Baltimore to host annual national youth sports conference

Squash doesn’t seem to be able to compete with sports like soccer and basketball for the attention of young people in Baltimore.

But there are 70 middle and high school students participating in Baltimore Squash Wise’s youth development program, and the organization broke ground on April 25 to begin construction of a new center where the historic Greyhound station is located at Howard and Center streets, which will include six squash courts and three classrooms. A fitness area, meeting areas and nearly four times the number of youth players the group can accommodate.

“The spark and inspiration initially comes from kids who are genuinely curious to try something new and who will give it their all,” said Abby Marko, executive director of Baltimore SquashWise. “We often get kids who consider themselves maybe non-athletic to begin with. Some of them are, but we don’t take kids who play soccer and basketball seriously. We have kids who say, ‘This group came to my gym class or my school, and it seems interesting.’” So Let me try it.

The effort by Baltimore Squash Wise and others is part of a citywide project to increase youth participation in sports. Their actions have convinced a global organization to hold its annual conference in Baltimore this week.

The Project Play Summit at the Aspen Institute is scheduled to last two days. Orioles Hall of Fame player Cal Ripken and former Ravens receiver Torrey Smith will headline a series of talks Tuesday from 2:30-5 p.m. at the Under Armor House in Fayette, while Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, Under Armor founder and CEO Kevin Plank 20-time Paralympic medalist Tatiana McFadden, an Atholton University graduate, will participate in talks on Wednesday from 8am to 5pm at Johns Hopkins University. Other speakers include Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, Maryland football coach Mike Locksley, and former NFL and Fox Sports analyst Greg Olsen.

The organization’s decision to hold its conference in Baltimore for the first time is an acknowledgment of the city’s work to encourage more young people to play sports, according to Tom Farry, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program since 2011.

“I think Baltimore is definitely moving in the right direction,” he said. Baltimore clearly has its challenges, but it also has real assets. You have a mayor who prioritizes and values ​​the value of sports and entertainment in building healthy, vibrant communities. We have Under Armor and some really innovative nonprofits — both locally and nationally — that have delved deep, and that hasn’t happened in every city.

In 2017, the Aspen Institute released its first Youth Sports Community Report that presented findings and recommendations from an eight-member local advisory committee that included Scott, who at the time was a Baltimore City Council member.

Since that 40-page report became public seven years ago, city officials, Under Armor executives and directors of grassroots organizations have tried to address the city’s shortcomings in youth sports participation. Since the number of recreation centers decreased from 130 in the 1980s to the current total of 39, the city government has renovated four facilities with projects to renovate or build seven more, build 26 new playgrounds and replace all 23 public swimming pools.

Representatives from the Student-Athlete Council interact with UA teammates during the 2023 Shield Day Community Celebration at the UA House @ Fayette.  Under Armour's Project Rampart has partnered with 23 high schools, including several charter schools, to renovate gyms and outfit more than 30,000 college athletes since 2017 with uniforms.  (Under the Shield/Bulletin)
Representatives from the Student-Athlete Council interact with participants during the 2023 Community Shield Day Celebration at the UA House in Fayette. (Under the Shield/Bulletin)

The department has also hired an athletic director and created an athletic department, organized midnight basketball the past two summers with vendors and halftime entertainment, and runs its own youth soccer league, said Reginald Moore, Baltimore City Recreation and Parks director.

“We were looking at everything from a holistic standpoint, not just sports but how we serve our residents,” Moore said. “This mayor’s focus has been on how to improve opportunities and create safe havens for our youth. So what we want to do is enhance opportunities for our children who are interested in sports.

Following the Aspen Institute report, Under Armor committed to using sports to help improve the athletic experiences and academic scores of high school students. Through Project Rampart, the company has partnered with 23 high schools, including several charter schools, to renovate gyms and outfit more than 30,000 college athletes since 2017 with uniforms.

The next step is to partner with the city’s more than 80 middle schools, which have rolled out eight sports in 2023-24, said Flynn Burch, Under Armor’s director of global philanthropy who played lacrosse at Loyola Blackfield and Dickinson.

“We are committed to going deeper and building a sustainable, long-term infrastructure for youth,” he said. “We were born into the sports space, and here we see ourselves as experts in helping develop what we think can be a blueprint for other cities to either co-invest or take some of these lessons deep into their cities and provide the same type of opportunities for student-athletes within their communities.”

Companies and organizations that aren’t as big as Under Armor have also had successes. Leveling the playing field It opened a warehouse in Baltimore in January 2018 and distributed $4.8 million worth of sporting goods to the Baltimore metro area, and charitable groups such as the Harry and Janet Weinberg Foundation, the Baltimore Fund for Children and Youth, and the National Fitness Foundation have distributed more grants. For groups trying to fill gaps in the city.

Marco, executive director of Baltimore Squash Wise, said the city helped fund a program called Squash School in which the organization brings coaches and equipment to a physical education class for a day.

“We’ve been doing a lot of work on the ground for a long time, but our scope is limited at some point,” she said. “So I think having these partners and larger entities coming to the table and supporting what we’re doing and seeing how a larger organization like Project Play and Under Armor and Baltimore City Schools can kind of acknowledge the work that grassroots organizations are doing and then bring it to the next level is rewarding.”

The next step is to connect government and civic leaders, corporate executives and regulatory managers to set a common agenda on topics that affect many, said Farey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program. One hope for next week’s conference is that the people who will attend will bond and start this format.

“I’m really proud of all the people who dug into it and made it a priority,” he said. “I think it was very real action taken by the mayor, Under Armour, and a group of nonprofits and donors to open up new funds to support activities that will encourage and keep kids in sports. It’s not perfect. There are still many challenges within the city, and not all efforts have yielded results in the grand slam. But people are trying, and I think that’s the foundation for doing bigger things moving forward.

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