Used-Equipment Banks: One Way to Reduce Costs and Boost Enrollment
By Doug Abrams
Much has been written lately about the escalating costs of playing youth sports, particularly at the travel and elite levels. Commentators have described burdens imposed by interstate travel and lodging, handsomely paid team coaches, private lessons, scouting services, and the rest.
Much has also been written lately about ways to help restrain costs, particularly at younger age levels in community sports programs below the travel and elite ranks. Many parents sacrifice to assure that their children can play in these programs, but some families are doubtlessly priced out of participation. Sacrifice or no, young parents (a bulk of youth sports parents) also face other financial commitments that can sorely test the family budget.
This column is drawn from my experiences starting up a community youth hockey program when I moved to mid-Missouri from New York several years ago. Particularly at the younger age levels, we sought to boost enrollment by maintaining an “equipment bank” that loaned used equipment to families whose children wished to explore hockey before deciding whether to make a more lasting commitment.
These loans can help attract tentative players to community start-up programs and more established programs alike. Most of these young kids are beginners, not yet ready for travel or elite sports. Initial equipment costs may be their families’ first hurdle, but these costs should not move the finish line out of reach.
Many community youth sports programs already maintain equipment banks. Much of what works in hockey can also work in other sports with high start-up costs. Readers can examine the various guidelines explored below and consider whether to adapt some to suit their own local program’s needs and circumstances.
Creating a Surge
When I moved to mid-Missouri in 1989, the nearest youth hockey was played at a rink operated by the parks and recreation department in Jefferson City, about 100 miles from St. Louis. “Youth hockey” in Jefferson City consisted of about two dozen kids of all ages, who chose up sides and matched lines one night a week under coaches’ supervision. A few kids had full equipment, and some had virtually none. Two players had goalie equipment, some of which did not fit well.
Within three years, Jefferson City youth hockey enrollment had grown to about 175 players who were fully outfitted. Within another two years, we began entering teams in the leagues based in St. Louis and Kansas City. Because youth hockey interest in Jefferson City appeared likely to exceed the hours available for practice sessions and games during these early years, the department raised the possibility of waiting lists, which fortunately never happened thanks to careful scheduling.
No one reason alone accounted for the surging enrollment in those early years, but our equipment bank must rank high on the list. Some hesitant parents confided that their kids often changed interests and hobbies every month. These parents told us that three and four figures seemed a steep price before their child showed lasting interest in hockey.
Kids like new stuff, and some of our bank’s used equipment looked . . . well, used. Much of this used equipment was designed primarily to get a player started, perhaps for a couple of weeks or a few months. Most kids did not wear loaned equipment for very long. Once the player signaled a hockey commitment that was likely to last, the parents usually began purchasing their own equipment, most new and some used.
Drawn from our Jefferson City experiences in those early years, here are some guidelines for youth leagues and parents who wish to maintain equipment banks to outfit young players as they explore a new sport:
Put safety first. Particularly in contact or collision sports, ill-fitting or especially worn- out protective equipment risks injury. For example, youth sports concussions were not yet on the national radar screen in the early 1990s, but we recommended that parents purchase new helmets unless a particular used helmet passed safety inspection and was properly fitted by a sporting goods professional. Lightly used skates, quickly outgrown by the original wearer, might suffice if the skates fit.
Appoint an equipment committee comprised of parents and other former players who are knowledgeable about equipment purchases. We appointed an equipment committee and charged it with several responsibilities, including these: (1) Soliciting donations of used equipment; (2) Inspecting donated equipment to approve what was considered safe, and to discard what was deemed unsafe or too worn out; (3) Storing used equipment in a place that will avoid deterioration; (4) Reconditioning donated equipment that the committee decided could be done relatively simply; (5) Maintaining a written inventory of loaned equipment to assure that families would return it at the end of the season or other period of use; and (6) Because many parents were new to hockey, speaking at preseason team meetings to educate about safety and proper fit.
On or off the equipment committee, try to enlist a sporting goods professional’s volunteer services. This professional – ideally, the owner or knowledgeable employee of a local sporting goods business — can inspect used equipment for safety, and can fit used equipment to a particular player. When a parent borrows used equipment, the business loses a potential sale. But most families do not rely on used equipment permanently, so this volunteer service can generate future sales and local good-will.
Hold a used-equipment sale or an equipment swap during the preseason period. At the ice rink during the preseason period, our program would enable families to come together to buy, sell, or trade used equipment that their players had outgrown. The equipment committee inspected this equipment for safety and offered its advice. We urged parents to bring their player to any sale or swap session where proper fitting might become an issue. Some families did not participate in these sessions but chose instead to donate used equipment to the program outright.
Ask the program’s longtime coaches to solicit used equipment from their former players. Before 1989, I had coached for 20 years in the Nassau County recreation and parks department’s program at Cantiague Park in Hicksville, New York. I had also coached at a New England summer hockey camp. I wrote to a few dozen of my former players who were then in their 20s and 30s. I asked them to send the Jefferson City program equipment that they had finished using and may have stored in their attics. Most of the players responded with boxes and packages, and we reimbursed postage. Some of the equipment was unusable for safety concerns or deterioration, but most enabled us to outfit kids.
Consider contacting other nearby programs and the league, which may store used equipment that is not moving. The various established St. Louis-area youth hockey programs supported our effort to bring league play to Jefferson City. A few programs responded positively to our requests for used equipment, which they delivered when they faced off in scrimmages against our teams. One generous St. Louis director told me that he could spare some used equipment because his program’s inventory exceeded need, and that equipment sitting in their storage room did no kid any good. In later years, the league itself provided some used equipment from time to time.
Consider seeking local corporate donations that would permit purchase of new equipment. We tried (usually unsuccessfully) to secure donations from local companies for equipment purchases and other immediate needs. Fundraising is not for the faint-hearted. Offering sponsorships or other local publicity may offer incentives, but many local businesses receive plenty of requests every year. A company might be particularly receptive to a solicitation made by a youth hockey parent whom the company employs or does business with.
Beware of Internet sales. Fast forward to the present. The Internet continues to revolutionize many aspects of American life, but the sports program should advise parents that reliance on websites for purchasing used protective sports equipment brings both convenience and potential risks unknown 25 years ago. I know plenty of careful parents who have been satisfied with their website purchases. But impersonal transactions based on photographs do not permit safety inspection of the equipment or personal fitting of the child.
Remain innovative. Local needs and circumstances may present opportunities that we did not consider 25 years ago. For example, national youth sports governing bodies and local leagues may seek to boost enrollments by conducting sessions that allow kids can “try” the particular sport before the family makes a commitment. These exploratory sessions work best when they outfit kids safely in proper equipment, and when a used-equipment bank can help open initial doors for families whose kids who wish to test the waters by enrolling.
National governing bodies and individual equipment companies may also have grants or other incentives available for outfitting underprivileged youth. If a program thinks it might qualify, it cannot hurt to watch websites and make inquiries. The extra care might make participation available to families who might find themselves on the outside looking in.
I speak from personal conviction because an equipment bank launched my own hockey experiences. When I was a young teen nearly 50 years ago, Nassau County opened the Cantiague Park Ice Rink a few minutes from my home. When I attended the recreation and parks department’s first youth hockey session, I showed up with no equipment, except for a beat-up stick, a cup, a $10 pair of skates, and a pair of mittens. But the department supplied goalie equipment (new and used, as I recall). I became a goalie when I decided to put it on rather than sit in the stands until my friend’s parents picked us both up an hour or so later.
That night led to youth hockey, high school hockey, college hockey at Wesleyan University, and more than 40 years of youth hockey coaching. And now regular opportunities to write youth sports columns such as this one. I don’t know what hockey-less decades would have been like, but I remain thankful for the path that hockey paved.
My own good fortune is why I urge cooperating with parents who contemplate whether to commit to a potentially expensive new sport that seems to interest their young child. I was one of those kids whose interests changed monthly, so I was not a good bet for major hockey expenditures right away. As my hockey interests grew, my parents remained supportive. But I am still grateful for the loaned start-up equipment that I wore beginning when I showed up at Cantiague’s first youth hockey session with virtually none a half century ago.