The Crazy Cost of Youth Sports

by | Nov 27, 2018

A Nike Field Hockey Camp

Youth sports is a huge business and growing rapidly. According to Time magazine the U.S. youth-sports-economy is a $15.3 Billion market and has nearly doubled in size over the past decade. In 2016 HBO Real Sports focused on a booming aspect of youth sports – so called “sports tourism.” Real Sports estimated that American families spend $10 Billion annually on travel for youth sports.

Cities and towns have been investing great amounts in sports facilities and infrastructure to attract tournaments and teams to gain a slice of the sports tourism pie. We’ve seen this in St. Louis – which is a great place for youth sports tourism due to our central location – as we’ve added a world class field hockey surface and have seen the number and quality of our soccer and baseball fields increase dramatically over the past decade. A new, spectacular ice hockey complex is in the works as well.

The cost of competitive club sports in America can be harmful to the financial goals of families. A 2016 survey by TD Ameritrade of parents between the ages of 30-60 with at least $25,000 in invest-able assets and at least one child playing on an “elite” or “club” team found that the typical family spends hundreds of dollars a month and nearly 1 in 5 of respondents spent over $1,000 per month per child on sports and with the bulk of the money going toward travel and team fees.


Other interesting findings from TD Ameritrade youth sports survey:

Scholarship Hopes vs. Reality

  • 67 percent of sports parents hope for an athletic scholarship
  • 24 percent of athletic club and elite players actually earned one (and a “scholarship” does not mean “full-ride”)

Olympic Hopes vs. Reality

  • 34 percent of sports parents think their kid will go to the Olympics or go pro
  • 2 percent of athletic youngsters actually made the Olympics or turned pro

Parents of elite athletes sacrifice a lot for their kid’s sports:

  • Parents cut out extras and admit to saving less, delaying retirement and tapping college funds to pay for sports.
  • One-third do not contribute regularly to a retirement account (33 percent).
  • A majority have no long-term financial plan (57 percent).
  • Sixty percent say the cost of youth sports has them concerned about their ability to save for the future.
  • Seventy-seven percent say youth sports affect household budgeting –discretionary spending gets cut first.

A side effect of the increasing cost of competitive youth sports is that participation in sports by lower-income families is about half that of higher income families partially due to the cost of competing. From the Aspen Institute:

Household income is a major factor for kids 6 to 12 who play a team sport at least one day per year. In 2013, the gap between kids in households that earn less than $25,000 and those in $100,000-plus households was about 23 percentage points. That gap increased to 32 percentage points in 2016.

Another study by Utah State University of all parents with kids in sports, both recreational and elite, found that the average spending per child per year was about $2,300 – a lot less than what was found in the TD Ameritrade survey of only club and elite players, but still a lot of money.

Here is an apt summary of the state of youth sports today: “[Youth sports] is a machine. To be part of the machine, you have to buy in early and often,” said Travis Dorsch, Assistant Professor at Utah State University.

Another disturbing aspect of the youth sports arms race is that kids are starting to specialize earlier and earlier – meaning that they are picking a single sport to focus on early in their sports “careers.” Many elite club sports are now year-round and it is nearly impossible to play multiple sports.

Note – I am not judging those parents who spend lots of $$$ on youth sports as we spend a lot on our daughter’s sports – we were in Florida over Thanksgiving at a field hockey tournament.


  1. Isn’t spending on youth sports “discretionary”? Ever since the Curt Flood law suit (1969) I’ve slowly become an organized sports nihilist. I’m a native St. Louisan and still kinda follow the Cards but have no emotional attachment to the winning and losing. It’s bazeball. I’ve had high school counselors and coaches tell me the best athletes weren’t on the teams–they’re burned out and would rather be hanging out or working a job to pay for car bills. Besides how expensive youth sports are, what about going to a ballgame? A family of four must need a loan. It’s all become absurd.

  2. I personally being a “youth sports participant” opposed to many parents reading this have seen the benefits you spoke of, such as a scholarship that quadrupled the cost spent on sports. Without many of the negatives, especially putting financial stress on our family, it alieviated much of it actually, and when things get expensive there are always opportunities to improve in a sport without paying top dollar.

  3. I appreciate your unwillingness to judge – everyone wants the “best” for their children. But what if by participating in this ever escalating cost, professionalism, and stress of youth sports is not the best one can do? In fact, it is participation that fuels the ever upward spiral. As our biological lifespan grown ever longer we seem to be continually decreasing the years that “matter” — many of the kids I know are worn out and exhausted by senior year in HS. They have also been driven, coached, tournamented, and organized to the point that when faced with unstructured days and unscheduled time with no one telling them what they are to do or where they are to be I have seen these children (on entering college) become anxious, depressed, and unmotivated. Sorry to be so strident here — but the evidence that something is going awry is all around us and yet we act as though we are powerless to stop it. Youth sports can be a wonderful way to learn leadership, team work, discipline and commitment. It can also be a wonderful way to acquire a sense of the joy of physical activity and the positive rewards of accomplishment. But organized sports with the ceaseless ratcheting up of costs and stress (driven because it is now an industry) are not the only way to derive benefits. Food used to be about nutrition – then we got industrial food and all of its ills. Lesson learned?

    • We aren’t powerless to stop it, however as a parent of two children who play youth sports, when we want to take a “break” and let the kids be unscheduled, other parents say they understand, but they really don’t. Youth sports is out of control. I’ll be honest, and not mince words. It has become a machine for making money not for what is in the best interest of “most” kids. 4th-8th graders are not allowed to be recruited by schools, yet parents shell out their life saving to go to the games and tournaments for “more game experience.”
      Its a load of hog wash. Let kids be kids and have fun and try all kids of sports. Sure you are going to have some outliers of kids who just KNOW they want to play hockey or lacrosse or gymnastics. But most DO NOT. If more parents would say, we ARE NOT going to pay to play baseball in winter, ( since it is NOT a winter sport) maybe over time there would less of pressure and teams would be forced to restructure their programs.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Subscribe To The IFOD

Get the Interesting Fact of the Day delivered twice a week. Plus, sign up today and get Chapter 2 of John's book The Uncertainty Solution to not only Think Better, but Live Better. Don't miss a single post!

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This
%d bloggers like this: