Friday, December 28, 2018

The Cost of Youth Sports -- Can Your Wallet Compete?

Last month, Derek Thompson, a 32-year-old writer for The Atlantic, wrote a youth sports article which asserts that expensive travel leagues siphon off talented young athletes from well-off families and leave everyone else behind. Mr. Thompson's writing was interesting and although my youth sports days were completed long before Mr. Thompson was ever born, I do appreciate his perspective on the state of youth sports in America. Having raised four children who were all involved in youth sports (gymnastics, track and field, soccer, baseball, volleyball, basketball, tennis, cross country running), I would agree with Mr. Thompson's view that the state of youth sports in America is either booming or suffering, depending on which box score you’re looking at. He notes that to get a clearer picture, you just need to "follow the money... or follow the kids"

Kids’ sports is a nearly $17 billion industry. However, the share of children ages 6 to 12 who play a team sport on a regular basis declined from 41.5 percent in 2011 to 37 percent in 2017. Mr. Thompson wrote, "The decline of youth sports participation is the sort of phenomenon that seems exquisitely tailored to exacerbate fears about the state of American childhood. One might suspect that the falloff is the result of children gravitating to video games, television, and other electronic distractions that don’t require an open field or a court. Perhaps athletics is just another legacy institution that can’t compete for attention anymore, like church, community centers, and bowling leagues. But dig into the numbers, and a more complex, two-track story emerges. Among richer families, youth sports participation is actually rising. Among the poorest households, it’s trending down. Just 34 percent of children from families earning less than $25,000 played a team sport at least one day in 2017, versus 69 percent from homes earning more than $100,000. In 2011, those numbers were roughly 42 percent and 66 percent, respectively."

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog may be thinking... 'I think I've already read about this here.' Well, it is true that in July 2016 I wrote about youth sports struggles, and youth sports referees in April 2018. In fact, in August 2016 I even wrote about school sports fees and the impact of pay-to-play on participation numbers. However, Mr. Thompson's writing in The Atlantic isn’t a story about American childhood; it’s about American inequality. It's a story about a "classist system" -- the travel-team talents and the local leftovers. Mr. Thompson sums it up by writing, "In short, the American system of youth sports -- serving the talented, and often rich, individual at the expense of the collective -- has taken a metal bat to the values of participation and universal development. Youth sports has become a pay-to-play machine."

Well-off parents dedicate so much time and money to kids’ sports partly because of the college system, which dangles tantalizing rewards for the most gifted teenage athletes. In the 1990's, Division 1 and Division 2 colleges distributed about $250 million a year in full and partial scholarships to student athletes. Today, that figure has exploded to more than $3 billion! So, what do some wealthy parents do? As soon as their children enter second or third grade, they do whatever is needed to get them on youth travel teams, which will set them up for middle-school travel teams, which will then set them up for high-school athletic excellence -- which will ultimately make them more competitive for admissions and scholarships at select colleges.

I would encourage you to read the full text of Mr. Thompson's article in The Atlantic.

Keep Reaching For Life's Mileposts,

Paul Staso