Evanson: Win or lose, youth sports are increasingly about the money
For longer than I've been around, people have said, "It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game."
But is it really?
With every passing year, sports are becoming more about the dollar.
Sure, coaches, typically older fans and passionate scribes like myself will spin virtuous yarns about teamwork, leadership, accountability and other attributes kids can (and often do) glean from sports.
We'll talk about memorable plays or games we saw or partook in, unforgettable athletes, extraordinary performances, and maybe even coaches that made a difference.
And it will all be true. But while the immaterial benefits to sport remain on the boat, the tangible returns are doing most of the driving.
Youth sports have never been more expensive. If you want to compete at the high school level, you cut your teeth in club. Volleyball, soccer, softball, travel baseball, AAU basketball, even the ever-growing 7-on-7 football circuit are all part of the revenue-generating business competitive kids are essentially forced into — and that participation comes at a price.
According to reports in the USA Today, travel baseball and softball parents pay $4,000 to $8,000 per year for fees, training and travel expenses. AAU basketball for the average kid is going to be in excess of $5,000 per year. Soccer is $5,000 to upwards of $10,000, depending upon the amount of travel a team does from spring to fall. And volleyball can be as high as $10,000 for high-end teams, while less competitive, more regional club programs will be in the ballpark of $1,500 to $2,000 annually.
Recent studies, one by TD Ameritrade, found that parents whose children participated in "highly competitive or elite teams run by a non-school organization" were spending an average of $100 to $500 per month, per child, and that more than one in five of those parents paid $1,000 per month.
That's a lot of money coming from the pockets of parents. And a lot of it is going into the pockets of opportunists preying on a system that is cannibalizing youth sports.
Independent coaches and trainers have created a market and made it a necessity. Youth sports, which should be open and accessible to all, have become a $17 billion industry. That's "billion" with a "B."
No longer does a Little Leaguer show up with a mitt, while his coach dumps a burlap bag of bats and helmets in the dugout for kids to choose from. Every kid has his own bat and helmet. Softball players the same. Football and lacrosse players often have their own helmet and pads. And who wants to be the kid without? Or that kid's parents?
It sounds ridiculous, but the money alone got us here. Along came "specialization." Specialization needs a coach, a coach needs money, and where does the money come from? Parents, whose kid now needs specialization and the "next-level" coaching that comes with it in order to play the games that used to be a rite of passage — money or not.
Now dangle that elusive scholarship opportunity in front of those same parents hemorrhaging hard-earned income to fund this vicious cycle, and it's no longer about the life lessons sport provide, but the return on an investment that's supposed to be a physically and emotionally nurturing activity.
In the movie "Jerry Maguire," Bob Sugar says to Jerry, "It's not show friends, it's show business," suggesting that in the world of professional sports, you're not out to make friends, but rather to deliver a service.
Well, the youth and professional versions we see everyday on our television are entirely different. At least they're supposed to be. Your 8-, 12- or 16-year-old on the court or field of play didn't ask to be an "investment" or to "deliver a service," but in many cases, they are suffering the consequences anyway. That feels like an activity more lose, few win, and even fewer benefit from — and "how they play the game" has nothing to do with it.
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