There was a time when youth sports were synonymous with kids picking dandelions in the outfield and Bad News Bears-style bumbling. Today it's often about parents socking each other in the bleachers and steely-eyed athletes stretching their young bodies to the limit in their determination to win. Athletics, instead of being a way to let off steam, socialize and build confidence, have become one more competitive stress.
Frank Fiume saw those trends coming to a head back in the late 1990s. That's why he organized a flag-football league for kids in Tampa, Fla. While he thought it would be a fun side project, demand proved so high that he began running the league full time, and in 2002 he started franchising the concept as i9 Sports (named for the nine principles that guide the leagues). Now the company's 120 franchises offer flag-football, soccer, cheerleading, basketball and baseball programs in 27 states, and have served 130,000 kids between the ages of 3 and 14.
We chased down i9 president and COO Brian Sanders to find out about this mellower form of competition.
Why have youth sports become so cutthroat?
There's a tremendous amount of politics in youth sports and a huge amount of drama between coaches and parents. From that drama comes this high pressure for kids to succeed. Just seeing how the level of competitiveness has increased in the last 10 years is amazing. It's economically driven--parents have this myth that success in sports is going to be this golden ticket to a lucrative job. But according to NCAA statistics, only a fraction of a percent [of high-school athletes go pro], and very few earn scholarships.
We say, let the kids have a good time, develop physically and be part of a team. Don't make it about the score, or whether Johnny is the quarterback, or Linda made five baskets.
How do you rein in negative competitiveness?
We try really hard to make sure everyone gets equal playing time, and we aspire to rotate kids through all positions. Everyone gets a chance to be quarterback, to pass the ball and have the ball handed over. We make no bones about the fact that we're recreational. Is it the best way to develop the skills to become QB of the Patriots? Probably not. What we do is build self-esteem and have kids say, "Hey, I never thought I'd get a chance to play that position!"
How do you avoid drama with parents?
We make a point of indoctrinating parents and coaches on what we're all about. There's a parental pledge that says, "I as a parent respect that the No. 1 reason kids play sports is to have fun, and I will display the same behavior." That has changed the culture on the sidelines immensely. It's a whole different feeling, and we don't get the nastiness that pervades youth sports. We do believe in healthy competition, but if they want their child to get the killer instinct and always play quarterback, then our league's not right for them.
How do you address concerns about injuries?
We try to gather as much information and data as available. Two years ago research showed an alarming increase in the rate of concussions in youth sports, and we took that to heart. We started a big concussion-awareness campaign, teaching coaches and parents the signs of concussion. We were also the first national youth sports organization to institute a "no heading" rule in our soccer leagues.
What else differentiates i9?
We're a real convenience for parents. Most families don't have time for three or four practices per week. Our model is very simple: We have a practice and a game on the same day. The family goes out and has a great time one night a week, and that's that. We also serve the parents with online and mobile sites. They get everything they need--schedules, rainout notices, billing--at their fingertips.
How do sports and business mix?
No other national competitor is doing this as a business. The programs we offer have turned a staid industry on its head by injecting fun into the mix. We're businesspeople making profit with a purpose--we want to do something meaningful for kids.