It started with a conversation with a kindergartner — his kindergartner. Chris Livatino, the athletic director at Evanston (Ill.) Township High School, asked his daughter if she played sports during recess. Her response: "No. The boys play soccer, and they told us girls don't play sports." Livatino and his wife Megan, a former Northwestern University volleyball player, looked at each other — incredulous. At the same time, the girls' basketball coach at ETHS was struggling to put together a freshman team, and another parent in the community was lamenting the lack of athletic participation opportunities for girls. Livatino recognized that parent, Liz Brieva, as a "go-getter," and together with Megan they launched Girls Play Sports, a nonprofit organization dedicated to introducing young girls to a variety of sports through after-school clinics and weekend events. AB senior editor Paul Steinbach asked Livatino, who had previously coached boys' and girls' volleyball at ETHS, about the progress of GPS, now in its 10th year of existence.
Can you describe those early conversations among the cofounders?
We sort of brainstormed this idea that it would be pretty cool if we could try to figure out ways to introduce girls to more sports before they got to middle school and especially high school. Because a lot of times, at least in our community, if you play basketball or soccer, that's your introduction to sports for girls. Maybe gymnastics, and maybe you could come up with one or two more. But for the most part those are the two sports you start out with, and if you're not successful in either one of them, you feel like you're not an athlete, or you feel "less than," and so you just sort of resign yourself that you're not going to play sports anymore. And we wanted them to realize that there's badminton, there's tennis, there's water polo, there's cross country. There are so many other sports out there, and we just wanted to introduce them to all of those.
What had you been observing personally?
This is all anecdotal. We didn't do any research. We read some articles, for sure, but we didn't do any real in-depth research. But anecdotally with the kids that we encountered, we realized that for a lot of girls, as they got to middle school, sports weren't as cool as they were for boys. They cared a lot more about their social circles and looking cool, and sports weren't a way to do that. We wanted to try to see if we could try to change the narrative on that before they got to middle school so they already went into middle school wanting to be an athlete, thinking of themselves as being an athlete.
How did you launch?
We weren't too creative. We just kept it "Girls Play Sports." We wanted to be really direct with the name. I just remember our daughter saying, "Girls don't play sports." That was sort of a trigger moment. We have to change the narrative that girls do play sports. So, we called our initial program the "Girls Play Sports Festival." We sent 10 of our female athletes from ETHS to each of the three big middle schools for an afternoon of sports with fifth-grade girls who would be attending that middle school the following year. Schools A, B and C feed into Middle School 1. We would have A, B and C kids all there, and then we would send our high school athletes representing about 10 different sports who had graduated from that same school, because we wanted these girls to see the other girls and be like, "I want to be like her. She's older. She's cool." We didn't know what we were doing. We were just kind of experimenting with it, and it was really successful. And it was a lot of fun.
What kind of feedback did you get?
The feedback we got from all the parents was, "This is really awesome, but one day? Come on. Give me a break. You guys have to come up with some more stuff than that." So the very next year we realized we needed to create an organization. My wife was a saint. She figured out a way to create a nonprofit, and we went through that whole process that summer, and the next year we ran clinics at six grade schools. At that first festival, we introduced the girls to each sport for about eight minutes each and then they rotated to the next sport. The kids had just a wetting of the whistle, just a sample platter, and we knew we needed to do a little bit more than that. So that next year we did clinics where we'd send two girls from one sport, two girls from another sport, to school A, and after school, the fourth- and fifth-grade girls could come and learn directly from our athletes. To that point in our evolution, we were still thinking coaches are the ones who were going to teach this stuff. But we changed that. We put the power in our high school girls' hands, and so many different things happened. It became way more fun for the kids — one. Two, our high school kids developed a voice and a leadership set of skills they didn't experience before because they just deferred to their head coach who was there. Our high school girls from that point on have always run all of our clinics at the grade schools.
Was there a trick to scheduling?
Our philosophy with what sports to send was pretty straightforward. We wanted sports that were out of season, so that our high school girls were available after school, and sports that were different seasons from each other that also complemented one another to try to develop a sense of playing multiple sports. We always had basketball and lacrosse paired up, and we always did it in the fall. For us, lacrosse is a spring sport and basketball is a winter sport, and in the fall those athletes aren't in season, so we'd have some basketball players go, some lacrosse players go. Even though most of them were not multiple sport athletes in both of those sports, we asked them to try to hype up the fact that lacrosse is really good for getting better at basketball, and basketball is really good for getting better at lacrosse, and they both sort of go hand in hand with each other. We did that with cross country and soccer. We did that with volleyball and track and field. We did it with badminton and tennis. We did it with cheerleading and gymnastics. We were trying to pair up sports that were similar, that were opposite seasons, so girls would start to think of playing multiple sports.
What came next?
Every year we added on to the program. The next year we just added more schools, and we created this thing called Team GPS, which was essentially the clinics enhanced by three Sundays every month. We did the same exact paired sports, but now it's geared toward middle schoolers. Because after doing the clinics, the parents again said, "This is really awesome, but what do you do when they get to middle school? They just did one day. How are they going to do the sport more?" Team GPS was for middle schoolers and gave them about an hour for each sport now, instead of 15, 20, 30 minutes, and it was for three weekends. We would teach the skills a little bit more in depth and then we had a fun tournament for the last day, or competition, depending on what the sport was. That was year three. That was really good, but the feedback was we need some more competitive opportunities and we need more time with certain sports, so then we created Girls Play Sports leagues and tournaments.
Have your efforts uncovered any prodigies?
No. I'll just be really honest with you. I don't think we ever really had any prodigies. What we really developed was — and I'll just put my AD hat on — we developed a bunch of role players when they got to the high school. We developed participants. And the numbers for our water polo program went through the roof. The numbers for our badminton program went way up. The girls' basketball program? No problems filling out both teams anymore. Across the board, just about every girls' sport, the participation numbers increased.
Is it true that 16 sports are taught through GPS and that Evanston Township High School offers them all?
Yeah, and we actually have more, but there are a couple of sports that we don't do with Girls Play Sports.
Did the high school add any sports, because now you had the numbers thanks to GPS?
Yeah, we added field hockey. That's a great question, because I don't know that my feeble little mind ever realized that that's probably what helped us to do that, but we added field hockey after we started the Girls Play Sports program, and the conventional wisdom before that was, "We don't really know if we have enough kids to support a field hockey program," and we've never had a problem filling all the other teams and having two or three levels of field hockey since the very first year we started it.
Were you teaching field hockey at GPS clinics?
No, no, no. Just to be clear, no, we were not. We were doing all the other sports, but then some of our lacrosse players came to me their sophomore year and said, "Hey, we'd love to try to start a field hockey club. Can we do that?" I was like, "I don't think we're going to have enough kids to do it. You guys go around and get a list of names of all the kids who want to play, and if you get enough girls, we'll consider adding it." And they came back with this huge list, and we're doing so well with our other fall sports like volleyball, tennis, cheerleading, swimming, cross country. None of them at all were struggling with numbers, so we added field hockey. We did lose some girls who switched over from cross country to field hockey because they were really lacrosse players who were just trying to do offseason conditioning for lacrosse, and field hockey is a similar sport to lacrosse, so they did make the transition there. Our cross country numbers dipped, but our overall participation numbers for girls increased in the fall as a result of that program.
Because you now have high school field hockey, is that now a part of GPS?
Yes. Exactly. A hundred percent. The first year we created it as a club we were like, "Oh, jeez, these girls are going to graduate soon, and if we don't do something to get more interest coming in — kids who want to play field hockey — we may not be able to sustain that program." Not to mention we want to be competitive and we want girls to have the experience playing the sport before they get to high school, just like all the others.
Is it a varsity sport now, or still a club sport?
It's a club sport, but only because we want to be able to say that every varsity sport is treated exactly the same, and we don't have the facility space for it just yet. We are hopefully getting a turf field put in on our softball and baseball fields next summer. And I've always said that once we get another turf field here, the second we get a legitimate facility that allows them to practice right after school and also play all their games, then it will become a full-fledged varsity sport. We have just made it very clear that that's sort of the bench mark. And I think that there are some parents who are eagerly awaiting that to happen, because it's been four years now.
How uncommon is it at the high school level for girls to outnumber boys in terms of sports participation?
I haven't traded numbers with other athletic directors too much. But I and another AD from another school did a presentation at the state and national levels on this topic, and anecdotally I can tell you that this is very uncommon. I don't know anyone else that has more girls than boys participants.
Upon taking the AD job, did you realize your girls' participation numbers needed a boost?
I did have a school board member reach out to me around that same whole timeframe and say, "Hey, we need to do more for girls." And I remember being really defensive, because I don't like when people tell me how to do my job. Like, I don't mind realizing it myself, but I got a little defensive, I think, with her, and I said, "You know, I think we're doing fine. When you take out football numbers, we actually have just as many girls as boys." And that's the old Title IX defense that high schools and colleges used. And she's like, "Chris, don't pull that with me. We're not counting that." And I just started thinking a little bit deeper on the whole thing with my daughter and basketball and whatnot. It wasn't confrontational. She just wanted to have a conversation about it, and I remember being just a little bit defensive about it, and then at the same time saying to myself, "She's right." Something like 47, 48 percent of our participants were girls. Seasonal participants. We didn't do unique then. We just did seasonal. And I remember saying, "That's pretty good."
Can you clarify that difference?
Seasonal is, "I play three sports. I'm counted three times," and unique is, "I'm just one student here." ADs use that to their convenience, I feel like, in high school. All of the data we had was based on seasonal athletes, and in our seasonal participation numbers, the girls were always lower than the boys, but when you accounted for football, it was usually equal if not better. And I always thought, "We don't have a female football program, so in all the cases where we have the same sports, we're doing pretty well." But that isn't the right way to look at it, and so we did tip the scales to where there were at least three years where there were more girls than boys. And then the last two years, while our girls numbers keep increasing, I've noticed that there haven't been more girls than boys for the last couple years, and I was kind of, quite honestly, disappointed and frustrated. I thought it was cool to have more girls than boys because of all the work we put into it. But then, just last year, I was like, "What's going on here?" And I checked the overall data for our school. So, percentage-wise, girls to boys was lower, but we actually still had proportionally more girls than boys when compared to enrollment. So, if we had 48 percent girls and 52 percent boys in athletics, about 47.8 percent of our enrollment was girls and 52.2 percent was boys. It wasn't huge, but it was a little bit more.
It's one prong of the old three-prong Title IX test: Is female interest being addressed proportionally compared to enrollment? And it sounds like you're there.
Yes. I started going to those sessions at our national conference and learning more about Title IX and realizing that three-prong test. One is money being spent, then there is participation opportunities, and the third is, if neither of those are being met, are you actively doing something to increase those? I knew we were good with the money. We were spending the same money on every sport. I knew we could do better with participation, but I also knew that, "Hey, we're actively doing something." And then we finally hit all three and I felt, "Wow, this is pretty cool. We're not just compliant, but being compliant actually makes a difference in the lives of a lot of these girls."
How have the hard numbers at ETHS changed over the years?
I pulled up our extracurricular participation report that I ran for this past school year. In 2005-06, which was my last year as a coach and the year before I started as AD, we had a total of 715 girls playing sports, and in 2019-20 we had 1,102 girls playing sports. So that's a pretty cool number and trend — to see that increase over the years. That's all seasonal, because we didn't have unique numbers from before. It could be that we had the same number of girls participating, but now they're just playing more sports. I definitely think it was a combination of the two. The other thing I want to highlight in all of this, and this was a very intentional thing that we thought a lot about and continue to think about probably even more now than ever, is the fact that our students of color — particularly our Black and Latina students — were very much underrepresented in sports. We are a very diverse school. We currently are probably about 48 percent white, 31 percent Black, 21 percent Hispanic, and that was not being reflected by the participation in our sports. And it's still not where it needs to be, but it's gotten a whole lot better. We charged for our programming, but we were crystal clear to everybody that financial aid or scholarships were available if you needed it.
For GPS programming. Our festival was always free. The after-school clinics were always free. The GPS programs, the leagues and tournaments and a summer camp, there was a fee associated with it. And our goal was to always say that we wanted to provide financial aid for at least 50 percent of our participants. In other words, we wanted them to need financial aid. We wanted them to be kids from low-income families. We wanted them to be exposed to and be major participants in this program, because if they're not exposed to a lot of these sports well before high school, there's no chance they're going to make the tennis team. They're just not. You have to play the sport to be able to make the sport when you get to the high school level. So, that was a really big piece of the puzzle for us, and I know we've improved a lot. I think there's still room for improvement.
Was it more challenging to recruit certain demographics into the program?
One of the lessons we learned along the way is to make the financial aid or the needing-a-scholarship thing just as turnkey and easy as possible, because even if you offer that up as an opportunity, there's still this stigma attached to families needing to ask for it or the process to actually go about applying for it. And so, depending on certain locations that we promoted the program in, there were some locations that they never even knew that we did charge for it. When we went there, we just said, "This is a free program that's on Sundays, and all you have to do is fill out this registration form." We didn't even talk about the fact that it does cost money. And that's really where we started to see the biggest growth in students from low-income families and specifically students of color. And that was very exciting for us to know that we were starting to make an impact in communities that have been sort of left by the wayside with youth sports, at least in our area.
Logistically, is that a matter of you waiving fees and making due without that revenue income, or did you have to go out and find supplemental income?
We learned that the hard part of running a not-for-profit is that it becomes a fundraising business. We spend probably as much time trying to figure out how to raise money as we do trying to run the programs. And that was sort of the turnoff for my wife. She was our executive director, and she really loved the mission and the focus and the emphasis on kids playing sports, but at a certain point she didn't know too much about fundraising and wasn't too excited about that side of things. She basically lost her love for the program because it just became almost like a fundraising money grab — being able to get enough money in to be able to cover the expenses that go with running this type of program so that some kids never have to worry about the financial obstacle of participation. Like my wife, I hate fundraising. I like the program side of things. I like to come up with new ideas, so I stay on that part of it. But it's now a fully fledged, up-and-running, self-sufficient nonprofit that I don't have to think about every single day and every single night, and it's still supporting all our girls in Evanston. It survived the pandemic, which we were concerned about. And it's an awesome thing for our community.
Have other ADs reached out to you?
Yeah, we run it at Niles North High School — the high school closest to ETHS. They also have a decent number of students of color there. Not the same level of percentages and a lot more Middle Eastern and Asian students, but a lot of families for which sports really isn't top of mind. They wanted to figure out how they could reach out to girls earlier. They did the Team GPS program, they tried to do the after-school program and the festival but, unlike us, they have five different feeder districts and it was just really hard for them to navigate the communication process, getting into those schools and doing it.
Did you hear from other parts of the country?
I think I got a couple emails: "Great job." "Keep it up." I honestly thought that we were going to hear from more schools that wanted to just do what you're doing, just pick our brain on how to do it. We had a few more in the Chicagoland area, but not nearly as many as I would have thought. I mean, we were like 47, 48 percent female participation, but there are schools out there that are like 40, 41, 42. I think it's clear — hopefully, it's clear — this isn't rocket science. What we're doing isn't complicated. It is a little bit of hard work. But now Girls Play Sports, the way that it's setup, is structured to try to alleviate the athletic director from having to do a lot. Now that I'm not the day-to-day guy and I'm just an AD at a school that it's run through, it's not that hard. It's really not that big a burden. I think it would be relatively easy for schools to do on their own, or if they wanted to solicit the service of Girls Play Sports, especially if they're in the Chicagoland area, I don't think it would be very difficult for Girls Play Sports to support them.
How old is your daughter now?
She's going to be a junior, and I wish — boy, probably more than anything, and I don't want to get emotional — but I wish I had a better ending with her about sports and everything. But she had some pretty serious mental health issues, and I think one of the things, and maybe this is the backlash of being a child of two sports nuts, a lot of her anxiety centered around trying to be perfect, especially in sports. We didn't think we were pushing her into it, but when you look back, you realize if you're spending every Sunday at the school running these programs for girls, your daughter who's coming up must think that's the most important thing for her to be involved in. Even if you don't say it. If you say the opposite, that doesn't matter. The message still came through loud and clear to her: "I need to be an athlete." She was a really good athlete. The kicker for me, and I'll say this candidly, the kicker for me is she was awesome in all these sports, and she was coming to them way before she was supposed to. She was a kick-ass badminton player, volleyball player, gymnast — all these different things — but it just kind of blew up at a certain point when she was in seventh grade, and she just kind of fell away from it. It's all good. I hope that later on in her life she'll come back and find the joy in sports and not the anxiety in sports. I might have alluded to it before, but that was one of the things for my wife and I a few years ago, where it became kind of painful to be doing all this for all these other girls and then knowing that maybe that also hurt our own child. You don't realize the sacrifices you're making until you don't make them anymore, and then it was like, "Oh, my God. There was this whole other life that we sort of missed out on." But it was all good. I have no regrets. I would do everything all over again with this program. I probably would have figured out a couple different things on the family side, but I'm really, really grateful that we have it as an institution in our city now.
You mentioned that GPS survived the pandemic. Was there any impact on your high school participation numbers?
From an athletics standpoint, our participation numbers on the girls' side have never been higher, and every year we break records for that. Probably not this year, because I will say there's no doubt that COVID impacted, at least in our community, participation numbers of girls much more than boys. There's no doubt about it. We only had one girls' freshman basketball team this year, and that was one of the things we had profited so much from with Girls Play Sports is that we didn't have those issues anymore. Badminton, we didn't have a freshman team. There are certain sports where all the work we put into it, this year just plopped off completely. So that's a real thing. We have to figure out how to make sure we get back up to where we were before. We do have to address this COVID loss of participation, and maybe we'll see all the girls storm back in this year. But usually what we've found is it's hard for girls to come out for a sport after not doing it the first year of high school.
Given all that you've done for participation in girls' sports, how do you feel about the issue of transgender participation?
Well, I think the gender that a child identifies by is their gender, and so we've been extremely supportive of that at our high school. We probably lead the way in providing transgender bathrooms and changing rooms and locker rooms. We do everything we can to support transgender students, to make life feel as normal and common as it does for all the other kids at our school. I did get asked this question just recently, "Should transgender girls be allowed to participate in female sports?" And I absolutely think they should. The Olympics and professional sports might view it differently. I don't know. But at the high school level, we're educational-based athletics. We just want kids to participate and get a chance to have fun with friends who they identify with and feel comfortable with, and so I do think they should be able to get that opportunity to participate. I don't think people are trying to find competitive advantages just to win a championship trophy. They're going to go through all the pain and hurt that comes with being a transgender student? It's not easy in our society. They're not going to make those sacrifices just to win a medal. Nobody compromises their identity to try to win medals or to win championships. They just don't. It's who they are, so give them the opportunity to participate like everybody else. That's how I feel. But I will say — I thought you were actually taking that question in a different way — so, that is definitely on the forefront of the executive director and a couple other part-timers, they are really struggling with the name Girls Play Sports, because it's so entrenched in gender. I keep referring to my daughter as my daughter for ease of conversation, but she's non-binary and she goes by they/them. In our community, Evanston, if you do a little research, you'll see that two years ago we had well over 50 students who used our all-gender locker room area. We are trying to support a lot of different kids here. So, in our community, this is a really, really important topic, and Girls Play Sports, I think, feels a little bit like, "What are we doing to support the non-binary kids — kids who don't think of themselves as boys or girls but want to play sports?" Does it make them uncomfortable that we're calling it Girls Play Sports? I don't know what the future is going to be for our name, but that is something that we're trying to tackle, as well.
This article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Athletic Business with the title "High School AD’s Nonprofit Introduces Girls to Sports" Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.