On a drizzly Thursday evening at Columbia Parc, scores of kids huddled up on a wet field for drills during flag football practice for the 18th Ward sports league.
And a few miles away at Easton Playground in Mid-City New Orleans, Eboni Walker’s 10-year-old son geared up for a soccer practice.
“He’s always like, ‘Let me out right here,'” she said. “He hates being late.”
The pay-what-you can 18th Ward sports club has grown into the thousands over the years, and is now partnering with the city, which also has seen a recent rise in participation.
After years of decline, the New Orleans Recreation and Development Commission had 4,626 registered players last year, CEO Larry Barabino said. In 2022, that number was a little less than 3,000.
NORD offers a mix of recreational programs, youth sports, classes and after school programs as well as events throughout the year.
In its athletic division, officials credit leadership changes at some parks and the return of old programs.
Athletic Director Jermaine Hall said last year marked the return of Pee Wee Track, for example, which teaches basic ground skills in preparation for track and field.
Soccer returned as well through a partnership with the 18th Ward that kicked off last spring. The contract allows the league to use three NORD-operated parks at Easton and Harrell playgrounds in Mid-City and Norman Playground in Algiers.
“We’ve got some exciting partnerships. I think our biggest one is with the city of New Orleans,” said 18th Ward founder Lowery Crews. So far, that has produced abut 370 new players, Crews said, which means space and fields are a big need.
The nonprofit, which also offers afterschool programs and jobs for teen coaches in training, started in 2019 with about 40 kids and now serves over 4,000.
Accessible to all
New Orleans has 17 wards, and the sports club’s name comes from a fictional 18th ward where everyone is welcome. Their mission is to make sports accessible to kids from all economic and ethnic backgrounds.
Walker likes that her son is surrounded by diverse groups of kids on the field, something they didn’t see years earlier when he was part of another youth sports program in the Carrollton area.
“To be honest, there weren’t many people of color. And we were traveling all the way from the East to do that, so that became tiresome,” she said.
Other programs can also be expensive. Like NORD, 18th Ward families are charged $5 for a season of play — and up to $50 if they choose. The nonprofit is also funded through donations, grants and sponsorships.
Sean LeBlanc, a Slidell Soccer Club director and coach at Brother Martin High School, said the cost of private soccer programs vary, but on the low end he estimated $2,500 for team fees, uniforms and travel expenses.
“There’s a lot of outreach for underprivileged kids at every club,” he said.
“But there’s only so many resources that can go around, so often you’ll see kids that wanted to play but can’t get seen or travel because of monetary issues.”
Partnerships are key
The partnership with NORD, which the 18th Ward hopes becomes long-term, has allowed them to expand soccer to more families beyond their Columbia Parc home base in Gentilly.
Partnerships with schools, universities and other entities, Barabino said, are the lifeblood to NORD’s functioning and growth.
The increased participation marks their highest numbers in team athletics since 2017, after which the city saw sharp declines across football, volleyball, cheerleading, track and baseball.
In 2018, tackle football, the most popular sport each year, lost nearly 1,000 players in a year’s time, while baseball numbers were cut in half.
Coaches at the time attributed declines to parents upset over playground transfer restrictions and the availability of alternatives such as travel leagues.
Barabino, who was CEO in 2006 and again since 2019, said a partnership between NORD and NOLA Public Schools in 2019 helped boost numbers by creating a new middle school sports league with at least 34 schools. But the agreement, and many other initiatives, stalled over the next few years.
“COVID hit and brought a lot of stuff down, and then we had to regroup from there,” he said.
Hurricane Ida further slowed growth as some parks and facilities close until they could be repaired after taking extensive damage.
In mid-2022, NORD reintroduced its collaboration with the school system, which brought on hundreds of students across 15 schools — but less than half the schools that had signed up years earlier.
“You have some (charter) operators that are not focused on sports,” Barabino said. Other reasons he mentioned were schools not wanting to invest in expensive sporting equipment and the option to join the much larger middle school league, Crescent City Charter League.
Despite higher participation rates, NORD, which manages over 165 neighborhood parks, playgrounds, recreation centers, pools and stadiums, still faces numerous challenges.
The city-run agency is known for being chronically underfunded and understaffed which prevents some neighborhoods from fully participating in all it has to offer.
NORD was recently under fire for only opening a handful of pools in the scorching heat of summer due to lifeguard shortages and maintenance issues. Maintaining its large number of facilities can also be difficult Barabino said.
“We are constantly repairing, replacing and fixing, especially when it comes to our outdoor facilities where we deal heavily with vandalism,” he said.
Both Crews and Barabino are looking ahead with hopes that youth sports and programming continue to grow.
Registration for the spring soccer season is currently open at https://nordc.org/sports/soccer/