Ontario sees 17 per cent decrease in access to youth sports: MLSE, U of T report

Annual Change the Game research report cited social isolation and affordability as biggest barriers to youth participation

Young people run on a basketball court at MLSE Launchpad, a 42,000 sqaure-foot facility for sport and development in downtown Toronto (photo courtesy of MLSE Launchpad)

A new report on the state of youth sports in Ontario found a 17 per cent decrease in access compared to the previous year across various demographic groups, with social isolation and affordability reported as the greatest barriers to participation.

The annual Change the Game research report, created through a partnership between MLSE Foundation and University of Toronto researcher Simon Darnell, also cited gender, racial and household disparities as factors contributing to a lack of access to sports, with 38.5 per cent of six- to 10-year-olds reporting experiencing racism or discrimination in sports.

Overall, 36 per cent of Ontario youth reported not having access to safe places to play sports in 2023. When asked what would improve the quality of youth sports culture, the most frequent response was “an environment where I can make friends.”

“I was more disappointed than surprised by the results,” said Darnell, an associate professor in U of T’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE) and director of the Centre for Sport Policy Studies (CSPS). “We know that the COVID-19 pandemic forced some youth out of sport altogether and made sport increasingly inaccessible for others who tried to remain. And we knew that getting kids back to sport after they dropped out was going to be challenging.

“We also know that many elements or aspects of social life are increasingly inaccessible in our world today. So, what this points to is the importance of securing accessibility and inclusion as key values and policy priorities in youth sport provision.”

The Change the Game research project was conceived in 2021 as an anonymous online survey of Ontario youth about their experiences with access, engagement and equity issues in sport. The most recent study was the largest to date, with more than 10,000 survey responses – bringing the total number of youth voices collected over three years of research to 25,000. 

This year, the project also collaborated with youth sport organizations, including U of T’s BIPOC Varsity Association, Toronto FC Academy, Argos Rowing Club and Ausome Ottawa, which suggested solutions to the barriers expressed by research participants in the first two years of the study. 

Victor Adarquah, a PhD student in U of T’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine, was the lead research assistant on the project, receiving valuable hands-on experience in applying research to address real-world issues.

“This project was an incredible opportunity to bridge my interest in community and social impact work with research,” said Adarquah. “I found it especially rewarding to experience the fast-paced nature and real-time application of the research findings. The work here doesn't just sit on a shelf, it's actively informing and shaping ongoing initiatives.”

Tanya Mruck, vice-president of community engagement and social impact at MLSE, said the data collected in the Change the Game research study will serve as an important resource that will help guide the investments and community engagement priorities of the MLSE Foundation. Study insights will also be available publicly through an online report, interactive data dashboard and open access dataset.

“What this project demonstrates is that sharing of resources and expertise through collaborations between universities and community or industry partners is both possible and beneficial,” said Darnell. “When we embarked on this collaborative project back in 2021, we wanted to better understand how youth in Ontario engage in sport in order to build a more equitable sport system for them. Along the way, it became the largest youth sports study of its kind in Canada – one which will provide sport and recreation providers, policymakers, funders and future researchers with valuable data and recommendations to change the game for the better.”

Read more about the 2023 Change the Game report in the Toronto Star

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