Availability and accessibility are two specific challenges Hoopfest along with Hooptown USA are seeking to overcome with their new youth basketball league in the Spokane area, which was announced Tuesday.
Hooptown Youth League LLC is in its formative stages and is scheduled to begin play in November with an eight-week slate.
“It’s so exciting. it’s just a monumental program and it’s a monumental shift,” Riley Stockton, the executive director of Hoopfest, said. “And our program wasn’t broken before, but it wasn’t perfect.”
This league is shooting for perfection.
It will be kindergarten through sixth grade which was targeted specifically to allow for Spokane’s local college coaches and athletes to help mentor.
Once an athlete enters junior high, it limits the ability of Division I coaches and players to interact due to recruiting regulations.
“If you want to have the best youth league in the world, we have to involve our college athletes and our college coaches for mentorship, for teaching, and to be able to coach the coaches,” former Gonzaga basketball player Mike Nilson said.
Bulldog men’s assistant coach Brian Michaelson – who travels across the country to scout the best players in the country at AAU tournaments – said that mass participation is the most important aspect of sports.
And the only way to do that is to lower the walls that prevent some families to get their kids involved.
“You don’t know as a youth who’s going to be the best player,” Michaelson said. “There are so many things that factor in and so getting as many kids involved as possible, that was really crucial. And then the other thing is the cost factor. Youth sports costs today are crazy to be quite honest. And that’s just not feasible for everyone.”
Michaelson said sports enhances general health and wellness, mental health and also gives gifted players a chance to go to school and beyond just on the backs of their natural ability.
Nilson believes the new league will introduce a whole wave of new players to the sport as Hooptown attempts to minimize the difficulties of signing up by allowing individual players entrance into the league without being waitlisted or needing a team first like many AAU teams and leagues require.
The league is designed to increase youth participation at all levels, improve local basketball competitiveness, inspire kids who may have never joined a team and make it easier for kids of all backgrounds to participate.
“I’m hoping that by increasing participation, which we’ll do almost tenfold, will be helpful for those kids that don’t have the access to a program like AAU as readily available,” Stockton said.
Nilson said that people who don’t follow youth sports, those who aren’t directly touched by the impact, might not understand the need for another basketball league.
“When you’re in the weeds, on the ground floor, and you’re seeing families literally hurt, crying, friendships being broken up, families being able to be torn apart by the current system,” Nilson said. “It’s just so much bigger than basketball. This simple idea I think is going to be able to really bring people together in a time where a lot of things are fractured.”
The current system does shine a light on the cream that rises to the top of the competitive basketball scene and the money that flows throughout club sports also can be a hindrance for those athletes who may never get a shot at the next level.
The concept behind the league was a collaborative deal between Nilson, college programs, sponsors and Spokane-area schools.
Nilson – a strength and conditioning coach at GU – specifically mentioned October 2021 as a key turning point for the concept.
At the annual “Boo Ball” AAU tournament, he and Adam Swinyard, the Superintendent of Spokane Public Schools, noticed a lack of participation from certain groups and age levels. Nilson said Swinyard’s participation was instrumental in making the league a reality.
“I think it’s been huge to be able to have someone that can actually do something about it to be able to make a change,” Nilson said. “And so, to me, once we had the schools on board, then I knew it was going to be able to happen.”
Men’s and women’s coaches from Gonzaga, Eastern Washington and Whitworth have all agreed to support the new league with their student-athletes and staffs.
School districts on board are Spokane, Mead, Central Valley, West Valley and East Valley.
Individual schools are necessary for the venture to work as they will provide free gym space and will help coordinate volunteers.
Hooptown wants kids to play in their own school gym, or at the worst, a school within walking distance to minimize financial impacts.
Creating a league that lasts eight weeks during late fall and early winter entices athletes from other sports to dip a toe into basketball. It also doesn’t interfere with the other basketball leagues in school or AAU that are already in place.
Stockton said by crafting a shorter season that is focused on accessibility and reduced cost, potential players won’t get left out because their families can’t afford it or due to a lack of confidence by the player.
“Some people get left out, whether it be sports specialization, or maybe they’re not great in second and third grade, but hopefully this lead will help kind of mitigate that and keep kids playing,” he said.
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