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Why Is San Francisco Youth Basketball in Near Chaos?

Written by Peter-Astrid KanePublished Dec. 01, 2022 • 5:48pm
An athlete from the girls varsity basketball team at Archbishop Riordan High School practices in San Francisco on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

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San Francisco parents looking to register their kids for youth basketball have found that signing up is like trying to buy Taylor Swift tickets. Last month, registration for the 2023 season of the Junior Warriors, as the Recreation and Park Department’s league is known, closed within two minutes of opening, wait-listing as many as 40 or 50 potential teams. 

This is the second year in a row that the program has seen registration hiccups, denying hundreds of young players the opportunity to participate. 

This was “a dramatic cut from what there was before,” said Dave Raynor, a parent whose fifth-grader was initially wait-listed for the 2023 season even though Raynor signed up at 10:01 a.m., one minute after the window opened. 

“All San Francisco children should have the right to participate in this league, and the city should figure out how to accommodate them,” Raynor added.

This may be due to the sport’s unique structure in San Francisco athletics. Unlike soccer and baseball leagues, which are managed by local nonprofits, youth basketball is a city-run endeavor. Teams are largely organized around schools, with Rec and Parks acting as the central authority and allocating the space. While organizations like the Jewish Community Center and the Catholic Youth Organization run separate leagues, the Junior Warriors are open to all comers and unaffiliated with any religious groups. 

It is also a citywide program, enabling young people in neighborhoods like the Mission or the Bayview to play locally. Yet, starting with the January 2022 youth basketball season, Rec and Parks stated that it had reduced capacity, for unspecified reasons—only to partially reverse course later in the year. 

“They came back a couple of weeks later to everyone on the wait list: ‘No luck, sorry,”’ Raynor said. “After I complained, we got a spot. But the prospect of having to tell 10-year-olds for the second time in a row their basketball season was canceled was something I couldn’t do. You’re only a kid once. You only get to do it a few times in your life.”

Fans arrive at Thrive City outside the Chase Center before the Warriors-Mavericks game on May 26, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Playing youth basketball does not come cheap. To sign up, each team must pay a $500 fee, which helps pay for referees and other costs. Teams often rent practice spaces, and carpools cost time and money. In previous years, players received Warriors-sponsored jerseys, but now they must pay an additional $95 for uniforms. Beyond these not-insignificant costs, there’s another problem.

“Because of the lead time in ordering uniforms, teams now need to order and pay for uniforms well in advance of knowing whether Rec and Park will actually have a spot for them,” Raynor said.

In November 2021, he emailed Phil Ginsburg, the head of Rec and Parks. In Ginsburg’s reply, which Raynor shared with The Standard, he noted that a post-Covid loss of $30 million in revenue meant the department was struggling to deliver recreation programming, adding that many refs and coaches were uncomfortable being indoors with a largely unvaccinated cohort of youth.

“I am confident we will eventually return to pre-Covid capacity,” Ginsburg wrote last year. “But in the short term we are struggling to scale up. If there is anyway for us to do more, we will.”

Yet the waitlist returned again ahead of the 2023 season. Looking for answers, Raynor spoke during the Nov. 17 Recreation and Park Commission meeting (at which the main topic was pickleball).

Further, the Junior Warriors’ website specifically cautions that “we will NOT be able to accommodate as many teams this season as we have in the past.” The Standard reached out to Rec and Parks for comment, and received a response on Nov. 29 stating that the department had found the room for more teams—but only for kindergarten, first grade and second grade.

“We have worked to accommodate more teams each year, from 111 in 2019 to 124 in 2022. We have increased enrollment from 2019 to 2023 by over 31%. Even though we’ve increased supply significantly, demand is still higher, so teams remain on the waiting list,” Rec and Parks spokesperson Tamara Aparton said. “We recently shifted our current gym resources and hired an external referee firm. That means we can now accept an additional 30 teams from the wait list. We sent out emails notifying the teams today. This brings the total number of teams we can enroll to 145. […] We will not be able to enroll teams on the wait list beyond the 30 additional teams.”

Undoubtedly, this is wonderful news to lots of 7- and 8-year-olds. But Raynor is put off by the department’s opacity. 

“They said at the [Commission] meeting there were 40 or 50 teams waitlisted, and now they’re saying an additional 30 are allowed, but that’s still 10 or 20 more,” he said. “Again, we’re not talking about people who were slow in registration. This is people who registered at 10 a.m., the minute that it opened.”

If this runaround has, in fact, become an annual event, Raynor believes the city is failing its kids and it should consider a permanent solution, like passing responsibility to a nonprofit. 

Courts sit ready to be used at Moscone Recreation Center in the Marina District of San Francisco on Monday, Nov. 21, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

The Golden State Warriors are currently the undisputed kings of professional basketball, having won four championships in the last eight seasons, including 2022, as well as numerous conference and division titles. The Standard reached out to the team to gauge whether they might step in with resources or assistance beyond their existing sponsorship, but did not receive a response. The Warriors run clinics at Chase Center, but their youth academy is in Oakland, a legacy from when the team played in the East Bay.

Assuming no intervention is coming, and Rec and Parks is unable to whittle down the wait list any further, that means as many as 200 kids are out of luck next month—if their parents had the tenacity to stick around this long. Raynor says some have essentially said, “To hell with it.” 

He believes race may be another factor contributing to the Junior Warriors’ woes.

“Soccer and baseball attract a wealthier and whiter demographic than basketball, so when it comes to what they can cut, it might be a bit politically expedient” to squeeze basketball instead, he said.

Jerome Gumbs, a coach and the founder of Empower ME Academy, a San Francisco organization that uses basketball to teach life skills to young people, agreed that youth athletics are fundamentally broken. The system has turned into a money-generating machine, charging excessive fees and dangling the promise of a professional career when it should be inculcating camaraderie and leadership. 

“When you think of a professional team, not everyone plays, but everyone gets paid. On youth sports, everyone pays, but not everyone plays,” he said. “How is it that the best team in the world is not creating some kind of surge in popularity? The Warriors have the right culture, but then youth basketball is a second thought.”

Gumbs shares Raynor’s view that some parents are beginning to walk away demoralized. 

“You have a culture where the top five people that benefit aren’t even children: coaches, refs, facilities, parents and the sponsors,” he said. “The narrative has always been about getting a scholarship or becoming a famous NBA player, and it should not.”

Throw in the fact that gentrification has pushed out entire communities of Black and Brown families who have historically been among the most fervent basketball players, and San Francisco’s decline as a basketball city has become apparent.

“San Francisco is infamously known for not being recruited for top schools,” Gumbs said. “I don’t know the last time that anyone got recruited from San Francisco.”

Update: This story has been clarified to note that Dave Raynor and Phil Ginsburg’s email correspondence occurred in November 2021.

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Peter-Astrid Kane can be reached at [email protected]


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