Little League, Big Expense: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and its Impact on Children and Communities

By Jeremy Monk
Social Connectedness Fellow 2017

When we speak about children’s sports, the image of a team, whether on a field, a court or a rink, is often the default picture. In this image, kids are playing with a diverse group of peers from their neighborhood, in a facility or recreation centre managed and paid for by the community. This image, a staple for many in North America, is becoming less of a reality, especially for low-income families and low-income communities.

Mark Hyman, Professor of Management and Tourism Studies at George Washington University, is examining the rising cost of youth sports and its effect on families. His findings demonstrate the large burden the cost of youth sports has on the average family. Jay Coakley, a sport Sociologist, states “if you’re not upper middle class or middle class with three credit cards, you’re going to have a hard time keeping your kids involved in sports … The cost of one kid playing can be six or seven thousand dollars. Where does that leave the average middle-class family?” Recently, this has left children of middle-class and low-income families out of sports and athletic competitions. According to the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society program, children aged 6 to 12 whose families make less than $25,000 are three times more likely to be physically inactive and half as likely to play a team sport. 

The lack of access to sports has been exacerbated by two complementing phenomena: the growth of private, specialty sports programs and the lack of funds available for local programs. In September, 2017, TIME Magazine put out an article examining the rise of the children’s sports industry. This industry is now worth an approximated $15.3 billion, driven by the perception that better athletic training and success will improve a child’s overall prospects in the future. As children are moving away from community-run sports to the private sector, local programs have been hurt, especially those in low-income areas. Locally-run programs, often through organizations like the YMCA, have seen kids leave their programs and have had trouble funding and running competitive, robust sports programs. In addition, parks and recreation centres in low-income communities tend to have less organized sports programs for children, only decreasing access to sports for kids and families who cannot afford the private option.  

At the heart of this lack of accessible and affordable sports programs problem is the positive impact sports, especially team sports, have on young children. Most evidently are the physical health benefits that accompany regular exercise and activity, even at a young age. However, research has demonstrated the myriad of other lifelong benefits that stem from playing youth sports. The Aspen Institute associates participation in youth sports with emotional, social and educational benefits. These include future participation in organized sports, development of cognitive skills, and even better grades in school.

Focusing on the social benefits, participation in youth sports provides children with a platform in which to learn about, and actively engage in, teamwork, discipline, and resilience. In addition, sports participation is correlated with happier children and families, higher self-esteem  and provide children an opportunity to make friends and gain friendship-related skills. The opportunities for children to improve their social and emotional intelligence while playing organized sports with their peers are infinite. However, as youth sports become more segregated based on family income, and become less accessible for low-income children, many kids are missing out on the chance to acquire these vital skills.

In The Atlantic’s article “What’s Lost When Only Rich Kids Play Sports“, Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society program says “sports in America have separated into sports-haves and have-nots.” The reality is that the stark socioeconomic divisions within the organized sports world are starting at a young age, and thus take away an opportunity for children to interact with kids from other backgrounds. While socioeconomic separation has long been the status quo in schools, the environment in which children interact with their peers the most, community organized sports have more often been the place where children from different upbringings connect. Unfortunately, the importance of these social connections has taken a backseat to the obsession of paying for children to receive a quasi-professional experience in youth sports. Playing on a professional quality field seems to matter more than who is actually on the field.

While there is a time and place for these private sports programs, every young child should have the opportunity to play with a diverse group of peers, where teamwork, friendship and hard work are the outputs, not fancy jerseys and name-brand equipment. As a society, we must continue to support our local youth sports programs, fields and recreation centers and let our children experience all that comes with playing sports with all of their neighbours, not just those who can afford to play.