Youth sports are coming off the sidelines as states begin to reopen.
Baseball and softball have resumed in Iowa, and youth football leagues in Indiana returned for on field practices last Sunday. In hard-hit New Jersey, non-contact outdoor organized activities can begin next Monday. In Texas and Florida, two of the states that were among the first to reopen after closing for the coronavirus pandemic, all youth sports have been given the green light.
But while there are green shoots, this is a far cry from what the industry -- worth $19.2 billion, according to WinterGreen Research -- looked like before coronavirus hit. That has many sports directors worried.
New York City's Downtown United Soccer Club has a newly resurfaced pitch at Pier 40 at Hudson River Park, a mile north of the Freedom Tower that's visible from the field.
"We always thought our biggest nightmare scenario was that this field would be flooded," said club executive director Kevin McCarthy. "And now that it's done and beautiful, the irony is, we can't play on it."
Practice for the last three months has consisted of biweekly Zoom sessions for the club's 50 coaches and more than 5,000 players. Kids have attempted to do everything from lacrosse, gymnastics, football and even soccer virtually. But it's not worked for some players.
"Sometimes they won't move in front of the camera because that's not their environment," coach Danny Rodriguez said of the children at his sessions. "They want to be with the kids, they want to be with the teammates, they want to score goals, they want to run around."
He's worried about the impact on tweens and teens, whose bodies are changing as they enter puberty. "This time was important for them, we were getting into shape, we were getting habits and we help them to eat properly, get sleep, sleep properly. Now they are away, we cannot see what's going on with them."
That may soon begin to change, as the US Soccer Federation recently released its recommendations for a phased reopening, focused on individual and small group training.
Rodriguez is looking forward to getting his players back onto the field but, for this year at least, one of the biggest parts of their season, travel tournaments, is canceled because of league guidelines.
It's been the same for Bob Westbrook, the founder and board chair, of the A5 Volleyball Club north of Atlanta, whose 1,000 registered players often train abroad.
"We live in a technological age, so we've bought a lot of those kinds of tools and we have a very robust social media platform and presence," he said. "We had workouts posted for them every day."
But Westbrook acknowledges that technology can't replace team building and bonding.
"For athletes, people that play ... any game, it's like a black hole, void in your life that you can't find an outlet for. Simply being at home and beating the ball around your back is not the same."
McCarthy agrees. "You see that on the field, you have the opportunity to not only grow as a soccer player, but to grow as a young man or young woman as you're competing," he said. "You can't replace that by being in your apartment or being in your house and not having interaction and engagement with your teammates, not having the challenges of facing opponents."
Just three months into Covid-19 shutdowns, sports clubs nationwide have seen billions lost from canceled courses, clinics and camps. Hundreds of organizations have joined a PLAY Sports Coalition asking Congress for bailout help.
Westbrook believes his club will survive the pandemic, but others will not.
"A lot of clubs don't have any sort of infrastructure and we're getting ready to pass out, you know, several hundred thousand dollars in refunds. We think we're gonna make it, but there will be a lot of clubs that don't and that's a shame because they need their sport," he said.
McCarthy says his club had to cancel its summer camp program that's one of its financial engines, and he's worried about registrations for next year. "I'm concerned that we will not have enough players to continue to employ all our coaches if this lasts longer and longer."
Team sport participation for 6-12 year-olds dropped from 45% in 2008 to 38% in 2018 after the financial crisis and remains at about that level, according to the Aspen Institute.
As children do return to the playing field, high fives and handshakes won't be there but regular temperature checks will be. Equipment will be cleaned more often, and locker rooms may need to be remodeled. Some Little League baseball fields will likely have Xs painted 6 feet apart in the gravel and each player will be issued their own bat and helmet. Dugouts may be closed for the season.
McCarthy knows the new soccer practices will look different, but they cannot come soon enough for him.
"When I walk here and see hundreds of players training together again, I think I might get down on my knees and be thankful."