across New York City. Affordable tickets, accessible transportation, and high-quality professional baseball made the ballpark seem like a no-brainer investment for the community to spark business development around a relatively sparse area. Ten years later, this investment has fallen flat for the Staten Island community. The Yankees’ affiliate left in 2020, citing poor attendance numbers. A new independent league team moved in for 2021 and beyond, but the stadium still rarely draws a crowd. Recruiting this team cost the city’s taxpayers an additional $8 million for updates to the stadium and covering costs.
Similar initiatives have occurred around the country. In Reading, PA, the city and county committed $3 million apiece and the state of Pennsylvania is providing $7.5 million for ballpark renovations for the Reading Fightin Phils stadium—which received a $10 million renovation in 2011. Hagerstown, Maryland, was gifted nearly $60 million by the state of Maryland to build a brand new stadium to attract an independent-league baseball team in the same league as the new team in Staten Island. Across the country, cities, counties, and states routinely gift millions in taxpayer funds to team owners in the form of ballparks, cheap leases, and tax breaks to attract teams. At the same time, the current generation of kids is far less likely to reap the benefits of sports participation than the generation before them.
While New York City invested millions in a massive stadium that, mostly, sits empty, the City’s park budget and access to affordable youth recreation opportunities have flatlined. There is a demonstrated need across New York City for equitable access to recreational facilities, additional programming for young New Yorkers, and improved resources for parks across the city. There’s nothing more American than baseball on a summer evening, but the return on investment for many large stadium projects–both financially and socially–has fallen short of expectations for the communities they’re built in. Reorienting these investments towards community resources like parks and youth programming can reinvigorate these long New York summer evenings with the sounds of community: The cheers erupting from a little league game, or the screech of basketball shoes, or the metallic jangle of a ball arcing through the net on a brand new neighborhood court.