• Sumo

By Ken Reed

Get this: Some parents are spending more than 10% of their family income on youth sports expenses like registration fees, travel, camps, personal trainers, equipment, etc., according to a recent Time article.

The parents of one 10-year-old baseball player say they’ve already spent $30,000 on his baseball career. Another dad says he spent $20,000 in one year on his daughter’s volleyball expenses.

Yes, the days of playing on your neighborhood little league team, riding your bike to practice, and playing ball with kids in your community are gone. That notion of kids sports seems quaint in today’s highly professionalized and commercialized youth sports world.

Yep, kids sports have gone pro. Youth sports is now a $15.3 billion industry, according to WinterGreen Research.

There are a lot of negatives on the path of professionalized and commercialized youth sports. For example:

– Club fees and travel costs are pricing out lower income families. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, 41% of children from households earning $100,000 or more have participated in team sports. That figure is only 19% for households with income of $25,000 or less.

– Kids with less talent are being pushed out of organized sports at earlier and earlier ages as the focus shifts to elite athletes and travel club teams. That’s a dangerous trend because it results in more inactive kids in an age of childhood obesity.

– Multi-sport participation is down and specialization is up. The average number of sports played by children 6 to 17 has dropped for three straight years. Numerous studies have found that children that specialize in one sport suffer more burnout, have more injuries, and quit sports at earlier ages.

– As family funds spent on youth sports go up so does the pressure on young athletes, who sense the investment parents are making in them.

“When the product they see on the field does not live up to their perceived notion of the value of their investment, they get upset at the kids, the coaches, and at the schools and clubs. They want their moneys worth.”

– Youth sports entrepreneurs (or vultures in some cases) are milking the unsuspecting parents of non-athletic kids for thousands of dollars by constantly talking about college athletic scholarships. Many of these kids will be lucky to see varsity high school action let alone play in college.

What’s driving this booming industry? Primarily, the dream of an athletic scholarship for college.

And that’s where dreams intersect with reality. Only about 2% of high school athletes ever play NCAA Division I sports. Moreover, the number of full-ride scholarship athletes is significantly lower than that, as many college sports programs divide scholarships up among several athletes.

“I’ve seen parents spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars pursuing a college scholarship,” says Travis Dorsch, founding director of the Families in Sports Lab at Utah State University. “They could’ve set it aside for the damn college.”

Meanwhile, ethically-challenged youth sports entrepreneurs are milking these kids and their parents in any way imaginable. Consider but one example: The United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) holds youth tournaments around the nation, and also puts out rankings of youth teams in basketball, baseball and softball. Softball ranking start at age 6 and under and baseball rankings start at age 4 and under. This organization apparently sees no problem exploiting youngsters that still believe in Santa Claus. According to IRS filings, USSSA pulled in $13.7 million in revenue in 2015 and the CEO took home $831,200 in compensation.

The professionalization and commercialization of youth sports might be good for a small percentage of kids, but for our society as a whole, the negatives certainly outweigh the positives.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans

(Note: HBO’s Real Sports recently had a compelling segment on the youth sports industry called “Youth Sports, Inc.”. It’s worth a look.)

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