February 26, 2024

From Olympic Basketball to Flag Football: How the Olympics Boost Youth Sports

Ever since the 1992 Dream Team, there have been major benefits to NBA players participating in the Olympic basketball. Flash forward to today, and the NBA is a global brand with audiences from all corners of the world and all age groups. So when will other big U.S. sports follow suit? The NBA, NFL, and MLB have been left out of the Olympics for the better part of a decade and potentially will be in 2028 and 2026, neglecting a major opportunity for global expansion. Most critical to growth, putting these sports on the Olympic stage captures younger audiences and maximizes exposure. During periods in which NBA players compete in the Olympics, there are large spikes in participation among youth basketball compared to overall participation. Considering U.S. basketball has won gold in sixteen of the nineteen Olympic tournaments they’ve entered, the correlation is no surprise. Sporting success at the highest level inspires younger generations to pick up the game. 

olympic basketball

The NBA Success Model

While Olympic participation isn’t the only factor in youth participation, it provides an undeniable boost. After the 2008 Olympics when the U.S. clinched gold, more kids than ever took up basketball for the first time. There was a surge in participation for children aged 7-11 and 12-17 for youth basketball in 2009. For the NBA to continue this growth, they need future generations to stay engaged year-on-year. To make this possible, they must secure their top players’ participation in the Olympics. Lebron James hasn’t played since 2012, and Steph Curry has never played in the Games. Lebron and Steph are just two of many All-NBA players who have opted out in recent years. As we’ve seen with players like Paul George, Olympic participation does open up risks for injury outside of regular season play. Star basketball players in the NBA will have to weigh this risk with how their participation could benefit the league and basketball at large.

As other top American sports leagues explore the potential of Olympic expansion, they lean on the NBA’s success as a model. The NHL, for example, recently announced it would allow their players to participate in the Olympics for the first time since 2014. Similarly, flag football will be included in the Olympics beginning in 2028, which allows for NFL players to get in on the action. Baseball is also set to make its return as an Olympic sport that same year. These additions could provide massive boosts for the sports individually and the Olympics as a whole.

olympic basketball

NHL Seeks Another "Miracle on Ice" Moment

U.S. ice hockey has yet to secure another Olympic gold medal since the 1980 “Miracle on Ice.” Back in the 80s, their victory sparked an increase in youth participation, providing young American players with a memorable triumph to cherish. Decades later, U.S. hockey hasn't medaled since 2010, and without consistent NHL participation, they haven't even reached the bronze medal game. This all could change in 2026, as the NHL announced they’re returning to Olympic participation in time for Milan’s Winter Games. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman called the decision “the right thing to do,” citing that it “came down to doing something because the players really wanted it.” With players like Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby competing on the world’s stage in 2026, U.S. ice hockey awaits an exciting opportunity to capture a younger generation of players and fans.

MLB's Olympic Revival

MLB has been on a recent campaign to reignite engagement with rule changes and pitch clock enforcement. Olympic participation is one more avenue for MLB to supplement their growth plan, but much depends on the sport’s inclusion in future Games. While baseball returned to the Olympics in Tokyo after a 12-year absence, it will not be featured in Paris this summer. The sport is slated to make its Olympic comeback once more in 2028, with many major leaguers eager to participate. Reports indicate that both owners and players have advocated for major league athletes to compete in 2028. Despite a decline in children playing baseball since 2008, which saw just 17% of children ages 6-12 regularly participating, having MLB stars in the Los Angeles Olympics could reignite youth viewership, interest, and participation—a trend MLB has been striving to foster.

olympic basketball

NFL and Flag Football

The next sport to enter the Olympics is flag football. Many NFL players have expressed interest in participating including Dolphins star wide receiver Tyreek Hill. American football in any capacity has never been a part of the Olympics, so this move could play a major role in growing the game amongst youth outside of America. The NFL has already taken steps to increase its international presence, with games in London, Germany, Mexico, and soon to be Brazil. They have also introduced the International Home Marketing Areas initiative. This gives teams the opportunity to market to strategic countries, ideally creating a secondary home territory of international fans. Coupling these efforts with participation in Olympic flag football, the NFL has the push it needs to appeal to youth on an international level.  

Looking Ahead

No matter the sport, there’s an undeniable phenomenon tying youth participation and the Olympics together. Kids see their home country competing on the world’s biggest stage and feel inspired to take up the sport themselves. We saw this best back in 1992 when U.S. basketball’s Dream Team, stacked with legends like Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen, captivated adults and children alike. The NBA’s global presence steadily climbed and more kids picked up a basketball than ever before. As more and more popular U.S. sports join the Games, many believe a similar Olympic effect is destined to occur.

Sources:

  1. https://apnews.com/article/nhl-olympics-b251c32f624639f76be2a3f510d7a313
  2. https://sports.yahoo.com/mlb-team-owners-increasingly-supportive-of-allowing-stars-to-participate-in-2028-la-olympics-per-report-024059541.html#:~:text=There%20won't%20be%20any,Athletic's%20Evan%20Drellich%20reported%20Wednesday
  3. https://www.nfl.com/news/tyreek-hill-other-nfl-players-could-play-flag-football-in-2028-olympics#:~:text=NFL%20executive%20Peter%20O'Reilly,by%20the%20International%20Olympic%20Committee 
  4. https://www.samford.edu/sports-analytics/fans/2016/olympics-good-or-bad-for-the-nba 
  5. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/13504851.2015.1068916#:~:text=The%20trickle%2Ddown%20effect%20assumes,sporting%20success%20to%20participate%20themselves
  6. https://abcnews.go.com/Sports/phillies-bryce-harper-hopes-mlb-allows-players-olympics/story?id=104024883#:~:text=Professional%20players%20were%20first%20allowed,Olympics%20(held%20in%202021)
  7. https://www.statista.com/statistics/982278/participation-kids-baseball/ 
  8. https://operations.nfl.com/journey-to-the-nfl/the-nfl-s-international-impact/the-nfl-international-series/
  9. https://operations.nfl.com/updates/the-game/nfl-announces-additional-international-home-marketing-areas/

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