ESPN and Aspen Institute Ask: Why Are So Many Kids Quitting Sports?

Arnold spot highlights a dispiriting trend

We've seen and heard it before: An athlete walks into a room packed with press, sits behind a bank of microphones, and announces his or her retirement. 

Usually, such announcements come late in players' careers. They're past age 30, or even 35, and feeling the physical strain of too many leaps across the goal line or hard-fought drives to the hoop. 

In the PSA below, however, the "retiring" athlete is just a kid, age 9 or 10, and he's walking away from sports owing to constant demands from parents and coaches. 

#DontRetireKid

"The pressure that it takes to play at my age—it's just too much," he explains. "So, I'm done with the endless advice from parents to keep my head up, to keep my head down, to keep my head in the game. I know you think you helped. I'm walking away from the coaches who kept me on the bench every time the game was on the line. I'll miss my friends, and the fun we had when we were young." 

Arnold Worldwide, ESPN and the nonprofit Aspen Institute teamed up for the "Don't Retire, Kid" campaign, basing the content on Aspen's just-released study that shows most kids quit organized sports by age 11. 

Next, we have a similarly themed spot with a young girl on a soccer field. "The pressure it takes to play at 9 is not what I expected when I started at 5," she says. "I'm done with parents picking apart my every move, when I just need time to figure it out on my own." 

Aspen's Project Play site offers advice and video interviews with Kobe Bryant, Wayne Gretzky, Sloane Stephens and other pros who offer words of wisdom and encouragement. 

"Parents are the game-changers in youth sports," says Tom Farrey, executive director of the organization's Sports & Society program. "To keep kids playing longer, we need to help parents ask the right questions of themselves, their child and their local sport providers." 

ESPN donated air time for the spots. 

This marks the second notable youth-athletics campaign in a week, following this cinematic effort from Dick's Sporting Goods and agency Anomaly that seeks donations for school teams nationwide. 

Though they follow different game plans, both Dick's and Aspen share the same goal—ensuring that kids who want to play sports can do so in a safe, supportive environment. 

Both efforts present memorable, affecting scenarios that make serious points without working overtime on viewers' emotions.

Indeed, sports should help build character, confidence and physical fitness, not send players shuffling sadly to the sidelines, for keeps, before their teenage years have even begun. 

"Sports have become ultra-competitive at a young age, and kids are feeling the pressure," says Arnold creative director Justin Galvin. "We're treating them like they're pros when all they want to do is play. Since we're no longer going to see them as kids, we decided to put them in a pro situation, in a press conference in front of the media, to tell everyone what they're feeling."

Galvin adds: "It was important to get the language right, so we looked at [Michael] Jordan's first retirement, Andy Murray's emotional announcement and more. The kid needed to talk like a pro, then make people wait for the joke in this spoof, only to realize that he's saying some really honest things about the people and factors that are making kids drop out. We need everyone to think, 'Am I part of the problem?' "

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David Gianatasio
David Gianatasio is senior editor at Clio Awards.

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