Why So Many Kids Are Priced Out of Youth Sports

Ever since my 2022 interview with Linda Flanagan, the author of “Take Back the Game,” about how money is ruining youth sports, lots of parents have come to me with their complaints on the topic. I hear most frequently from readers and friends about the expense and time-suck of travel sports. I can’t open a social media app without seeing posts joking that you might need a mortgage broker to pay for a tech suit for swim meets, or about how “having kids involved in sports is fun, if you like coming home & eating dinner at 10 p.m.”

The typical grouse goes something like this: My kid loves soccer, and I want her to have an opportunity to play through high school. For that to happen, I have to start her in travel soccer in third grade, because all the other kids trying out for the high school team will have started travel soccer in third grade. But travel soccer costs thousands of dollars a year, my child is exhausted and traveling to games almost every weekend is putting strain on my other kids. Don’t even get me started about schlepping to practices all week long.

The parents who voice this lament tend to acknowledge that they’re lucky to be able to barely afford youth sports in the first place: According to the Aspen Institute’s Project Play, in fall 2022, the average amount spent on a single child’s primary sport per season was $833. For families with household incomes at or above $150,000 a year, the average is $2,068. No wonder that around half of those who’ve played or have children who’ve played youth sports say they’ve struggled to pay for it, according to a 2023 Project Play report. That doesn’t even address the difficulty parents have getting their kids to practices, particularly in families where all the adults work outside the home.

I thought that the Covid era might have forced a reset in which parents realized that the expense and effort was untenable, and lobbied for change. But the dynamics that Flanagan outlined seem to have become even more entrenched. When I called her back to get her take on the past couple of years, she told me she senses that the intensity around youth sports is even greater now because “parents feel like they’ve fallen behind during the pandemic and now they have to catch up.”

To recap my 2022 discussion with Flanagan, since the 1970s, we’ve cut funding for parks and recreation departments, with a notable drop during the Great Recession. With the potential for billions of dollars to be made, the youth sports industrial complex became more expensive and demanding. As private travel leagues with high fees and top-caliber coaches have skimmed off the best players, it’s become a vicious cycle, with underfunded local rec leagues struggling to compete.

In defense of the parents sacrificing so much for those travel leagues, they are making a rational decision in an absurd market, one that’s particularly acute in larger suburbs.

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