In the past, it was easy to get on a youth sports team if one wanted to play. Whether through community recreation leagues or school sports, very few barriers to entry existed for young people, who could easily get a hold of the necessary equipment. This was especially important for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, many of whom used sport as a means to get out—whether as just a temporary enjoyable experience with their friends, a way to make it to college or even to make it to the professional level. They were allowed these opportunities because they were available to most who wanted to take part.

However, in recent years, things have changed. With the growth of the sports industry and the increasing push for youth athletes to reach new heights, participation costs have soared. In most instances, this has made organized youth sport less accessible to many young people.

High School Sports

football teamIt used to be that anybody who wanted could take part in high school sports. However, with schools facing budget cuts, they have begun to charge participation fees for playing on a team. Research has shown that this negatively affects high school sports participation—in families making less than $60,000 annually, the student-athletes are four times less likely to participate than in families over the threshold.

This is an issue that high-school athletic directors would prefer not to have to deal with because they know the negative effects it has on participation. However, apart from steps such as eliminating some sports or hiring fewer support staff, schools cannot do much to curb the problem of the budget shortfalls for sports. In some states, up to 50% of high schools charge a fee to participate in sports, a number that is set to rise and have a lasting effect on the health outcomes of future generations given the current obesity epidemic.

Club Sports

The increasing cost of participating in high school sports prevents some future athletes from taking part, and the case is even more serious with club sports. The professionalization of youth sports has affected this business in particular as travel teams have proliferated over the last decade or more.

moneyFor many athletes who specialize in one sport to increase their chances of receiving an athletic scholarship or going pro, joining such teams is considered essential to their prospects. Participating in these teams also gives youth athletes an advantage in making varsity teams at the high school level, further limiting the opportunities for many prospective youth athletes.

The presence of club teams allows these athletes to play the sport year-round with dedicated coaches and teammates on the same mission as them. Involvement in these teams is an increasingly costly venture with some fees reaching into the thousands of dollars. Parents, especially those with big checkbooks, can invest heavily in their children’s athletic careers by giving them these opportunities. Again, this has squeezed out others with fewer resources to commit to sports.

These participation fees are just the beginning of the expenditure, as most of these teams involve weekend travel to tournaments and games. Parents normally must also pay for gas, food and hotels to ensure their children can compete. For many parents from lower-income households, that means sacrificing spending on essentials for themselves. With the dream of having their son or daughter secure scholarships, these are decisions they are willing to make in hopes that it will pay off, even though only a small percentage of teenage athletes going on to college will get these scholarships.

“The measure of who we are is what we do with what we have. ”

Vince Lombardi

GM Green Bay Packers Super Bowl Champions 1967 & 68

With school budgets a constant source of debate at all levels of government, and with extracurricular activities usually the first victims of budget cuts, there might be no end in sight for pay-to-play at the high school level. This will leave millions of teens all over the US without a real option of taking part in sports unless private organizations and other groups step in to provide funding. Fundraising by parent groups might also be a major avenue to cover athletic costs at the high school level. Pressuring lawmakers to increase school budgets is another avenue to be explored, but this would likely mean a tax increase of some sort.

For club sports, the trend continues to show increased involvement from youth athletes so that they can get more exposure to college coaches. This will especially be the case if opportunities in high school sports continue to decrease. The costs associated with these private opportunities are expected to continue rising as youth sport becomes even more competitive. It seems there might be no end in sight.