There are certainly benefits to youth sports. They may impart valuable life lessons and promote good health. But as any parent of an amateur athlete will attest, it can also be a major drain on household resources and finances.
Before their budding young athlete even steps foot on a field (or other sporting venue), they must invest in the required equipment and safety gear, including goggles, helmets, mouth guards, and cleats — plus a physical exam depending on league rules. (A high school baseball catcher may well be sporting $2,500 worth of gear between catcher’s mitts, leg guards, bats, shoes, protective undergear, helmets and bags, most of which must be replaced every few years).
Fees and costs
And then, of course, there are the participation fees, which were virtually non-existent 25 years ago, but today cost hundreds of dollars per child, per sport, per season.
Athletes who play for more competitive travel teams can pay far more, depending on the sport. Ice hockey travel teams, for example, can cost $10,000 or more per year due to equipment, facility costs, enrollment fees, and coaching.
All told, the typical parent spends $693 per year, per child on youth sports, but those with children who participate in elite programs (particularly in lacrosse, gymnastics, ice hockey, gymnastics, tennis, and skiing/snowboarding) frequently spend $12,000 per year or more with the bulk of the money going toward travel and team fees, according to a 2019 survey by Project Play.1
The average across sports was $693. But even the least-expensive sports had some parents spend in excess of $9,000 per year on one child.
Those fees do not include the cost of private training clinics or sports summer camps, which can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars more per year. (Learn more: Budgeting basics)
“When you include the travel component, there is real money being thrown at youth sports today and, whenever there is money involved, the motive starts to change,” said John Engh, executive director of the National Alliance of Youth Sports in West Palm Beach, Florida, which advocates for positive, safe and fun athletics, in an interview. “Instead of focusing on having a good, quality program, the people running the leagues start to choose kids who can afford to pay for the tournaments.”
Nationally, visitor spending associated with sports events, which consists primarily of youth and amateur sports tournaments, reached roughly $92 billion in the most recent data available, according to the Sports Events and Tourism Association, which represents the sports travel industry.2
It is a trend that concerns Don Schumacher, the group’s former executive director.
“We are at a crossroads and I have expressed my concern lately about the proliferation of new sports mega complexes that consist of 10 or 20 indoor court facilities or soccer fields, which are used exclusively by travel teams and not by the recreational leagues in the communities that are paying for them,” said Schumacher in an interview. “What I fear is that we created an industry that benefits from youngsters and does not provide the benefits to youngsters that you would hope, like physical and emotional well-being.” (Learn more: High school and kids summer sports camps)
The economic cost divide
There are other worrisome trends as well. Data show that the rising cost of organized sports has created an economic divide in which kids from lower-income homes are increasingly priced out of the game.
Nationwide, research from the Aspen Institute found that sports participation rates for white children exceed that of African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian children as many confront barriers such as pay-to-play fees, transportation issues, and equipment costs. In historically marginalized communities, the fields and play space that do exist is also often occupied by programs that do not serve local residents. 3
The dramatic growth of travel leagues, which have lowered the age at which kids compete in a single year-round sport, only exacerbates the divide, as underprivileged kids who cannot afford to try out quit sports altogether.
“When you start to shrink that pyramid of incoming youth at the bottom because it costs too much to play, that is a serious issue,” said Engh in an interview. “We don’t find as many kids who don’t have two parents or those with little money playing Little League baseball, because most of those kids are playing travel ball year-round.”
More money, less motivation
The rising cost of youth sports not only consumes a growing portion of many families’ gross income, but it appears to have a demotivating effect on the athletes, as well.
In 2014 data, sports and exercise psychologist Travis Dorsch found an inverse relationship between the amount of money families spend on organized youth sports and their kids’ level of enjoyment and commitment to the sport. “The more money families spend on sports, the less their children enjoy it,” he said in an interview, noting the findings of the study surprised even him. “We would have expected that kids of means are going to have more fun and be more committed because their parents can afford all the best equipment and coaches, but we found the exact opposite.”
Why? Kids perceive the emotional and financial investment in their extracurricular activities as unwanted pressure. (Related: Combating high school stress)
“We all want some say in what we choose to do,” said Dorsch, an assistant professor at Utah State University. “When mom and dad are spending $40 on a recreational soccer league it is easier for kids to take ownership of it, but when that turns into $10,000 for an Olympic development program, kids know that their parents’ expectations are different, regardless of whether they are hidden or overt.”
While most parents start off on the sidelines with modest expectations, wanting only to expose their kids to the legitimate benefits of team-based sports like rule following, staying fit, and having fun, their mindset quickly turns to athletic scholarships when their pint-sized progeny show untapped talent. (Learn more: Scoring athletic scholarships)
With aspirations of a free college degree on their mind, many spend beyond their means and even go into debt to send their kids to elite training camps, or cover the cost of personalized training.
The vast majority could use a reality check.
According to the most recent data from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, roughly 2 percent of undergraduate students in bachelor’s degree programs received either a full- or partial-athletic scholarship. And the average dollar award per recipient? $17,000. t.3, 4
Indeed, most parents would be better off keeping their youth sports expenses under control and putting those dollars into a college savings account instead. (Calculator: How much do I need to save for college?)
The benefits of youth sports
Despite such troubling trends in the organized sports community, participation in youth athletics delivers many benefits.
Studies show that structured extracurricular sports help teens develop the discipline they need to engage effectively in academics.
A broad body of research also shows team sports can help enhance concentration, have a positive effect on classroom behavior, and deliver social and psychological benefits, including higher self-esteem, goal-setting, and leadership. Fit kids are also more likely to be fit adults.
Thus, parents need not restrict their kids from participation in organized sports. Rather, they should manage their expectations, focus on fun, and promote a culture of positivity, said Schumacher.
“It is far more important that kids have fun and play at sports than it is that they be superstars,” said Schumacher.
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This story was first published in June 2016. It has been updated.