The once-innocent world of youth sports has become an insatiable greed machine driven by adults. The new financial aspects of sports create an uneven playing field. When a young athlete makes the game-winning shot, homerun or touchdown, they should have an excitement that lasts for weeks, but athletic feats like these are now seen as just another statistic on a list of many.
Lebron James, Scottie Pippen and other self-made icons experienced what many consider to be the traditional youth sports model. They came from low-income households and found sports as a way to a brighter future. This rags-to-riches fairytale has inspired an industry that will likely be worth nearly $78 billion by 2026. The process of building the perfect athlete is a convoluted and strategic one.
Nearly 60% of American families consider youth sports financially draining according to LendingTree, while another study from the Aspen Institute shows 78% of children from age 6 to 12 are actively playing team and/or individual sports in the U.S. These alarming statistics raise two important questions: If the cost is so demanding, why continue to pay it? Also, what are the true intentions behind enrolling children in sports?
It’s no secret that overzealous parents and eager coaches are key components to this change in athletics. “Ultimately parents serve as the 'gatekeeper' to physical activity, controlling access to community activity and sports programs. Once youth get into the gate, coaches take on a similar role as parents to motivate youth participation,” per a University of Florida study.
Through the traditional youth sports model, the world has seen those players become very successful. Unfortunately, not every kid has the natural abilities of someone like Lebron James or Rob Gronkowski. So, it’s my working theory that parents and their children make up for this by overcompensating and playing sports year-round. Solely placing blame on the parents would be wrong, considering that every sport is a business and there’s money to be made.
When an athlete wants to go the extra mile, coaches, former professional athletes and recruiters all find a way to get a piece of the pie. By today’s standards, having a private coach and one-on-one lessons is deemed necessary to be a successful athlete. Playing the season, then resting during the off-season, is a method that’s dead and gone.
Former pro athletes come into the fold by offering private coaching, and the coach with the best stats will likely go to the highest bidder. All of this is done in effort to give the athlete exposure and build their skills. Once they’ve reached a certain point in their athletic career, they’ll likely get the attention of recruiters, agents and development team coaches.
The constant money flow naturally creates an economic divide between parents and their athletes. Having access to these resources takes a large sum of time and money, so much that 11% will likely go into debt for it, according to LendingTree. Many families can’t comfortably afford private coaches and other privileges, but I believe true talent will prevail. Also, considering that athletics is an ocean of cash flow, there will always be a recruiter, investor or team willing to invest in an athlete to make a profit.
Parents, coaches, recruiters and investors all have a money-driven goal, but the athlete is usually caught in the crossfire. Youth sports, as we know them, will never be the same and sports industries will grow larger and the demand for high-performing athletes will be higher. So, youth sports will continue to head in this direction unless our sports culture changes.
Jemiah Clemons is a 19-year-old kinesiology major from Miami, Florida.