I received a call from a parent a couple weeks ago wondering what to do. His daughter, who is seven, had participated in a “Placement Camp” for her local soccer club. Up to this point she has played rec soccer and the expectation was that she would take part in the club’s team formation for next year. My friend’s daughter likes soccer, but she isn’t any more serious about it than she is about other things she is learning how to do.
There were two teams created for the seven-year-old group and my friend’s daughter was placed on the lower level team. The placement was not in dispute. My friend called because he wondered if the information he received about cost was reasonable. He and his family were being asked to pay $1000 for ten months of soccer and over $300 in team uniform fees. She is seven. She is unsure she even likes soccer all that much. The time commitment was a lot and the bill for her exploration was going to be $1300.
I gasped first, muttered an expletive, and then encouraged him to find some other form of soccer programming for his daughter to play.
“Won’t she get behind?” he worried.
“Maybe,” I said, “but this youth sports thing is a marathon, not a sprint. You don’t have to pay that right now as she’s learning what 7-year-olds learn. If she learns to love it enough to keep working at it, she’ll catch up.”
For the hundreds of thousands of families who pay a lot of money for youth soccer (or hockey, or baseball, or basketball, or gymnastics, or swimming, or… you name it), they will likely jump all over me for thinking the cost to participate in youth sports is getting outrageous.
“We have to pay for good coaching,” they’ll argue.
“Uniform fees run that steep.”
“We’re paying for a higher level of competition.”
“We have to travel to get good competition and exposure.”
“People around here can pay that much.”
Well, obviously, if your association or youth sports group asks people to pay that, they can afford it. (that’s actually not always true, but I’ll save that for another post) The environment and the market will only bear what it can. All I know is that where I live during the schoolyear, a 10-month travel soccer fee of $270, with a uniform fee of $90 is more than some families can pay. Where I live, we may never have the programs to compete with the affluent areas, and in reality, the kids from towns like ours are running a marathon too, but they are on a completely different course. The youth sports marathon course for kids who are not from affluence is a harder course. The hills are steeper, the obstacles more difficult, and to be honest, they start a few miles back when they start. Yet, most of the time we are asked to compete against communities that are not like ours at all.
When it comes to youth sports
Where there is competition, there is divide.
Where there is money, there is disparity.
Where there is both competition and money, there is disaster.
As of August 30th, 2017 Time magazine claimed the youth sports industry was worth $15 billion. “Elite” teams exist in every single sport and with those higher levels of programming, comes a higher bill to pay. I am more and more convinced that “elite” refers less to the level of athleticism and more to the actual elite members of our society. For some families, they rarely consider the impact of their choices. Competition is stiff enough, they don’t need to worry about the poorer families who cannot afford the same opportunities.
Youth sports is just another arena where the “haves” are finding ways to participate and when the “have nots” are left behind, no one really cares. If we want to have a real conversation about the participation numbers of kids on athletic teams, we can no longer ignore the existence of capitalism and the willingness of parents to do everything they can for their own kids. Too often they make personal choices with little to no regard for other kids who are not able to afford the same programming. It’s a dog eat dog world, though, right? So why does it matter? It matters because when kids drop out of sports, or are unable to be a part of teams that encourage physical exercise, belonging, and endless life lessons, we all lose.
I live a dual life. For part of the year our family lives near where I grew up in a suburb of Denver, Colorado. It is an area of affluence with gated communities and the highest level of sports offerings around. During the schoolyear we live in a small, rural town in one of the poorer counties in all of Wisconsin where travel teams are challenging. I see the differences.
My Colorado friends jet-set around the country to take part in high level tournaments, showcases and sports experiences. Intense travel and commitment starts in practically every sport when the kids are ten and eleven, sometimes younger. They pay exorbitant fees for expert coaching and high-end equipment and some of the travel includes 10-day trips to Europe or weeklong tournaments in Hawai’i. This doesn’t even touch the specialized training or camp opportunities they finance. I don’t begrudge my friends for providing these opportunities for their children. They have every right to spend their money how they want. I’m not sure they even have a responsibility to the poorer kids who will never have those experiences, but I do, and I struggle because of it.
I coach the boys’ high school soccer team in our rural Wisconsin town. We compete against schools with robust travel programs that take place the nine months outside of our high school schedule. Travel soccer is not an option for many of the families who live here, even at the $270/year amount. Our travel is minimal and includes mostly away games in the Twin Cities (an hour away).The kids who take part in our travel teams can generally afford it, but there are a number of families who never take part because it is more than they can commit or pay. Soccer for my guys is a low-budget, low-commitment endeavor for sure.
The other side of the coin deals with the families from our town who do have a bit more in resources. Those with more capital are willing and able to take their kids out of our community entirely to pay more for the programming in a larger more affluent place. We lose kids on both ends. Even in our house, we have a couple of kids for whom we’ve made the “exit” decision and I have admittedly agonized about our choices.
There has always been a variety of experiences available to families with money. The experiences are not the same for those without money. Add youth sports in front of the word experiences and all of a sudden it becomes a choice we’re making about how we are educating our youth. All of them. It is not unlike the private education/public school debate, but it is essentially an extension of that.
Does every child deserve an education? Do they all deserve the same sort of education? Do all kids deserve a chance to participate in sports? Do they all deserve a chance to get just as good as the next kid, or to play as long, or to have a similar enhancing experience?
Some of the decisions that keep the machine in motion come down to fear. My friend was afraid if he didn’t pay the $1000 his child would fall behind. Those who can afford it have more to lose if they choose not to pay-to-play. In the affluent communities, there is always another player to take the spot. Thankfully my friend was able to find a program with a much shorter time commitment and a reasonable fee for his daughter’s current level of interest. There isn’t always that choice.
Our family’s decision to engage in the pay-to-play model is more about geography and numbers of participation, but I agonize because it is still an impactful decision to leave a small community to travel outside of our town. Every exit takes potential resources that would be useful if families were to stay.
For my part, I choose to continue to engage in two worlds. We can afford for our kids to have sports experiences and we have tried hard to keep the experiences at a level that reflects their interest and/or commitment. The older they get and the more they personally invest, the more their dad and I are willing to invest financially. For the soccer kids I coach in our community who don’t have the same resources, I do what I can to provide the highest level of coaching and experience at little to no cost to their families. Coaching the high school team is the best way I can give back to the sport that gave me so much and offer anything I can to the kids who will likely never have more experiences than what I can provide when they play for our school team.
A recent article in Atlantic Magazine further illuminates the growing gap between the affluent sporting families and everyone else. It is an important piece and I am not sure the truth of it can be ignored much longer.
If the youth sports playing field is going to be leveled, who will do it? It won’t be the for-profit companies making hand over fist off of eager families. It won’t be the poorer families who don’t hold the purse strings. It could be the affluent sporting communities if they were to think generously about the value of a system of inclusion and enhancement, but I am not confident that will ever happen. My best guess is that legislation is the way to achieve equity in youth sports, but that sounds like a hard, arduous fight.
What do you think? Should society at large care about the trajectory of the privatization of youth sports? If so, what are some potential fixes that could make it happen?
Copyright Choosing to Grow 2018 www.meaganfrank.com
Categories: youth sports