Youth Recruitment Efforts on Borrowed Time

“Recruitment”. If the word sounds familiar it’s because it defines an issue with which outdoor sports has struggled for as long as I have been involved in the industry; how do we attract more participants, especially young participants, to outdoor sports?

In 2013 Gov. Walker formed Sporting Heritage Council to advise the governor, the Natural Resources Board and state legislature on fishing, hunting and trapping issues. The primary focus of the 12 appointee council would be issues of recruitment, retention and increasing access to resources and outdoor opportunities. An article in the May 16 issue of Wisconsin Outdoor News described recruitment ideas recently offered at an April 29 meeting of the Sporting Heritage Council, in the face of yet another predicted downturn in Wisconsin resident deer hunters and anglers.

Some of the proposals sounded familiar; simplified rules and license purchasing options, mentoring partnerships, and incentives for landowners to open lands to mentors and youth. Some proposals sounded easier said than done; opening and maintaining more public boat landings. Another proposal struck me as absurd; allowing ATVs on public land to retrieve game? Show me a young hunter who purchases an ATV before deciding if they are ready to commit to the sport of hunting. I don’t see how a measure like this could possibly add more young hunters to our ranks.

Christopher JenningsNone of these proposals addresses what I think is the 800 lb gorilla in the room; youth athletics and the enormous amount of time they demand.

I do not have children of my own, but a recent turn of events has put me into somewhat of an outdoor mentoring position to two nieces; 16 and 12 and a nephew age 6. Recently, trying to carve out time to install a couple of bluebird houses in their backyard put the “time” issue front and center.  Working around three sports schedules we finally settled on a date, weeks out, that worked for two of three. We had about an hour.

The realization set in that no matter how few mouse clicks it takes to purchase a license, or how easy the access, or how effortless it would be to retrieve game, there will be no additional participation in outdoor sports if there is no time allotted to do so. Sure, a family with an outdoor tradition might draw a line in the sand and commit to a weekend of camping, fishing or hunting despite a weekend sports tournament, but a family that has no outdoor traditions, the family we are hoping to recruit, is unlikely to do the same.

If we are serious about recruiting young hunters and anglers, we will continue to spin our wheels if we do not address the “over scheduling” of today’s youth.

So how do we address this situation? I think it makes sense to begin by reaching out to sports league organizers to find out if they are even aware of the length time their programs are steadily eroding from other family activities and see if they are willing to make some compromises.

A bit of brainstorming and a few conversations with parents of kids in sports lead to some other potential solutions;

Black-out dates- Memorial Day weekend, Labor Day weekend, the weekend of the October youth hunt. Would it be too much to ask sports league organizers to voluntarily “black out” a few weekends a year? How about 6 key weekends in a calendar year when no tournaments, or games or practices will be scheduled?  I’ll start with “voluntarily” because we’d all hate to imagine what might happen if the word “legislate” ever gets involved.

More flexible free opportunities- Wisconsin currently offers free fishing weekends in late January and early June.  Instead of fixed date, free fishing weekends, how about a free fishing pass instead? A one or two day pass that families could utilize on a date when their busy schedules allow.  Sign it, date it and go fishing.

Work around the schedule- At very least we need to design our recruitment efforts around the athletic schedules. If practices and games do not begin until 5:00 pm, we need to schedule learn to hunt or fish events around those hours. Sports league organizers could help us a great deal by cooperating and coordinating schedules

As a kid I was an active participant in athletics and eventually “lettered” in both football and track and field. I do not question the benefits of sport.  I do, however think it is important to keep things in perspective. I was pretty fair athlete, but “professional sports” were out of the question as were scholarships. Today I can only remember a few meets or moments on the field. On the other hand, I can vividly recall the details of the first big bass I caught by myself, and the family fishing trips we took “up north”. Team sports are important but they are not the only game in town and they cannot compete with the lasting impressions and ongoing impacts of time spent outdoors. If we are serious about recruitment, I think its time we fight for our share of the calendar


Categories: WisBlogs, Wisconsin – Chris Jennings

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