$693. That’s how much the average family in the United States spends per child for one sport each year. Some have called sports the great equalizer. But with such high costs to participate, this dream is far from a reality.
Even before the economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, youth sports were facing declining participation rates because of problems surrounding access. The economic fallout created by the pandemic complicates the situation even further. Potential budget cutbacks could put sports offerings on the chopping block for public schools and community organizations that are already seeing declining participation rates.
Only 38% of kids aged 6 to 12 played team sports on a regular basis in 2018, down from 45% in 2008, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. This decrease in participation was most pronounced among kids growing up in low-income families. Low-income kids are now 21% less likely to regularly play a sport than their high-income peers, according to a study from the Women’s Sports Foundation, an organization dedicated to providing girls access to sports.
The culprit is the increasing popularity of pay-to-play youth sports leagues. In a not-so-distant past, community sports leagues were a staple of the quintessential American childhood. Today, well-to-do families are instead opting to place their kids on more competitive and expensive teams.
“Wealthy families will not put their kids in Y programs when there are more and more exclusive clubs available in the area,” Paul Kieltyka, the president and CEO of the Summit Area YMCA in New Jersey, told The Atlantic in 2017.
The YMCA is not alone in its struggles. Little League baseball and softball leagues, long considered a model for youth sports, have decreased in popularity as travel leagues become more prevalent. Little League International Director of Media Relations Kevin Fountain told The Daily Herald that participation in Little League baseball and softball worldwide has dropped between 1.5% and 3% annually since the early 2000s. Across the board, accessible youth sports options are seeing declining participation numbers and uncertain futures.
“I worry that the equity gap in sports will grow wider because parents who can still afford the pay-to-play model will, of course, have their children playing,” Bethany Rubin Henderson, president of the nonprofit youth sports development program America Scores, said in an interview with The Undefeated, a publication that examines the intersections of race, sports and culture.
With expensive youth sports leagues presenting the only option to play a team sport, those people without the means to pay will be left behind. Missing out on the opportunity to play youth sports means much more than just not being able to take the field with friends. The benefits of playing a sport as a kid extend far into the future. Youth sports offer health benefits like obesity reduction while also promoting healthy lifestyle choices in the future, according to The Aspen Institute. Additionally, playing a sport can improve cognitive development, mental health and social skills. Put simply, it is time we start making youth sports a priority.
At first glance, it may seem like youth sports are highly significant in our country. ESPN pays around $7.5 million annually to televise the Little League World Series, a baseball tournament between 12- and 13-year-old kids. This investment is exactly what is wrong with our view of youth sports. The focus is on money and competition. As of 2017, youth sports were a $15.3 billion industry and had grown 55% since 2010, fueled by parents hoping to give their children a better chance of making it big, however long those odds may be.
Instead, we should build a model that emphasizes participation, not just for those who can pay, but for every child who wants to play. In addition to increasing accessible youth sports offerings, this transition will require a shift in the mindset of parents. Wanting what is best for kids does not mean spending $693 or more for them to play a sport. Excessive spending may marginally help children, but it feeds into the demise of youth sports as we know it. To promote a sustainable future for youth sports, I’m asking parents to do what is best for their community as a whole, not just the children living under their roof.
In a country built on competition, this request is admittedly a lot to ask. But with the COVID-19 pandemic hitting pause on so many aspects of society, there’s no better time to hit the reset button. The pandemic has taught so many of us what it feels like to be denied the ability to do what we love. Hopefully, this feeling will inspire us to make sure no kid has to experience that same disappointment.
Jacob Vanderzwaag is a rising junior in the School of Foreign Service. The Audible appears online every other week.