Participants in Midcoast Youth Hockey’s Learn to Play Hockey program get some ice time at The Colisee in Lewiston. Contributed / James Dube

The pandemic has exacerbated a persistent decline in the number of American children who regularly play team sports, according to data from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, but organizers of local leagues say Maine kids have bucked the trend by filling up rosters at impressive rates.

“Not around here,” said former Windham Youth Basketball Association President Pat Moody when asked if participation is on the decline. “I think it’s growing more than ever.”

His organization normally runs programs for about 550 kids from pre-K to 8th grade, said Moody, who served as president for 15 years before stepping into an advisory role. While distancing requirements and space limitations forced the group to cut some programming last year, they’re already back to full strength.

It’s the same story in the Midcoast, according to Pam LeDuc, director of Topsham Parks and Recreation.

“We’re really right on par – same as any other year” LeDuc said of participation in the Ararat Youth Basketball League, which draws children in Topsham, Bowdoin, Bowdoinham and Harpswell. “And our fall program for the Topsham Youth Soccer League was the same situation.”

Interest in organized sports tumbled during the pandemic, according to a report from the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program. Nearly 28% of American parents whose children played sports before COVID-19 said their kids are uninterested in returning to athletics.


In Portland, however, parents and kids have relished the chance to return to the playing field, according to Nick Cliche, recreation supervisor for the Parks & Recreation department.

“I think people are just looking for opportunities to get their kids outdoors,” he said. “Parents are super grateful we have some offerings.”

According to Cliche, 775 kids are currently registered for the department’s basketball programs, which run from kindergarten through high school. While that’s below the 845 participants who played before the pandemic temporarily shuttered the leagues last year, more kids have jumped to other programs run by the department, including ultimate Frisbee, futsal and skiing.

“We’re a little bit off from our ultimate high numbers,” Cliche said. “But for us to approach nearly 90-95% of what we normally do says a lot about the program bouncing back.”

These strong participation rates come even as fewer Maine teenagers are playing on high school sports teams, according to a survey from the National Federation of State High School Associations.

The Aspen Institute lists several factors contributing to the nationwide decline in sports participation, including rising screen time rates among children and high costs of travel sports programs.


Yet locally, access to facilities has been the biggest barrier to even higher rates of participation, according to organizers like Moody and Midcoast Youth Hockey President James Dube.

Midcoast, which fields teams from the under-6 division through under-12, wasn’t able to book ice time at Bowdoin College through most of the pandemic, Dube said. The result was more traveling for practice, a commitment some families decided they couldn’t make.

Yet after a down 2020, the organization’s numbers have largely bounced back, thanks to the return of players who took a year off as well as a new crop of rookies, he said.

And while Midcoast’s long-awaited return to Bowdoin’s rink this week marks a step toward normalcy, Dube has his eye on the future: a new ice rink in Topsham that he says will “absolutely” bring even more kids to the area’s sports programs.

“Ultimately, that’s where we need to head,” Dube said. “That right there will be a huge improvement.”

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