There is an astronomical amount of money being spent on youth sports by parents, as well as huge investments by corporations who profit off of equipment, tournaments, recruiting services, and even live, streaming little league games. This has created amongst parents a ‘keep up with the Joneses mentality” in everything from Little League to youth soccer, as unwary adults are told their kid needs to be on the travel teams by age 7, or have a private coach by 8, or committed to a single sport by age 10.
This long term investment also yields years of large financial commitments to youth sports, and by the teenage years, an attitude among many parents that says “look how much we have spent on your sports! You are going to play in college!” We have lost sight of the true goals of youth sports, teaching life lessons and core values, and instead have begun to focus upon our ‘investment,’ and the return on that investment in the form of a scholarship.
In his 2012 book The Most Expensive Game in Town, journalist Mark Hyman describes how kids’ athletics has stopped being solely about the kids, and is now driven by the adults who make a living off of youth sports, and the parents who are spending tens of thousands of dollars on the latest equipment, the best camps, and the best coaching. Hyman asserts that our youth sports setup perpetuates the myth that all our kids are going to be college or professional athletes, if they just buy the $400 bat, the $250 soccer shoes, attend just one more camp, or hire that private coach. This incessant message is bought into by vulnerable parents, who are buying everything from DVDs that teach physical literacy to 6 month olds, to thousand dollar recruiting services promising exposure to hundreds of college coaches.
The new youth sports commerce has been excellent for the adults who have profited off of it, but not so positive for the 10 year olds performing in front of a backstop camera which is streaming their little league game into the office of their mom (who is too busy to make it to the game). The “Sports Industrial Complex,” as Dr. Jim Taylor of the University of Denvercalls it, reaches kids of all ages and abilities. I was recently looking for new soccer cleats for my 5 year old son, and was stunned to find that there are $120 soccer shoes that come in size 1! No thanks, I think he can run around and search for grasshoppers (i.e. soccer practice for 5 year olds) in the $19.99 specials.
Until we can convince those making huge profits off of sports that they can make these same profits by selling a different message, a message about acquiring values and learning life lessons, youth sports will continue to be a negative influence in the lives of many children. I think its time we change that!