The Finances of Youth Sports in the United States
The landscape of the youth sports world is markedly different than it was a few decades ago. The cost of youth sports is much higher today than ever before, but the cost is just as much emotional as it is fiscal. Kids in sports are started earlier, expected to specialize earlier, and are worked harder than they were 25 years ago. In return, their parents spend more money, more emotion and more time than ever before training up young athletes. With all the talk of the fees and equipment of youth athletics, one may wonder the true cost of youth sports.
The Fiscal Cost
Fiscally speaking, parents can spend upwards of 10% of their income on general, recreational sports for young athletes. For children who are more athletically inclined, or show an aptitude for one of the more expensive sporting endeavors the cost can easily double from that 10% estimate. There are sports that are, generally speaking, more expensive than others. Lacrosse, soccer and swimming are among the most expensive when children age up into more competitive brackets. When factoring the fiscal cost of youth sports, one must look at participation fees, equipment fees and travel expenses.
Participation fees seem to be a large part of the fiscal picture. Participation fees, in recent years, have sky-rocketed to new heights. Parents are expected to put out more money for participation in even basic recreational leagues. Participation fees are expected to cover the necessary facilities utilized for the sport, the coaching staff and the insurance that must be carried by the organization hosting the league. These fees rise each year because the cost of keeping even a basic recreational league running continues to cost more.
Equipment and apparel costs generally fall on the hands of parents. While a uniform may be provided for team sports, many parents are expected to pay for all of the equipment required for their child to play sports. According to Kids Play USA, a child participating in baseball at the Connie Mack travel level could be carrying around as much as $2,500 worth of equipment. Between bats, gloves, shoes, and protective gear, parents are very likely to spend well over $1,000 to outfit a child to play on a baseball team. Add in the fact that a child likely will need to have such equipment replaced as they grow and advance in their sport, and parents can end up paying out $30,000 or more in equipment for a child to play a sport between the ages of eight and 18.
When a child ages up into travel teams, or “elite teams” as they are sometimes known, the costs skyrocket further. According to experts, a travel team can cost up to $10,000 per season, depending on the sport and its associated fees, its travel schedule, and the equipment required. For example, travel hockey is likely to cost more than travel soccer, simply because the rink time, and the equipment is more expensive, than field time and the associated pads.
What is the Industry Worth?
Forbes estimates that youth sports is a $7 billion industry. The industry, however, relies heavily on public money to exist and survive. Forbes points out that youth sports has much in common with professional sports. In the case of a complex being built specifically to house youth sports and elite teams, the complex itself is a “one trick pony”. The complex relies on organizers, teams, their families, and the public for help to fund the complex and create a profit. When it comes to youth sports, there is trickle down affect when it comes to profit, and, in most cases profits are not large. In areas that are more rural in nature travel sports can be a huge draw for the community. Not only does it bring outsiders in, but it helps to feed a tourism business that would not exist otherwise. This is not the case when it comes to more metropolitan areas. It should also be noted that the $7 billion industry number is exclusive to travel or elite sports.
When one looks at recreational sports at a more basic level, the financials behind the sports are much meeker. In the case of city or county run leagues, the goal is to break even. The organizers often rely on participation fees, volunteer coaches and funding from local businesses to keep the program afloat. These cases are more similar to the world of youth sports that you likely remember from your own childhood.
Expectations versus Realistic Goals
“Participation fee”, “equipment fee”, “business”, and “profit”- all of these words have begun appearing in conjunction with youth sports. Yes, there is a fiscal cost, but as the fiscal cost gets higher and higher, one has to wonder if it is all coming at an emotional cost. According to experts, children who are asked to specialize in a sport from a young age are more likely to feel pressure to perform well. In some cases, children are not allowed to, or feel as if they cannot, quit a sport they are no longer enjoying because of the monetary investment that has already been made. Sports, often known as “games”, for young children are quickly becoming less of a game and more of a job. When a parent invests a lot of money in their child – whether they realize it or not – they often expect something in return. Sometimes they expect enjoyment, other times they expect prestige, college scholarships, and the satisfaction of raising a star athlete.
Along with the fiscal cost of running the youth sports business an emotional cost has now been tacked on, and in most cases, the child is expected to pay that emotional cost. When did youth sports stop being about games, and start being about stardom?
In short, only a small portion of children will rise to the upper echelon of success when it comes to sports. Few will play at the collegiate level, and even fewer will get scholarships to do so. While there is a financial side to youth sports, and there simply has to be to ensure they continue to exist, there should not be a business behind youth sports. Business takes the fun out of the game.
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Cook, Bob (2014). Private Developer’s Struggles A Lesson In Why Youth Sports Complexes Built With Public Money. Forbes.
Kids Play USA (2015). Overview and Cost of Youth Sports. Kids Play USA.
Sullivan, Paul (2015). The Rising Cost of Youth Sports in Money and Emotion. The New York Times.