Fall is not only back-to-school season; it’s back to kids’ sports season. I’m sure I’m not the only parent who will soon be juggling practices and games for multiple kids playing multiple sports. While I try to keep our family’s costs minimal and the effort only moderate—my children play mostly in recreational leagues—balancing family, finances and sports has become a challenging trifecta for many American parents and a source of frustration and joy alike.
To be sure, sports participation boasts myriad benefits for kids, many of which are not related to athletics. In addition to improving as an athlete and learning sportsmanship, kids and teens learn character and perseverance as well as how to win with humility and lose with good grace. For these and many other reasons, I regularly enroll my children in about one sport per semester. Even at this rate, when parents add uniform and equipment purchases to several practices and games per week times multiple children, the cost and effort can be difficult to maintain. Still, it’s good for them.
That said, some parents take sports participation way too far, particularly when it comes to financing travel leagues or year-round sports. A single month of gymnastics (just four classes at forty-five minutes each) can cost upwards of $100 in some parts of the country; year-round swimming can be $1200 for one child, and that’s considered a cheaper sport. Lacrosse, a notoriously expensive sport, can cost around $1,000 for just one season. For many parents, the cost is only directly proportional to what they hope to accomplish. While many families no doubt participate in sports for the sheer joy of it, others have a strategy: College scholarships.
The Chicago Tribune reports parents have “made travel youth sports a billion dollar business” and HBO’s Real Sports found that in the last ten years there has been “an unprecedented sports tourism boom” and that “families spent more than $10 billion on the road” last year. One family the article profiled spends thirty weekends a year traveling for baseball. If this is just for “the love of the game” as they say, to each their own. But if parents are pouring this much time, effort and money into a sport in the hope of securing a scholarship for their child, it may be misguided.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) notes that there are roughly 8 million high-school student athletes in the U.S. Of those, only 480,000 go on to play a sport at an NCAA school. All of those athletes are vying for a portion of the scholarship funds that the NCAA values at $2.9 billion. Some students will get enough money to cover tuition and room and board, but many will only get a partial scholarship. And college costs have risen a lot in recent years. According to the College Board, it costs an average of $20,092 to cover tuition, room and board for a year at a public college as an in-state student. At a private college, it costs an average of $45,385.
In other words: the odds of getting a college scholarship at NCAA and NAIA schools are slim, particularly for popular sports such as soccer and baseball. The ratio of high school athletes to college scholarships broken down by sport offers some clues: At a ratio of 177 to 1, volleyball is the toughest for men; the “easiest” sport for them is gymnastics, at 20 to 1. Fencing, believe it or not, is one of the sports with the highest odds for both men and women. Yet how many kids take that up every fall? That said, if I knew my son was the next Michael Phelps, perhaps I wouldn’t mind footing the bill for year-round swim training. It’s hard to know what parents should do in those one-in-a-million situations.
A new youth sports study released recently by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association and the Aspen Institute notes, “Athletic participation for kids ages 6 through 12 is down almost 8 percent over the last decade.” Why? Mainly because costs were increasing and coaches were less qualified. This might not be a bad thing, of course, given the fanatical effort parents have been putting towards their kids’ sports, to have the pendulum swing back towards something more normal. Still, there will likely always be an unusually strong emphasis in America on kids playing sports. So it’s worth remembering that the many practices and the pressure of travel teams and multiple games can be tough not only on the children themselves, who have little time to just “be a kid,” but also on the parents who have to foot the bills and chauffeur kids to those practices and games. Sports aren’t a bad thing for kids, but like many things in modern life, it might be time to restore some moderation and balance to how we pursue them.