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The cost of playing will cost us more down the road

By Rick Burton and Norm O’Reilly

One of us recently saw a story in Australia where an 11-year-old started her own digital magazine called Her Way. Her magazine’s motto, which focuses solely on famous female athletes, is “If she can, you can.”

It got us thinking about youth sports in general and whether everyone “can.”

We write that because contextualizing what’s happening on North America’s fields, rinks and courts is a big part of our industry’s collective interest. Those competitive grassroots settings fuel the pipeline for the next generation of professional, Olympic, Paralympic, and collegiate athletes, plus coaches, officials, and administrators.

Thinking about whether “the kids were all right” made us contact Neil Schwartz and Mark Sullivan of SBRNet to dig around on youth participation rates and ultimately learn about concerning declines. More interestingly, Neil showed us a 2013 study published by Donna Merkel in the Journal of Sport Medicine that found approximately 45 million school-age children playing an organized sport.

That’s a massive cohort (roughly 70% of all youth participate in sport regularly in the U.S. and Canada) but studies indicate girls, low-income families, and marginalized populations are less evident in organized sport settings. Also, as kids move into their teenage years, the dropout rates are traditionally high (particularly for girls), with most teenagers getting out around the age of 14.

That led to the real kicker. The cost of youth sport participation continues to skyrocket and is rapidly generating an economic divide between higher- and lower-income families. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, but how are the dollars spent?

What the SBRNet research showed was that most families are paying for club registration, equipment, private coaching lessons, specialization camps, elite facility access, and distant overnight travel to compete in away tournaments or meets.

Those costs alone eliminate many. But then add in the hours the parents or guardians expend in getting their children to practice, games and tournaments. Those “non-billable” hours replace something else like working, relaxing, household duties, caring for others or that adult’s own self-actualization.

While the average cost of a child playing organized ice hockey was $2,583 per year (circa 2019), the expensive outlier among the 21 sports considered was tennis, where private lessons approached just under $35,000 a year. In that situation, the cost is slightly less than $3,000 per month, which is probably pocket change in the wealthiest ZIP codes.

Certainly, for any super-talented young athlete on a high-performance development track, some of the numbers above are low. Just ask any parent who splurged for the basketball shoes of choice or replaced a broken hockey stick for their 12-year-old.

For many Sports Business Journal readers, it’s no surprise learning travel soccer or club gymnastics is expensive. It’s worthy of a massive Homer Simpson “D’oh!” because you already know your child is draining down your bank account (before they even get to college).

But what about the massive number of children getting left behind because their families can’t afford the whole shebang? How does their absence influence the sports world of tomorrow? Is it your responsibility to keep participation numbers high and our industry strong?

We think so and offer three suggestions for your consideration.

First, in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book “Outliers,” he discussed age cutoff dates as eliminating many potentially elite Canadian hockey players simply because they were born in the “wrong” month. Those born closest to the cutoff were always the oldest and most physically developed. They made travel teams, thereby receiving advanced coaching and often advanced to the highest levels of Canadian hockey.

Gladwell’s solution was to employ multiple cutoff dates, thus yielding a larger talent pool. We’d add to that by noting that greater access, fun and level playing fields (for continuous development and advancement) will bake a bigger pie.

Second, the role of parent associations advocating for diversity and inclusion is key. Will Smith’s portrayal of Richard Williams in “King Richard” shows the unlikely rise of two young Black women the tennis world would have easily ignored. Instead, Venus and Serena blossomed into world-class players generating billions in revenue and impressions for tennis.

“King Richard” shows us two winners but begs the question of how many other greats have been left behind because a sport’s grassroots entry system wasn’t astute or nimble enough to see and promote talent. Logically, systems that remove barriers for youth participation are key. Examples include safe places to play, affordable access to transportation, revitalizing the fading school sport system, and more.

Finally, we suggest taking a page from the USA Hockey handbook that has helped with the rapid growth of ice hockey participation in the U.S. by providing equipment for young players at arenas in small towns, thus helping reduce the costs for many. One reason a sport is expensive is the ever-increasing cost of equipment, because children grow quickly (but unevenly).

All of this may sound naïve (particularly if your mantra for success is built around capitalism), but our advocacy is based on a belief we all share a vested interest in removing barriers, prioritizing fun over advancement, and replacing cashed-up super parents with an equitable system that places more children “at the table.” Otherwise, it’s easy predicting the number of kids playing sports will keep going down.

Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and former CMO of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Norm O’Reilly is the dean of the University of Maine’s Business School and partner consultant at the T1 Agency in Toronto.

Questions about OPED guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at jkyler@sportsbusinessjournal.com

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