Youth club team growth creating income inequality gap

The growth of club or travel team sports is leading to a decline in the number of recreational league and high school team participants, particularly by economic stratus. (Photo courtesy Getty Images)

For many young athletes, sports are for being with friends and having fun. Playing on organized sports teams at a young age has many proven physical, emotional and intellectual benefits, including teaching values such as discipline and teamwork two important qualities of maturation.

When only upper-income families can afford to participate in sport, life lessons, health benefits and opportunity are limited to those who can afford it.

Parents feel this way about their kids playing sports as children, too. According to a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health poll, almost nine of 10 parents say their child benefits from participating on youth sports teams.

Although the majority of parents want their kids to reap the benefits of team sports, facts presented by the Aspen Institute tell a different story.

While nearly three out of four adults (73 percent) played at least one youth sport growing up, only 37 percent of their children ages 6 to 12 played a team sport on a regular basis in 2017, down from 41.5 percent in 2011.

So what is the reason for declining youth sport participation numbers?

The answer: It’s too darn expensive.

Kids’ sports has seen an explosion of travel-team culture, where rich parents are writing a $3,000 check to get their kids on super teams from two counties, or two states, away,” said Tom Farrey, the executive director of Aspen’s Sports & Society program in their “State of Play 2018” project. “Sports in America have separated into sports haves and have-nots.”

In fact, among richer families, youth sports participation is actually on the rise.

Of families earning more than $100,000, 69 percent of children played a team sport at least one day in 2017, up from 66 percent in 2011. However in families earning less than $25,000 a year, just 34 percent participated.

Club and travel teams, which can boast better competition and opportunity for those that can afford it, have made their way into youth sports culture. The result is an expanding gap between the children and families who have the resources to play on expensive travel teams, and those who do not.

According to a Huffington Post study, two out of 10 families in the United States spend $1,000 per child on sports related expenses, such as uniforms, registration and lessons. The average American family spends $671 per family.Youth who cannot afford the lofty prices of club teams are left with local recreational leagues that are drained of talent, resources and coaches. Through no fault of their own, they feel as if this sport isn’t for them.

"We have alienated the Hispanic communities. We have alienated our black communities. We have alienated the underrepresented communities, even rural communities, so soccer in America right now is a rich white kid sport." - Former U.S. women’s national team goal keeper Hope Solo

“When these kids move to the travel team, you pull bodies out of the local town’s recreation league, and it sends a message [to those] who didn’t get onto that track that they don’t really have a future in the sport,” said Farrey.

Youth sports in America today has essentially become a ‘pay-to-play’ system another metric where the rich can manipulate and hoard opportunities from the poor. Traditional values such as inclusion, development and participation have disappeared.

What has happened, according to Time, is that youth sports has become a $15 billion industry, a 55 percent increase since 2010.

The perception that club sports have created is they are necessary, even at pre-middle school ages, to developing into scholarship-winning athletes. Success on youth travel teams leads to success in middle school and then in high school, where those with great athletic achievement have increased chances of admission and scholarship at top universities.

Youth sports today instead segregate even further the rich and poor, according to former U.S. Women’s Soccer national team goalkeeper Hope Solo.

“We have alienated the Hispanic communities. We have alienated our black communities. We have alienated the underrepresented communities, even rural communities, so soccer in America right now is a rich white kid sport,” said Solo, according to Sporting News. “Then we have to ask ourselves: Well, no wonder we are not qualifying for the World Cup when we have alienated a huge population of really talented youth soccer players. And that’s the state of the game right now.”

Sports such as lacrosse, volleyball and basketball have extensive club sport seasons as well. The shift from high school athletics to club sports has drained a lot of the talent out of the programs and with them, college scouts. However, soccer’s is the most extensive.

According to Rick Eckstein, professor of sociology at Villanova and author of “How College Athletics are Hurting Girl’s Sports,” soccer has developed so top-tier talent is cultivated primarily through the clubs. While basketball talent is still scouted in high school gyms, supplemented by AAU and club teams, soccer instead almost solely relies on showcase tournaments. Players that cannot afford it, are simply written off.

“Everyone thinks from the Olympic medal count, we have the best youth sports system in the world. But when you look at some of the sports, these are things parents pay for,” said Lisa Delpy Neirotti, an associate professor at George Washington University who studies youth sports. “If we’re really looking at being a more inclusive and healthier society, we should probably get these kids playing together more out on the field — everybody, not just certain populations that can afford it.”

The act of wanting what is best for your children and to give them all of the opportunities available to you is admirable. Nobody will argue against that.

However, the current club and travel team sport format has increased the social and physical barriers for the less fortunate. Pulling the funding from local community leagues and putting it into the pockets of youth travel teams has become a regular occurence.

“Many of the parents are not doing it with the intention to harm anyone, since they’re just trying to help their child,” Farrey said. “But they don’t think about the kids they’re leaving behind. They’re not thinking about what makes sense for the whole community.”

The value of sports participation at the youth level is highly beneficial to kids learning about their world and community. As a land of competitors, the United States always prides itself on learning from mistakes and finding your way throughout society. Though today, club sports at the youth level are creating winners and losers from the start.

Ross Andrews is a senior sports journalism student at Arizona State University

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