June 8, 2005 - With rising costs and cutthroat competition governing a vast majority of youth programs in Tucson and afar, the Southwest Youth Sports organization is attempting a different approach on an old-time concept.
Created in January, the upstart organization is taking initiative in transforming the way youth sports are run - strictly for the kids.
The program is based on three simple concepts: fun, family and physical fitness.
"It really goes back to when I grew up, and the corner lot pickup games," said Southwest Youth Sports founder Charlie Sommers. "That's really how we wanted to develop it."
The first season proved to be a success. Sommers, who expected to enroll between 500 and 600 children and teens, ended up with closer to 1,200, ages 3 to 15. Leagues were established on the north and east sides of Tucson, with each program checking in with about 600 kids each, competing in soccer, tee-ball and baseball.
Although the organization is designed for those who are ages 3 through 15, the majority of participants in the spring, 60 percent, were under the age of 8. Sommers said the bracket of 12 to 15 isn't necessarily the organization's target market because most teenagers and their parents are looking for more competitive leagues at that age.
"If anyone played sports growing up, it teaches you a lot about life and it can teach you good things," Sommers said. "Just because you're not the elite athlete at age 12 doesn't meant that you can't enjoy the sport and play it just for the love of it."
The programs on the east and north side offer basketball, flag and tackle football, soccer, tee-ball and baseball, and cheer in eight-week formats. Although teams practice on any field available, all games are played at Cross Middle School, 1000 W. Chapala Drive.
The new organization is designed to be as fun and hands-on as it is cost effective. While many club teams can cost a parent as much as $300 a month, Southwest Youth Sports charges a fee of $45 per season and doesn't require parents to participate in any fund-raising events.
All league expenses are covered by the registration fee, including equipment - the league's biggest expense - officials and uniforms.
For children whose families struggle financially, Southwest Youth Sports offers a scholarship fund to allow them the opportunity to play. In the spring, 70 qualified for a scholarship. This cost the league about $2,000. To avoid taking such a hit in the future, the organization has teamed up with Peter Piper Pizza to help raise funds for the scholarships.
Judging on past success, Sommers is confident that the organization can thrive in due time. Before returning to Tucson, where he served in the U.S. Air Force, Sommers helped establish such programs in Texas cities including Dallas, Forth Worth, San Antonio, Austin and Houston.
"I've been on the competitive side of sports and I think there's a level for that," said Sommers, who has worked in youth sports for 15 years. "There's a need for that in kids, but I think what we've done as a society - you start hearing the horror stories and kids going after each other with bats, so I really felt the need to be something that really holds the parents true to say this is not about you, this is about fun and about the kids and it's about letting them play. I think that's a thing that we've lost in an organized format."
To make sure that the league is run to the highest standards and stays true to its format, a board of volunteer parents is created before each season. Everyone involved in the league, with the exception of game officials, is a volunteer.
In Sommer's experience, keeping a local spirit in the league has far-reaching effects in the community. Everything the organization buys and uses - equipment, uniforms and printing services, to name a few - is bought through local vendors.
Registration for football and cheer has already begun for the fall season and will include ages 3 to 15. The upcoming sign-up date in the Northwest is June 20 at Peter Piper's Pizza at the corner of Ina and Thornydale roads and at the corner of Old Spanish Trail and Harrison Road.
For more information, contact Southwest Youth Sports online at www.southwestsports.org or by phone at 990-2622.