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The Commercialization of Youth Sports

December 23

What has happened to kids sports?

“A $19.2 billion market in the US means the youth sports market rivals the size of the $15 billion NFL,” says a December 2019 report from Dublin’s GlobeNewswire. Totaling $24.9 billion at that point, worldwide youth sports markets “are expected to reach $77.6 billion by 2026.”1

‘Youth sports’ used to mean playtime. How did it become about the money?

Read on for a look at history and socioeconomic factors influencing the commercialization of youth sports.

Playing as a Priority

At the age of eleven, Julia Stusvik-Eide explained to a New York Times writer why she was out skiing with her classmates. “I like being outside and active with my friends,”2 she said, expressing in nine words why generations of children have gone out to play.

The Aspen Institute’s 2019 State of Play report takes a longer-term approach. “Kids who are physically active are one-tenth as likely to be obese,” it tells us. “They’re more likely to go on to college and less likely to suffer chronic diseases.”3

In an article for the independent news source Crosscut, one of the report’s authors went on to note, “Play improves memory and executive functioning, increases capacity to manage emotions and regulate anxiety, boosts academic achievement and literacy, and improves social skills. Physical activity is a cornerstone of healthy, whole-child development.”4

The Development of Youth Sports in the United States

From personal enjoyment to long-term physical and emotional health, we have many convincing reasons to prioritize physical activity for kids, but we have not always done so through organized team sports. Writing for The Atlantic, author Hilary Levey Friedman gave this chronology and context:5

From Free Time to Competition

With the implementation of mandatory schooling in the U.S., starting with Massachusetts in 1852 and ending with Mississippi in 1917, children gained clearly delineated ‘school time’ and ‘free time.’ Sport leagues grew as a way to fill the latter. Urban reformers saw them as a means to keep underprivileged boys off the streets and out of trouble, and newly established parks and playgrounds provided viable space. As adults didn’t much trust their boys to play without supervision, league play soon became organized sport. It was respected as a way to teach cooperation, hard work, and respect for authority—all held as American values.

“In 1903, New York City’s Public School Athletic League for Boys was established, and formal contests between children, organized by adults, emerged as a way to keep the boys coming back to activities, clubs, and school. Formal competition ensured the boys’ continued participation since they wanted to defend their team’s record and honor.”5 Competitive athletic leagues grew across the country through the 1920s.

The Growth of Fee-Based Play

Those leagues suffered financially during the Great Depression, and fee-based groups, such as the YMCA, sought to fill the void. Their new pay-to-play model excluded children whose families couldn’t afford the fees. This same moment in history saw the founding of athletic organizations—such as Pop Warner Football, established in 1929—that would formally institute national competitive tournaments for young kids, for a price.

Many physical education professionals called the organizational focus on competition harmful, putting too much emphasis on athletic talent at too young an age. As a result, most organized competition left the public elementary school system. Kids continued to need play, of course, and Little League and similar fee-based competitive organizations grew and thrived for decades. As they succeeded, it became harder to sustain free sport programs.

Parental Involvement and the Drive Toward College

In the 1960s, the self-esteem movement began to take hold in schools, with its focus on building confidence and talent without negativity or comparison between children. Its reach didn’t extend to outside activities, and parents “increasingly wanted more competitive opportunities for their children and were willing to pay for it.” By this time, it was an accepted cultural norm for parents and kids to spend time together at sport practices—for Little League, Biddy basketball and Pee Wee hockey, among others.

The 1960s also gave rise to growing competition over college admissions. Campuses were bursting with Baby Boom-generation students. Top schools couldn’t meet the demand, which meant that not all students would get into the colleges they preferred or expected to attend. As coeducation and the GI Bill of Rights democratized the applicant pool, increasingly anxious parents focused on athletics as a means by which their kids could gain admission to quality universities.

Scorecard: A Look at Numbers

Consider the finances of higher education.

  • In 1944, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed the GI Bill of Rights, he guaranteed qualifying veterans a free year of college—up to $500 a year6
  • By 1960, with enrollment surging, the combined costs of tuition, fees, and room and board included $2,015 per year at Bates and $1,450 per year at Lewis and Clark6
  • In 2019, the average cost for a year of tuition, fees, and room and board was $21,950 at public in-state four-year schools, $38,330 at public out-of-state four-year schools, and $49,870 at private non-profit four-year schools7

As tuitions became prohibitive, colleges and universities found that robust athletic programs can bridge financial gaps and build tremendous strength. Regarding football programs, a 2016 National Public Radio commentary said, “They can earn more than $100 million a year for their schools, much of that from TV revenue. A successful program can also build community, attract students and donations. Some schools … have even leveraged their football income to become academic powerhouses.”8

The use of sport as a path toward higher education, then, isn’t as much about admission anymore as it as about tuition. According to the New York Times, “There may be no single factor driving the professionalization of youth sports more than the dream of free college. With the cost of higher education skyrocketing—and athletic-department budgets swelling—NCAA schools now hand out $3 billion in scholarships a year.”9

Youth Sport Today

Nationwide, the New York Times reports, kids of all skill levels, in virtually every team sport, are getting swept up by a youth-sports economy that increasingly resembles the pros at increasingly early ages. “[Local] leagues have been nudged aside by private club teams, a loosely governed constellation that includes everything from development academies affiliated with professional sports franchises to regional squads run by moonlighting coaches with little experience. The most competitive teams vie for talent and travel to national tournaments. Others are elite in name only, siphoning expensive participation fees from parents of kids with little hope of making the high school varsity, let alone the pros.”9

Parents’ costs continue to grow. At the high end, the article continues, families can spend more than 10 percent of their income on registration fees, travel, camps and equipment.

  • A dad from upstate New York spent $20,000 in one year for his daughter’s volleyball club team participation, and drove the 2½-hour round-trip for practice up to four nights a week
  • One Springfield, Mo., mom regularly drove seven hours, round-trip, for her 10- and 11-year-old sons’ travel basketball practice
  • A family from Ottawa sent their 13-year-old to New Jersey for a year, to increase his ice time on the travel hockey circuit; a sponsor paid the teen’s $25,000 private-school tuition

“I’ve seen parents spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars pursuing a college scholarship,” said one NFL veteran. “They could have set it aside for … college.”9

Better Outcomes

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reminds us, keeping fit is essential for childhood development and overall longevity. “Regular physical activity can help children and adolescents improve cardiorespiratory fitness, build strong bones and muscles, control weight, reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and reduce the risk of developing health conditions such as heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis and obesity.”10

We need to create and sustain constructive ways to integrate sports into kids’ lives. Although the current costs of youth sports in this country may not be sustainable, other successful approaches are proving to be so.

“Imagine a society,” says a 2019 New York Times article, “in which 93 percent of children grow up playing organized sports. Where costs are low, the economic barriers to entry few, travel teams aren’t formed until the teenage years—and where adults don’t start sorting the weak from the strong until children have grown into their bodies and interests. Then, the most promising talents become the most competitive athletes in the world, on a per-capita basis.”2

This is Norway, population 5.3 million, which won 39 medals in the 2018 Winter Olympics—more than any other country in the history of the Winter Games.

Unique worldwide, Norway’s Children’s Rights in Sport is an eight-page declaration that underpins its whole sports ecosystem. It was introduced in 1987 and updated in 2007 by the Norwegian Olympic and Paralympic Committee and Confederation of Sports. Placing a high value on the voices of youth, it describes the type of experience that every child in the country must be provided, from safe training environments to activities that facilitate friendships.

Competition is promoted but not at the expense of development and the Norwegian vision: “Joy of Sport for All.”

  • Children “must be granted opportunities to participate in planning and execution of their own sport activities”
  • They may “decide for themselves how much they would like to train,” and can even opt out of games if they just want to practice
  • No national championships before age 13
  • No regional championships, or publication of game scores or rankings, before age 11
  • If a federation or club violates the rules, it may lose access to government grants, generated from proceeds of sports betting and other gambling to help build facilities and fund programming

“We believe the motivation of children in sport is much more important than that of the parent or coach,” said Inge Andersen, former secretary general of the Norwegian confederation. “It’s impossible to say at eight or 10 or 12 who is going to be talented in school or sport. That takes another 10 years. Our priority is the child becoming self-reflective about their bodies and minds.”2

Use your best skills to improve sport.

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