While checking some baseball scores online on ESPN, I ran across a story with this headline: “Kids aren’t playing enough sports. The culprit? Cost”
Having grown up in a world where my childhood friends and I made our own “Field of Dreams” in a meadow in the middle of a forest to play baseball and during a time where we could play any school sport we wanted without investing a dime, that headline touched a nerve for me.
It wasn’t that long ago that my own children played sports, and I don’t remember investing a dime — except for buying a good pair of athletic shoes — so they could participate.
By the time my grandchildren came along, things changed drastically, and I’m not sure it’s for the better.
Registration and other fees for kids to participate in the sport they love can now cost thousands of dollars annually, especially for those involved in summer leagues or club sports. Often, this doesn’t include the cost of uniforms, equipment, tournament fees and every cost associated with out-oftown travel, including hotel rooms and food. These costs are even higher if the families want to go with their kids to watch them play.
I’m guessing many of you reading this have children or grandchildren traveling to other states to play sports. One of my granddaughter’s friends, a high school junior, just spent a week in Georgia playing baseball as a member of a Green Bay-area team. Naturally, that cost a lot more than going to a place such as Appleton or Manitowoc to play.
I’m not sure I see the value in such costly excursions. After all, baseball is baseball, no matter where you play.
But then, if you want to be taken seriously as an athlete today, if you want to be scouted or get a scholarship, you need to play all year, not just “in season,” and that, of course, means you have to travel.
No longer are youth sports just a sport, they’re big business. The Aspen Institute, which is mentioned in the ESPN story, says that “thanks to travel teams, youth sports is now an estimated $17 billion industry.”
While youth sports has become big business, the cost to play seems to have shut the door on many kids.
The Aspen Institute says that research from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association found that only 38 percent of kids aged 6 to 12 played team sports on a regular basis in 2018 — down from 45 percent a decade earlier.
It found that cost, along with household income, played a major role in the decline in participation.
The average household income of respondents to the Aspen Institute survey was $90,908 — a number that is significantly higher than the U.S. average of $59,039. That discrepancy may be a big reason that many children can’t play. Their families just can’t afford it.
“Kids are always going to be interested in sport,” Dan Gould, director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University, told ESPN.
“The whole idea is, how do we get a lot of kids playing and have really good experiences? If every youth sports coach’s goal was to have kids fall in love with sport, they're going to be more active, healthy, safe and get the benefits. We better keep our eye on the ball and take care of it.”
Gould said the drop in participation in youth sports is due to a “multifactor” reason, with cost definitely at the top. He believes the lack of fun that kids are having is another.
Gould dubbed it the “professionalization of youth sports:” how society becomes so focused on college scholarships, going pro and becoming famous.
“People forget the true purpose of sports for kids is a developmental experience to help each kid fall in love with physical activity, become healthy, learn some things about themselves,” he said. “How do we make sports more for kids and less about the professional model? The professional model is cool, but you don’t give kids a college textbook when they’re in kindergarten.”
Reading that ESPN story made me think of how much fun I had being involved in the sports I played many years ago. There wasn’t the pressure on young athletes that I see today or financial burdens on my family, and I’m sure being involved in sports played a role in who I am today.
Many lessons can be learned as a youth involved in sports such as the one I learned in my brief stint as a high school football player: a 120-pound running back (me) should never run head-on into a 220-pound lineman.
More importantly, it’s not just the playing that’s important, it’s the benefits a child gets that are likely to carry over later in life such as commitment, pursuit of personal excellence, respect of self and others, being a good sport and good work ethic.
I know we can’t go back to the days when sports were played mainly for fun and school bragging rights or where neighborhood kids build their “Field of Dreams” in the woods, but it’s important to give every child the opportunity.
The benefits of youth sports are clear, but the laundry list of obstacles is, too. Hopefully, we can clear the obstacles so everyone has an opportunity to learn, grow and have fun.