The Cost Of Youth Sports Are Out Of Control

by Elizabeth Broadbent
pkripper503 / iStock

I played tee-ball for a year. I don’t know what my parents shelled out, but it wasn’t much for team fees, a mitt, and a team T-shirt. My sister played softball through our school, and everything cost even less. Well, we’re counting tanks of gas here, so maybe about the same or a little more. We had a gas guzzler back in the good ol’ 1980s.

My sister was good. Really good — good enough to have played hard and gotten a scholarship to college, if she had chosen to. It was realistic for us, a lower-middle-class family, back then. Now, not so much.

In “The True Cost of Travel Softball,” Greg Cruthers writes that just the player fees can run from $200 for “entry level B-teams/clubs” to thousands of dollars for “elite teams or clubs.” Basically, costs can range from a 12-year-old playing local ball with no additional lessons at $2,500–$3,000 a year, to a 14–18-year-old player competing nationally with weekly lessons and a skills video forking out $22,000–$25,000. This doesn’t touch the intangibles of missing family dinners, vacations, and bonding time, of course.

My parents couldn’t have touched the lower number, let alone the higher one.

Hell, I couldn’t touch the lower number either, and the higher one makes my stomach flip-flop.

Youth sports have come a long way from the Little Leagues of our childhood. Rec teams and even varsity teams are viewed as small potatoes. If you want to be taken seriously as an athlete, if you want to be scouted or get a scholarship, you need to play all year, not just “in season.” You need to play for a club or traveling team, where you’ll be matched up in tournaments that can last all weekend. Your family must sacrifice their money and time for your sport. And it’s not just traditional sports like baseball, basketball, volleyball, swimming, or lacrosse. Dance and cheerleading have also gone round the bend of affordability as well.

A video by ClubHouseGAS, a producer of sports programming, asks, “Are you thinking about getting your kid involved in travel ball? … If you are, get ready to give up something most of us have the least of. Be prepared to part with a lot of time and money.” Money, he says, was at the top of the list of challenges for children to play travel baseball. “Any competitive team, you’re looking at probably … $10,000 a year,” one man says. “Especially with gas prices so high and everything, it takes a big commitment from the families, from the moms, the dads, the brothers and sisters, and all of them,” another man tells the camera. “No Disney World, no nothing, it’s just baseball,” a guy says.

Instead of using their vacation time for actual vacations, they use it to attend baseball tournaments. “It’s what we do year-round,” a mom says. “We eat, live, and breathe baseball.” A dad calls his son’s playing “putting your nose back to the grindstone.”

Time magazine profiles a boy named Joey Erace — “Joey Baseball” — a 10-year-old whose baseball career has already cost over $30,000. But don’t have a heart attack yet. Time estimates the annual cost of a kid in baseball or softball at a mere $4,044. You’ve got that much cash just chilling on your dresser, right?

Maybe your little one wants to do ballet. As a hobby, it shouldn’t break the bank. According to ThoughtCo, you can expect to pay from $60 to $150 a month for classes, plus clothes, shoes, and accessories, which admittedly can add up. The annual recital might run you $75. If your child decides to do extra shows like The Nutcracker, there are costs associated with that as well. And then if they get more advanced, they may begin attending competitions, from which costs can spiral ever outward — entry fees, extra classes and equipment, travel, hotels, choreography fees. Not so expensive at that level after all.

But if your kid decides to do dance as more than a hobby, you might want to just take out that second mortgage now. ThoughtCo says that in 2015, FiveThirtyEight set the price of shepherding a serious ballet dancer through the necessary 15 years of training, and all it entails, at $120,000. Blogger Stephanie Click sets the costs of her daughter’s competitive dancing at $8,356.27 for the first year — for a kid who appears to be approximately 7 years old. The next three years cost $13,565.75, $10,641.91, and a whopping $18,905.29, respectively. She says that she “works full-time, takes on an additional 30 hours of freelancing, and runs a successful side business.” Dad works full-time, plus an extra 20 hours, plus nearly every weekend.

Family time? You catch that between routines in a dance competition or while snarfing fast food driving from one place to another.

Then there’s cheerleading. Omnicheer pegs regular high school cheerleading at a cost of anywhere between $500–$1000 per year. The Shreveport Times found schools charging as much as $3,500. But that’s nothing compared to the costs West Coast cheer dad Jim J. estimates for his two under-12-year-old daughters in Allstar Cheerleading. He estimates that he drops around $11,610 per kid every year, and then counts the intangibles. “Your family life will revolve around team practice and competition schedule…period,” he tells Scary Mommy, adding that kids miss “birthday parties, school dances, picnics, other extracurricular activities all because of cheer practice or competitions.”

As for your marriage, Jim J. says, “The best way I can explain doing this together as a couple during competition season is…well…take the most intense season you have ever seen of The Amazing Race and add two young daughters that need their hair and makeup done at 5:30 a.m.”

What about volleyball? Lee, age 55, of California says that since his daughter was 13, he’s dropped over $10,000 on club volleyball. That seems a lowball, considering it includes about $6,500 a year for club fees, travel, meals, hotels, flights, and incidentals. Between club ball (January to July) and high school ball, it lasts all year long; he says that “most holidays are spent in pursuit of the sport.” You miss normal family vacations; the athlete misses participating in other sports or activities.

While his daughter is now playing volleyball as a freshman at a Big 10 Division I school on a two-year-scholarship, Lee doubts they’ll break even. He thinks that “anywhere where club sports are involved has become a huge moneymaker for adults, and the kids end up getting burned-out well before they reach college. I’ve seen too many parents living their failed sports dreams through their kids. I played football in college, so I made sure my daughter didn’t over use her body or suffer from burnout.”

But everyone’s chasing the golden rainbow: a college scholarship or the chance to turn pro. According to Time’s print edition, only 1 in 99 high school basketball players go on to play NCAA Division ball, and 1 in 1,860 land in the NBA. Football has better odds, with 1 out of 41 playing NCAA Division 1 ball, and 1 in 603 making a coveted NFL spot.

But what about the rest of the kids?

Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society program, tells Time that those scholarships are “a lot of chum to throw into youth sports. It makes the fish a little bit crazy.” Cheer dad Jim J. admits, “If all goes well, we may get a college scholarship out of all this. Although, less than 5% actually end up with one. Most colleges only offer partial scholarships anyway.”

Obviously, most people would be better off just freaking saving for college. “I’ve seen parents spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars pursuing a college scholarship,” Farrey says, an irony that seems lost on them.

According to Time, the rising costs have pushed many families out of sports all together: 41% of kids from households making over $100,000 a year participate in organized sports, but only 19% of kids in households pulling in $25,000 or less. Over 50% of lacrosse players come from those $100,000 households; about 2/3 of swimmers have parents pulling in $75,000 a year, and 50% of soccer players also hit that $75K number, along with about 50% of basketball players.

Good old Little League participation is down 20%. It’s not serious enough anymore. If you want your kid to play in high school, have that golden shot at a scholarship, they need travel ball and college scouts, with all the money that comes along with it.

Of course, the parents claim it’s all worth it. Jim J says, “We do this for the experience and the life lessons. We do this so my daughters learn what it’s like to be part of something exceptional.” Dance mom Stephanie Click says of the money she drops on her daughter’s dancing, “Piper has grown so much … She is independent, confident, and has a work ethic that most adults don’t have. She has never once complained about going to class or missing out. More than anything, we’ve seen a talent blossom in her. And as long as she wants to nurture that talent, then it’s my job to make sure that she can.”

TravelBallParents agrees, saying, “Our kids love it. And we love it. The friendships, learning experiences, time together, being part of a team and community of families far outweigh the costs.” Apparently, these things aren’t available with a local rec team, small gym, Little League dugout, or soccer field — or even a high school varsity squad.

Essentially, the average parent — and the average kid — is priced out of competitive sports now. My parents couldn’t have paid the money, and my sister would never have played travel softball. Even if they could afford it, they had another kid to parent off of a softball field. Sure, you can dance, or play volleyball, or cheer, or play baseball or soccer or basketball. But don’t expect to be taken seriously until you show you’re serious, and not just by having talent and motivation, but by dropping thousands of dollars and sacrificing your life at the altar of a sport.

When Little League isn’t “serious” enough and when average families are being priced out, we have a huge problem in youth sports. And the prices, it seems, just keep on rising.