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Social media make a play for youth sports

Facebook-like Web start-ups targeting youth sports

Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe

Bad news for every parent who struggles to get a teenager away from the digital screen and out into the fresh air: Social media have invaded youth sports.

A growing number of Web start-ups are making their play to bring youth baseball teams, soccer leagues, and hockey clubs into the era of Facebook and Twitter by offering Internet platforms designed to link coaches, parents, and players. These specialized networks offer the digital means to swap game photos, share team updates, and keep track of who’s responsible for halftime snacks. And they provide a good excuse to break out a smartphone, even in the middle of a game.

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“For me, sports are always sports, but there has definitely been a leap forward in terms of technology,” said Peter Bradley, director of coaching for Mass Premier Soccer, which with 2,000 players is the state’s biggest youth soccer club. Last year, Mass Premier started using Korrio, a social network exclusively for soccer leagues. Bradley logs on frequently to comment on a player’s winning shots, for example, or suggest that another team member needs more practice.

It was only a matter of time before social media made its way into youth sports, said Suzanne Wynn of Natick, a Mass Premier parent coordinator and Korrio user. “It makes sense to me,” she said. “The boys on our team are 15 and 16 years old, so they are very accustomed to social media.”

Wynn’s son Oliver, 16, an attacking midfielder for the Mass Premier Bulldogs, logs onto Korrio about five times a week to look for team updates and notes from his coach, or to check the profiles of other players.

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In that way it’s a lot like Face­book, he said. But Korrio doesn’t have as many photos, and it’s not quite as social. “It’s an efficient way to talk without sending out a huge e-mail that everyone reads,” he said.

Based in Seattle, Korrio Inc. is making a push to dominate the youth soccer market in Massachusetts, which has the country’s second-largest number of participants, after Southern California, according to the Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association. Korrio has signed up more than 50,000 users in the state in the past year.

But there is competition on the field, including WePlay Inc. of New York and TeamSnap Inc. of Boulder, Colo., which are open to all youth sports and are making inroads into Massachusetts.

The youth sports market is huge. About 66 percent of American children from 6 to 17 years old participate in organized sports, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, of Silver Spring, Md.

Nationally, 95 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds are online, and 80 percent use some kind of social network, according to the Pew Research Center in Washington.

That combination made Korrio possible, said Steve Goldman, its chief executive.

“You’ll always see people on the sidelines pecking away [on their smartphones]; it’s almost like they are real-time ESPN reporters,” he said.

But some advocates say it’s a bad idea to encourage players and parents to break out their smartphones on the sports field, where young people are better off learning teamwork and other socialization skills.

“It’s great if these companies can offer services for their athletes to interact off the field. But if you are spending more time on the Internet than on the field, you are shooting yourself in the foot,” said Mark Pachucki, a University of California researcher who studies the impact of social media on adolescent health.

Virtual sports platforms should encourage more real-life interaction and activity among young people, Pachucki said. “Social media gobbles up all of our lives if we let it,” he said.

Korrio isn’t entirely social. It offers administrators back-end tools to run a sports league, bringing multiple aspects of team organization together in one online resource — everything from registration to record keeping. Once players and parents sign on, they have access to such information as game times, directions to the field, and weekend weather reports.

It also gives coaches a means to quickly communicate with players. “Coaches don’t have to make 15 phones calls; they can send one text message,” said Caroline Foscato, director of South End Soccer, a youth league for 250 5- to 12-year-olds that uses Korrio.

Social networks like Facebook offer some of the same capabilities as Korrio but are not built specifically to run sports leagues. Many clubs are still using both Korrio and Facebook to communicate with players.

Korrio, which has raised $5.8 million in venture funding, makes money by charging teams an annual fee of $8 per player, and the company says it has hundreds of thousands of players using the service nationwide.

TeamSnap, by comparison, has raised $1.7 million in venture investments, charges leagues $250 a year and additional fees for services like compiling game statistics, and has signed up 45,000 users in Massachusetts.

WePlay did not respond to a request for information.

Both TeamSnap and Korrio offer their platforms to adult leagues, too. But they say the most growth is in the youth market.

The digital boom is beginning to make more of an impact on all parts of organized sports, said Mike May, a spokesman for the sports manufacturers association. “Technology is infiltrating virtually every aspect of our lives.”

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com.
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