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The high cost of youth sports

Some parents spend thousands of dollars each year so that their kids can play on club and travel teams. Does this make sense?

By Karen Datko May 10, 2011 10:01AM

Sarah Lorge Butler of CBS MoneyWatch's Family Finance blog wrote recently about the high cost of youth sports these days. One family she heard from is shelling out about $4,000 for a 9-year-old to play on a travel baseball team. Another family spends at least $8,000 a year so three sisters can play club volleyball.


"The volleyball dad says he knows of high school teams that require their athletes to play club," Butler wrote, sharing the family's explanation for spending so much.


Those totals include membership fees, equipment, travel and other costs. But even the costs of playing in local sports programs for kids "are climbing at an alarming rate," said an editorial in The Acorn, a Southern California newspaper. 

Girls' softball can cost $150 per child. That doesn't take into account the bat, glove, hat and cleats that must be purchased. Youth football can run as much as $400 per child. Soccer, basketball and other sports aren't far off. Club teams, with the additional hotel and travel costs, are in a league all their own.

The economy hasn't helped. Some cash-strapped municipalities have turned to charging or raising fees for use of public fields, which means higher costs for youth team members' parents. 

This emphasis on highly organized and costly sports for kids -- with paid coaches, no less -- raises a number of issues. For instance, do kids need so much structure in their recreation? Is so much practice and repetition good for young bodies? And what about kids in poor families? A healthy income is required to literally have some skin in this game.

Stats Dad blogger Fran Dicari, who spent nearly $9,000 last year for youth sports for three of his kids, thinks it's money well spent:

You may think that the amount of money we spend on youth sports is ridiculous, but that is how we chose to spend our discretionary money. Some families spend money on a boat or vacation home. I would love to have a vacation home, but we prioritize our time and money on youth sports.
Dicari offered some cost-saving advice in a post at Baseball Coach Hub, including:
  • Look for used or free equipment. (Avoid used safety gear.)
  • Sell the old equipment your kid outgrew to help pay for the equipment you need this year.
  • If you must have new, buy last year's model or shop post-season sales, or buy from a store that has a loyalty program for repeat customers.

All basic smart shopping advice. Here's some that only a youth sports parent would know:

Choose recreational sports over select. Select sports clubs often have several levels of competitive play. The top talent plays on the top team and gets the best training. This can be worth the money. The lower competitive levels in a club may not be any better than local recreational leagues and therefore may not be worth the extra money. See the Differences between Select and Recreational Sports.

Post continues after video.

We'll add a few more thoughts:

  • Be honest with yourself. Has your child demonstrated remarkable ability in a particular sport that justifies the expense?
  • If not, pick a recreational league sport that doesn't require fancy equipment -- and that your child enjoys.
  • Seek balance. If your child's sports are preventing her or him from engaging in other normal childhood and family activities, perhaps you've gone overboard. The same applies if you have no quality time with your others kids and your spouse.
  • Donate. If you can easily afford to pay the fees and other costs associated with your children's sports, make a point of donating money to an organization that helps less-well-off kids participate.
  • If you're not flush, look for scholarships. "True, some leagues -- although they don't openly advertise it -- offer scholarships, but it's just a small percentage," The Acorn said.

What do you think? Why so much emphasis on costly organized youth sports? If kids need exercise and socialization, why can't they just go out to play? Is this really about the adults?


More on MSN Money:

May 11, 2011 7:24AM

My daughter (14) plays at the highest level of soccer in NC - and loves it.  She truly loves the game.  She started at 6 or 7.  Every penny we spend, and it's thousands per year when you include travel expenses, is worth it.  Just last night she left her 1st round state playoff High School game (WIN) and couldn't wait to get to her premier team practice afterward.  She has great friends on both teams, has good structure, has learned discipline, how to handle winning and losing graciously, and has been able to visit many cities we may never have gone to in order to play in various tournaments. 


One thing we've learned is that kids that play on organized sports teams tend to be more focused and less likely to be flakes.  For one, you have to pass a physical with drug test, but more importantly, the kids that drink and do drugs generally don't make the effort to play.  So having 22-30 good friends that are all good kids is great.  I won't lie and say I enjoy paying so much during seasons that don't go well, it's hard to swallow, but again it's important for kids to learn how to lose in life graciously as well as win.  Another great thing about playing on organized teams is that when they are doing something they love, and it doesn't affect their grades, they are staying fit and healthy without thinking about it. 


The other thing to consider is that you may be investing in your kids future.  I know the odds of getting a scholarship are pretty slim, but if your child shows promise at the rec level and continues to do well up through select sports - they could play in college - and if very good, could get some of their college costs paid for.


Last but not least, the amount of time we have spent playing together - it's important to be involved but not obsesssed - is priceless.  I can't stand seeing parents drop the kids off like it's a day care and then missing games, be involved.  The number of hours spent playing together and taking road trips and watching/supporting her can never be replaced.  I know way to many people that gripe about "the kids these days" who sit in their rooms doing nothing, or "plugged in" not involved in the family unit.  My take - best thing we ever could have done for her was ask "Would you like to play a sport?  What would you like to play?"  The rest was up to her.

May 11, 2011 11:37AM

What do I think?


As someone who participated in competitive sports across a host of athletic fields all through High School, I think it's a racket. 


Parents who participate in these over expensive leagues are SUCKERS.  Someone is definitely making bank, however.  Be it the coach or the league.  Someone somewhere has a living invested into this stuff. 


Go out and do things with your child if the school doesn't provide the needed athletic curriculum to keep your child busy.  Your child will thank you for it and your belly will thank you for it.  But there should be plenty of cheap afterschool amateur league play activities in any neighborhood.  It shouldn't cost you an arm and a leg to get your child off the Xbox and out doing something physical. (Other then banging in a gang. If you type ****ing it considers it a dirty word ;)

May 11, 2011 8:41AM
I think its about balance.  If you child truly loves the sport, then it is money well spent.  My nephew loves baseball.  He is  on a traveling tournament team and a local team.  It is expensive, but he is getting good excercise and making friends.  He really doesn't care that much for basketball.  He was only on the team because a lot of his friends were.  He dropped that sport to have time and money for something he really enjoys.
May 11, 2011 4:30PM

We made a choice this past year to take up a sport as a family instead of running to several activities a week and it was the best thing we ever did.  For winter we bought skiing/snowboarding equipment along with a family season to the local hill.  Total cost for the first year, roughly, $1300 - for 4 of us including equipment!  We could go as often as we wanted, when we wanted.  Next years' costs $750.  We also took up running 5k's together.  It's fun to have a goal and work together.  As a bonus, they are usually charity fundraisers. 


Our kids are very athletic.  But, clubs can be over rated and I find that parents often are living vicariously through their children hoping to create a sports prodigy.  I have personally witnessed several heated arguments among parents &/or coaches at youth hockey games.   We're talking 9 year olds.  Really??  Way to show your kid how to be a good sport.  Let the kids have fun!  Also, what 9 year old needs to be on the ice for practice at 9:00pm on a school night?  That was the last straw for us.  Time to get back to basics.  Save the money and cherish your family time, it goes by so fast.  Sitting on a bench screaming at your child to get the puck/ball does not constitute quality time together.

May 11, 2011 11:55AM
I'm one of those kids that played club soccer since I was 9, going to practices twice a week and tournaments every weekend.  Also, I lived in a single parent household and money was always an issue.  Fortunately, the club offered scholarships and we made travel work by carpooling.  The benefits of playing a competetive sport absolutely outlasted the money issues.  Not only did it teach me responsibility, persistance, and gave me self-confidence, but scholarships helped me though college.  Even now at 27, I referee for a part-time job and play recreationally for health and mental relaxation.  For some kids, club sports can lead to a remarkably better lifestyle.   
May 11, 2011 5:21PM
Club soccer is all about money.  The parents that can afford to pay the League fees, trainer salary, tournament costs, uniforms and equipment will always have a place for their son or daughter to play regardless of talent.  There in lies the problem.  Club soccer is all about winning.  The more a team wins the better it's chances of attracting the best talent.  If a talented player can not afford all these costs then the manager will increase the costs to those that can.  We were involved in club soccer for almost 20 years and it was the worst experience we have ever had.  Politics and clics were also a huge problem.
May 11, 2011 9:25AM

My daughter, who is 15, has been playing club volleyball since she was 10. The club that she plays for is not one of the most expensive in the country, but does come with a pretty hefty price tag. Between club fees, travel expenses, equipment and camps, the cost is around $8,000 per year.

Like Dodgerr, I agree it's worth it, but not necessarily for the same reasons. If the child playing the sport is not dedicated and planning on playing at the next level, you are wasting precious family time and money. There is a cost associated with these types of clubs and it isn't always financial. I would encourage parents who are thinking of allowing your child to try out for these programs to keep in mind that the time away from other children and/or work responsibilities can take a toll on everyone in the household.

We have made ours into a family experience and both of us have jobs that allow for all of the travel time involved to make it work. Our daughter is very dedicated and that commitment has paid off. She is now considering multiple Division 1 schools for after graduation which would also allow her the ability to further her education in places that otherwise we would be unable to afford.  

May 11, 2011 4:45PM

I think for most people culb level is a waste for a few reasons.

1. Most of the kids are not future professionals.   Those with true talent need to be in the club system and play with the best of the best but the rest are fine playing at the local and high school team level.

2.  People mention scholarships.   People who see me comment know I think most college degrees are a waste of money but if you want to go so be it.   If club sports are costing you thousands a year to get a scholarship that is silly.  You'd be better saving the money and just paying for college.

3.  People who say those in sports are more motivated in life.  Motivated to play a sport and motivated to work are two seperate things.  In the work environment neiether group is more motivated on average.  That's not saying that a lower income kid might not make some connections with people who will help them in later careers but that is different.


If you can afford it and your child wants to do it have at it.   But in my experience the parents do more of the pushing for this vs. the kids.  Parents just don't understand when you start kids doing this at a young age you push them into it.  Yes they like it but left to their natural choices would they have done it?   i say no because the kids who were not pushed into sports normally didn't play them competitively. 


Myself I played soccer, tennis, and basketball as a kid but only soccer in an organized league.  Tennis I played with friends and I played street ball at the local park.  I had fun but the sports were never my life because I was never pushed into it.   I choose my own hobbies.   And I watched as many of my friends had no free time in High School because sports, work, and homework took up all their time.  I on the other hand had free time and time to be a "kid".   So when I got my first job at 19 it didn't take me long to advance.   I didn't need to have so much fun time as an adult.   I learned the value of free time as a kid and as an adult I learned the value of hard work.  In the end let your kids make their choices.  if they are good help them get the coaching and competition they need to become better.  But if they would rather surf the net let them.   If they are motivated in life they will fina a career that pays well and they can excel at either way.

May 11, 2011 5:04PM

How about letting your kid play in rec league or whatever and putting away those thousands every year in a good college account?  My uncle paid for his two girls to take golf lessons, have a membership at a nice course, and then travel the country in golf tournaments.  Yes, the older one could drive the ball 300 yards on a bad day (which is kind of cool) and yes they both got scholarships to decent (although not spectacular) colleges.  However, when asked, he will tell you that he spent enough money on the game over the years to easily pay both of their tuition.  The older one is done with college and seldom plays now because she says she is "burned out on the whole thing".

On the  other hand, my sister-in-law went to a D1 school for volleyball and was even in sports illustrated.   She blew out her knee her senior year and couldn't play.  Well, her scholarship money went the way her knee did.  Career ending injuries can happen at any time -

I guess what I mean (sorry for the rambling) is that if you don't have a lot of money in the first place, spending more than you can afford on sports probably isn't a great investment.  If you are rich (like my uncle) then really, what is the difference as long as your kids are enjoying themselves?

May 11, 2011 5:14PM

And to Mr. 29 - Why wouldn't 80%+ of school money go to teacher salaries?  Have you ever seen a school with no teachers in it?  Turns out it is just an empty building.  Where do you think the money should go - the CEO?  Back to the shareholders?

I always say - if you think teachers are so overpaid, I'll trade you jobs in a minute.  You would live on my salary for about a month and then be begging for your old job back. 

Remember, I am not the one complaining about my pay - and you also don't hear me complaining that the accountant/lawyer/doctor isn't worth his pay.  But you may hear me say that Mr. 29 is part of the overall problem, not the solution.  Probably votes no on his districts referendums and complains about paying taxes, too.


May 11, 2011 1:32PM
My son plays flag football which he enjoys and is good at.  The price is reasonable.  He really wants to play hockey which is huge in our area, but costs into the thousands.  I'm a single mom and able to take care of things well, but I really am having a hard time justifying the high costs of putting him into hockey even though he begs to do so.  I do not get much help from his father who lost his job for a while and now makes 1/3 of what he used to.  Its tough.  I wish the prices were more reasonable and I would sign him up.  He could be great, but we may never know.  :-(
May 11, 2011 3:45PM
Sorry, club ball is a fact of life.  The constant play makes you better, and gains exposure for the child.  For all of you soccer moms out there, club soccer and travel soccer is almost required.  I can not tell you the number of times we were asked what club our kids played on by college coaches - especially D-1.  A coach can go to a set of club games and GENERALLY see much better play, skill level, commitment, and desire on one field than if he went to 10 different high schools.  With the costs of travel for the coaches up all the time, why wouldn't they go to the travel games.  Baseball, try to get on the High School field without club ball, forget about college.  Yes there are exceptions, but not many.  Other than football, playing club or travel ball increases your college chances 20 fold - PROVIDED, you do your homework and make sure the coach is safe and knowledgeable.
Jul 31, 2013 6:55PM
I'm doing a survey for college on the expense of hockey, and how it makes it difficult for low-income families to pay for their children to participate.  Would you mind taking a few seconds to fill out this survey please?  It's only 7 questions, anonymous, and no questions are personal.

Thank you.
Nov 24, 2012 10:12PM

This might be an opportunity for parents seeking funds to support keeping their children in sports. The Protex Sports Foundation, a San Jose, Ca based, 501 (c) (3) non profit was started to help financially challenged families, at risk youth, or even olympic hopefuls with financial support. The high rising costs of sports participation associated with participating in organized sports or the incredibly high cost for elite athlete training keeps many athletes from reaching their dreams. If you would like to learn more about this program go to the web site above.

Thank you, John R. Ellsworth, Executive Director and Founder.

May 11, 2011 9:00PM

It's interesting to see everyone's take on this.  To ADD-TEL I have to say, it depends on your club.  Ours is relatively inexpensive as compared to the "best" in NC and yet is capable of producing premier teams regularly.  But, the comment about if you have the money there will be a spot is not true here.  Some of the wealthiest families on our team have lost their spot because more talented players came along.  On the other hand we have very good players that can barely afford to play, but our costs were never increased to cover them.  As for winning, it is competitive soccer - we are trying to win, it is more fun to win, but in order to win, the girls have to become better players, so ultimately all the practice and competition is geared toward player development.


Politics and clics do happen, but that can happen with anything, even just going to school everyday.


Palmtree3 - that is a great idea.  It's very cool that you guys came up with that and are able to do it, even better that you can do it at charity events.


Mauser, if I couldn't afford to save for college and let her play - I'd let her play rec and save for college.  We're lucky we can afford both.  At this point she would cry incessantly if I told her she couldn't play select anymore, it's all she wants to do.

May 11, 2011 12:42PM
Girls' softball can cost $150 per child.

That's cheap, even by historical standards in my area if you factor in inflation.

And today's equipment is expensive.  I recently bought an on-sale $205 GPS/heart monitor watch with software to monitor running/biking.  I'm currently looking at hybrid bikes and the bike, car rack, helmet, etc. is probably going to run $400-$500.

Note that if your kid is good enough to get a college scholarship, that's typically a $50K-$200K deal.  I coached high school varsity softball in a hotbed county for the sport, had an excellent team that generated 3-4 college scholarships each year, and had over 100 talented girls trying out and fiercely competing for 16 varsity and 16 JV spots each year.

Some of those trying out wore their summer league shirts like a badge, with names like The Tangerine Machine, which was nationally ranked.  Those girls had awesome talent and confidence.  The pitchers could windmill the softball at 55-63 mph to the plate with movement and control.  With only 40 feet between mound and plate that's like an 83-99 mph fastball on a major league-sized baseball field.  And the hitters on those teams were used to seeing that kind of pitching.  You can bet almost EVERY girl approaching high school age in our end of the county was telling mom and dad they HAD to get enough training so they could play for those summer teams.

On cut day, the hallway outside my classroom where the cuts were posted was full of wailing.  Angry parents called to find out why their daughter -who was probably her summer league team's MVP- was cut, etc.
May 11, 2011 11:04AM
The high cost of school sports?  They always use that as a good excuse to get levies passed, but, what few people realize is that 86-88% of all monies that go to a school system are for highly over-paid salaries and exorbitant retirement plans.  In other words, most of every dollar for schools and sports go to teacher's pockets.  I say cut some positions and salaries before making us pay twice for a kid to play sports.
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