America is known for its obsession with sports. We have four of the five largest professional sports leagues in the world and by far the largest system of collegiate athletics. Children tend to play more sports as well; very few other countries have youth leagues as well established as Little League, and sports are more intertwined with high schools than any other country.
You might think, then, given America’s history and culture, and the dominance that professional sports exert on TV, that youth sports would be booming. If you only looked at the financials, you’d be right. According to The Atlantic, American youth sports leagues had a 17 billion dollar market valuation in 2017, a number greater than that of Major League Baseball.
But like so many other parts of modern American life, economic growth in youth sports hides deep and growing inequality. There are two diverging populations: the wealthy who are more likely to play sports, and the underprivileged, who are less likely to. The first group, made up of kids from families making over 100,000 dollars a year, has seen increasing sports participation since 2011, according to the Aspen Institute. The same study notes that participation has fallen in families making less than 50,000 dollars. What’s even more shocking is the disparity in participation rates, defined as playing a team sport for at least one day: 34 percent in families making below 25,000 dollars a year compared to 69 percent in families making at least 100,000 dollars.
Sports were not always the province of the wealthy. For most of American history, kids played sports primarily with friends, in backyards and sandlots. When athletics were organized, it was through neighborhood leagues and local associations, like Little League, the YMCA, and CYO. The only options for older kids were high school teams. Playing a sport year-round was very rare — the best athletes tried to play as many sports as possible. In the last seven years alone, the number of sports played by the average young athlete has dropped from 2.3 to 1.8. These structures meant there was some measure of economic integration (obviously divisions by class and race still existed), and, most importantly, the vast majority of kids shared the same athletic background.
But that world is going away. Little League participation peaked in the 1990’s with three million players. Around 2.4 million play today. Amateur Athletic Union basketball has risen at the expense of parochial and community leagues. Popular high school sports like football, baseball, and basketball have all experienced decline. Like so many other “mainstream” institutions (those that incorporate people from many sectors of American life), the local team, coached by parents, is slowly dying.
There isn’t one reason for this drop. A generation that grew up “fully digital” means more kids are spending more time indoors. The childhood obesity crisis could be a factor as well, though it just as easily could be an effect. The biggest reason, however, is that parents have figured out that sports, supposedly meritocratic, can be bought.
Wealthy families are spending an increasing amount of time and money on their children’s athletic pursuits. Families whose children play hockey and lacrosse, for example, spend an average of around 7,000 dollars yearly, factoring in travel, equipment, and private coaching. The most committed spend over twice that. Wealthy families not only spend more money than working-class ones, but they also spend a larger share of their incomes, according to The Atlantic.
Money in sports doesn’t just mean better equipment. It means private coaching (which runs about 100 dollars an hour in many sports), access to elite travel teams, and time for parents to drive their kids from tournament to tournament. This all translates to huge advantages for wealthier kids, and the creation of a parallel world of elite athletics. In my high school, for example, elite two-sport athletes were very rare. If you were very good at a sport, say basketball, you would play for your school for the winter, then spend the rest of the year working out with trainers and competing on AAU travel teams. If you were really excellent, you’d only spend part of the season on your school’s team, or maybe not at all. There’d be better competition and coaching in private academies or travel teams.
This dynamic, where seeking better competition takes precedence over all else, decimates local sports. The best players concentrate on one sport, concentrating talent narrowly. And the kids who can’t compete with the elite teams are often discouraged from joining at all. The parallels to political debates about the economy are striking: there are fewer and fewer “middle-class” sports teams, just the successful, sheltered wealthy and everyone else.
Why do parents do this? Driving hundreds of hours, spending thousands of dollars, the massive emotional investment in watching teeenagers run around on field — it doesn’t seem to be how most adults want to spend their time. My own parents certainly didn’t want to. Most of my memories of them at my Pop Warner football games are them occasionally glancing up from a newspaper. Then again, my athletic career was pretty mediocre.
The explosion in cost of youth sports is partly a symptom of the modern obsession with getting kids into the best college possible. The NCAA gives out three billion dollars in athletic scholarships each year, and parents afraid of rising tuition fixate on sports as a discount. Of course, the vast majority of athletes don’t get scholarships. The tens of thousands some families spend on the hope of scholarships might be better spent actually saving for college.
But sports do provide a boost in admissions, often for wealthy, white, students. Even at selective, non-scholarship colleges and universities, recruited athletes tend to have lower standards for admission. Sports function, much like legacy admissions, as affirmative action for the wealthy. So parents send their kids to development camps and private coaches.
And even though the increasing intensity of youth sports is largely driven by good intentions — kids and parents both want to succeed — it’s bad for the athletes. Focusing primarily on one sport leads to far higher rates of burnout and stress. I grew up playing tennis, and for many of the best players, matches were tortuous. Kids as young as nine or ten would scream at themselves for missing serves, throw rackets, and obsess over their rankings. Early specialization also leads to overuse injuries like tendinitis and stress fractures. And specialization means missing out on opportunities to play other sports that are just as fun.
Sports are valuable — they teach values like teamwork, hard work, and grace under pressure. But fixating on competition and improvement, in effect making the sport an end in itself, subverts those goals. When a player’s success is paramount, spending whatever it takes to get better makes perfect sense. But that individual achievement comes at the expense of communities: the elite travel baseball team takes away the best players from four Little League teams, the advantages gained from a private shooting coach pushes players who can’t afford one down a depth chart.
There’s no simple solution. Parents are willing to spend money, and the market accommodates them. One “easy” thing to do would be for non-scholarship schools to stop giving athletes preferential admission. But no single school is willing to take that plunge alone. It wouldn’t be a total fix at all, anyways. Exactly like the college admissions process, it looks like competition and investment will continue to increase in youth sports, only with sports psychologists replacing S.A.T. tutors.