The Real Cost Of Youth Sports

Somehow I managed to go three and a half months without posting anything new.  I need someone out there in the readership to take an active role in nagging me to write something on a more regular basis.

An admin colleague sent me this news link to an article lamenting the loss of a once powerful high school hockey program in Minnesota.  I encourage you to read the entire article since it pertains to the state of youth sports today, but the the loss of their program is summarized in this paragraph from the author:

“What happened, especially in retrospect, is no mystery. Richfield, whose Spartans played in the state’s final one-class hockey tournament in 1991, has fewer children (under 18) — they are in only 25 percent of the city’s homes, according to city census data — and is more diverse with more families below the poverty line. At the same time, hockey continues to become more expensive, costing players between $2,000 and $5,000 — or as much as parents choose to spend — to play and train for top travel programs.”

That paragraph effectively summarizes three of the main reasons why athletic programs may struggle in today’s society: (1) lack of kids, (2) socioeconomic status, and (3) the cost of youth sports.

It really doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to see the effect that a family’s income has on a kid’s ability to play youth sports.  Referencing hockey, which was used in the article – in Grand Forks, a family could spend a conservative estimate of $15,000 in order for a kid to play youth travel hockey from ages 9-15 (much, MUCH more if a family chooses high end equipment, multiple camps, individualized training, or time at the Hockey Academy in addition to just the travel teams).  As I’ve noted in other posts (most notably here), there isn’t anything wrong with spending that money and time as long as you know that you’re only paying for an opportunity to participate.  There are no other guarantees beyond that.  To be fair, hockey isn’t the only high cost sport to our kids.  I simply used it as an example because (1) it related to the article, and (2) it’s the most popular travel sport in Grand Forks.  I’ve run point maps of some of our more stereotypical economically-based sports in town, and with few exceptions, most of our top end athletes come from neighborhoods where houses are more expensive.  (And sure, there are some activities that offer reduced registration fees through one method or another, but those are often minimal and rarely do anything to help with travel expenses.)  Beyond that, in most sports’ district or regional standings, the common threads are the size of the school and the general socioeconomic make-up of the schools’ neighborhoods.  Those trends are usually only broken by schools who get a run of athletes with really good genetics.

The difficulty in a community offering these high priced youth sports is the number of participants driven away from these sports at an early age.  If you look at most communities, the sports that can be played on a very minimal budget are still really popular.  Using track and cross country as an example – track & field numbers hold fairly steady because running is something that everyone can do for nothing more than the cost of a pair of shoes.  Are there camps and travel meets for track athletes?  Absolutely, but this tends to be a sport where only the elite athletes are drawn to those events.

Obviously, I’m not expecting any real change to the norm just because I’ve written something.  There is too much money, too much pride, and too many hopes and dreams between kids, parents, and coaches to realistically believe that any of today’s youth sports craziness is going away.  What I would like to do, however, is make it ok for kids and parents to say no to any high priced activities they either can’t afford or don’t really want to do.

My suggestion, then, is to treat all sports like how we treat track & field.  You can get a lot of ice time just by buying a used set of skates and a wood stick and rounding up some friends to take advantage of the multiple sheets of outdoor ice in town.  You can get a lot of court time in town with nothing more than an old basketball and some friends.  There are plenty of soccer fields in town just waiting for a group of friends who have nothing more than a ball.  That’s the method we adults used to start learning our sports of choice, and it continues to a time-tested, effective method for kids to learn and have fun.

Communities themselves may not be as sensitive or accommodating to the cost of youth sports, but individuals certainly can be.  Make it OK for our kids to just play again!

As always, questions, comments, or ideas are welcomed.


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