The Financial Barrier to Youth Sports Participation.
An alarming trend that is impacting generations. How this has happened and what to do about it.
I remember it clearly.
It was 2008 and we went to lunch. I had recently connected with a friend from university. He had 3 kids. 1 was in University at the time, 1 finishing high school and another coming in as a freshman. My son was 7 back then and the conversation got around to raising 3 boys, who were all into sports. The statement stuck with me. He said:
“I am sure it has cost us at least $20 000 for the boys to get through sports in the last few years”.
I remember thinking then that it was a crazy amount of money.
Fast forward to 2021 as my son is in college, and I realize that number is not that far out of whack. We believed in raising our son to try many different activities. From acting, music to all kinds of sports. Fencing, tennis, golf, volleyball, soccer, basketball, hockey, skiing, martial arts were all part of the “try list”. As he got older, he settled on a love for baseball. At 14, with his growth going crazy he was introduced to strength training as a means of maximizing time on the field. He developed a real interest working out. We found some great coaches, and gratefully 6 years later it is still part of his routine (a real saving grace during the pandemic).
He played community ball until he was 17. Then it got more specialized. More travel, more time, more expenses. But he loved it, and we figured out some ways together to offset the costs.
All through the journey, the thought kept popping up from that lunch in 2008. This can be expensive.
We often thought of his journey has being very pro-health, not just sports or baseball. We looked at this as teaching him skills to care for his body. Everything from preparation to peak performance to dealing with fatigue and recovery. Lots of good lessons that we, as parent always valued.
But what about all the families who could not afford $1000-$2000 per year for the costs of sports participation? ($1000 can be the approximate cost for a long tournament weekend once you factor in travel, hotel, meals and added expenses).
Sound like a lot?
According to a 2019 report by W5 1:
Canada’s youth-sports economy, dominated by travel teams and national tournaments, expensive equipment and coaching, sports medicine and new smart-phone apps, has become a juggernaut $8.7 billion industry, according to WinterGreen Research, a Boston-area firm that tracks the industry.
The Canadian youth-sports economy in 2018 grew from $7.2 billion in 2017 and up from $1.6 billion in 2010, WinterGreen said. The research firm expects the business to continue to grow in Canada for at least the next five years.
In the W5 report, Susan Eustis, WinterGreen’s chief executive, said Canadians spend an average of $1,000 per child on youth sports every year, the most, per capita, in the world.1
In the USA, it is a $17 Billion dollar industry and growing. 2
The Atlantic published an article in 2018 around how income inequality was killing youth sports in the USA. 2 The point of the article was not about youth sports participation declining, but rather the inequality in incomes that was hurting youth sports.
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, according to a recent report from the Aspen Institute. Going back to 2008, participation is lower across categories, including baseball, basketball, flag football, and soccer, in some cases by a lot: Baseball is down about 20 percent.
Among richer families, youth sports participation is actually rising. Among the poorest households, it’s trending down.2
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.2
How did youth sports participation become accessible primarily to those of higher income?
One source of this divide is the growth of the travel team culture. The hyper focus on building out super teams in order to compete at a regional and national level has decimated community-based sports organizations.
Perhaps the more damaging dagger however has been the reduction and removal of quality daily physical education. Last August, The Physical Movement wrote about the decline of PE time and the impact felt to this day. The biggest lasting effect is the loss of physical literacy in the general population for multiple generations.
What can be done to reverse this trend?
Matt Young and his teams’ focus is to provide a roadmap back for the broken youth sports system. When 70% of our youth are dropping out of sports participation, alarm bells must go off. In addition to re-prioritizing quality daily physical education, Matt also recommends re-instituting intramurals in the schools. The building of club sports while school opportunities being reduced opened the door for a financially based tier participation system. COVID-19 will make it harder as now club opportunities are being decimated. Funding must find its way back to the schools for building our young people’s physical literacy.
The re-connection of sports and school is critical to reducing the barrier of finances and sports participation according to Matt. It makes perfect sense, with increased physical literacy and health in our youth, we slow down the decline in sports participation. This impact is one around human health, not one of competition and elite sports.
Another key solution according to Young is to de-centralize coaching education. Administrative powers and decision making in various sports organizations are controlled by the few with little accountability and transparency.
This goes back to our article of last week with the evolution of sports academies. These academies are growing because families are seeking a better approach to their young athletes’ development. However, this comes at a huge financial cost, and eliminates many from the opportunity.
We documented Norway’s approach in this edition of The Physical Movement on early sports specialization. Norway has a 93% youth sports participation rate. The economic costs and barriers to sport are low, travel teams don’t form until the teenage years.
Young concurs, the travel team culture is having a huge impact on reducing opportunity to play. Other cultures are proving that different approaches are reducing financial barriers to participation.
At some point in the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s quality daily physical education was deemed non-essential in the development of our youth. Study after study has proven for years that the academic and overall mental and physical development of our youth have proven that daily movement is very essential.
The repercussions have not only hit our collective health for multiple generations now, and this includes a severe reduction in opportunities for play. For this cycle to be broken, quality daily movement time needs to come back to our schools, youth community sports need to remove winning at all costs mentality and organizational decision-making focus on the well being of the participants rather than a political agenda.
The first step is acknowledging the problem. Done.
2nd step is for parents, coaches and teachers to take an active role in driving the solutions.
The stakes are high. Very high.
References cited in this article: