Puncturing Paywalls: Alleviating disparities in club sport involvement for low-income youth

Contributors: Shayan Nathan, Fadel Shtiui, Libby Knell

Problem and Solution Overview

Youth sports improve participants’ mental and physical health, academic success, and self-esteem. However, many of the club youth sports programs in the United States have socio-economic barriers and disparities in access to resources that prevent many children, especially those from low-income households, from participating. By designing a website that introduces parents/guardians of low-income youth to club sports opportunities, as well as helping them find resources like scholarships and discounted equipment in order to afford costs associated, our solution focuses on reducing the disparity low-income youth face in access to club sports.

Design Research Goals, Stakeholders, and Participants

To gain insight into the difficulties faced by low-income youth and their families, we conducted interviews with one low-income youth and her mother, as well as one middle school swim coach and one high school track and football coach. Furthermore, we held a focus group with two college students who played club soccer in high school with different outcomes.

We chose these particular research methods and participants because we wanted to not only directly conduct interviews directly with low-income youth, allowing us to dive deeper and learn more about existing challenges and desires they have at an individual level, but understand how other mentors and figures with authority perceive and are involved in these difficulties. Furthermore, the focus group helped us gauge the opinions, feelings, and attitudes of ex-club sports players in a group setting.

Design Research Results and Themes:

From the interviews and focus group, we identified three main barriers faced by low-income youth and their families.

One of the barriers we identified in our brainstorming process that was affirmed by our user research was that finding and obtaining access to safe, low-cost, and convenient transportation to and from practice is extremely cumbersome for low-income youth and their families. Considerations around child safety and price of alternative transportation to a parent/guardian driving their child to practice every day greatly deters low-income youth from getting involved in club sports, even if they are highly interested in being involved in them. Some parents/guardians must go to the extent of modifying their work schedule in order to accommodate transportation — and for many low-income families, this isn’t a viable option.

Another important theme that arose from our focus group which we didn’t anticipate was the generational barrier of club sports being “inherited” from an athlete’s parents preventing many low-income youth from even knowing about or discovering club sports. Both members of our focus group acknowledged that they joined soccer because of influence from their parents. They suggested that kids are much less likely to try a niche sport like lacrosse or swim at an older age, and so the kids who make up the demographic are those whose parents had the resources to get them involved from an early age. A related theme is that many low-income youth never have the opportunity to access the facilities required to play many sports, whether it be swimming pools, country clubs, ski resorts, etc. As they get older, there comes a point where it is no longer possible to compete in many sports at a high level due to the disparity of experience.

Moreover, club sports become increasingly less accessible and more expensive as the age group gets older in general. Early programs like Boys and Girls club do an excellent job of keeping membership fees low, and providing opportunities for grants and scholarships. We’ve confirmed that our problem exists in higher levels; kids either stop participating or are unable to compete at the highest level because of some newly introduced barrier. Many kids are forced to quit sports around the age of 9 and 10 (right before our target age group) due to the fact club sports force year round specialization and the fact that the financial and time burden of playing sports drastically increases.

Proposed Design

After conducting our user research, we concluded on two main goals that we wanted our solution to tackle. The first goal is to help introduce low-income youth to club sports that are typically “inherited” through an athlete’s parent in a welcoming and inclusive way. The second goal is to help parents/guardians be able to afford membership fees and quality equipment for whichever club sport their child wants to participate in, including quickly and easily finding annual scholarship opportunities for low-income children specific to sport and age. These two tasks were the two main barriers identified in our focus group that prevent youth from playing club sports both in general, and in the user research participants’ individual experiences. By analyzing the issue, we’ve realized that all of the barriers are ultimately grounded in financial disparity or their parents/guardians just not knowing about the sport. We think that by tackling the root of the problem, the financial burden of paying for the club sport, we give parents more flexibility in making the right decisions for their child and situation.

Our design is a “find-your-sport website.” We chose this design because it most fully addresses the most important tasks of low-income parents and/or guardians. We chose to focus on low-income parents and/or guardians because, as made evident in our user research, kids can be entirely unaware of their families financial situation. It falls upon parents/guardians to make the final call on tough decisions about what sports their children can realistically afford to play. This design is well suited for parents/guardians from low-income families because they may not own mobile phones — so the form of a desktop app is accessible from libraries or other publically available computers. Furthermore, we prioritized a desktop experience because localization and tooltips allow for more user guidance, as well as support for users who don’t speak English.

The following is a scenario of a parent/guardian being introduced to club sports that are typically “inherited” using our design:

The following is a scenario of a parent/guardian being able to afford membership fees and quality equipment for whichever club sport their child wants to participate in, including quickly and easily finding yearly scholarship opportunities for low-income children specific to sport and age through our design: