“Why are so many kids being priced out of youth sports?” As recently as 25 years ago, nobody would be raising this issue. Yet that query titled a New York Times opinion essay on February 14, 2024. Two years before, writer Jessica Grose had interviewed Linda Flanagan, author of Take Back the Game (2022), on how money is spoiling youth sports. Parents’ complaints, Grose says, center mostly on “the expense and time-suck of travel sports.” Social media, she adds, are filled with “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.”

Kids’ sports and games should not be hidden behind a paywall. In fact, children are perfectly capable of getting together and playing games with great enjoyment and no adults present. That is what they did for all of human history until very recently, when ambitious parents staged a playground coup and brushed aside the youngsters’ desires and creativity to supplant them with grownups’ priorities. Meanwhile, greedy businesses turned youth sports into a target market, sowing the seeds of what has become a $30-40 billion industry. (For comparison, the National Football League’s revenue for 2021-22 was $18.6 billion.)

What does this multi-billion-dollar fortune buy for parents and children?  First of all, equipment: balls; bats, sticks, and racquets, protective gear (outfitting a junior hockey goalie can easily cost more than $1,000); shoes, uniforms, and hats, just for starters. Next, the invasion of the killer fees: pricey hourly coaching rates; rentals of practice venues like ice rinks and tennis courts; travel team memberships, which run into the thousands of dollars yearly for kids as young as 8 years; tournament entry fees; heavy regional, national, and international travel costs to get to matches and back; remote education tuitions; and residential sports academies (currently as costly as $70,000 per year). Clearly, only wealthy, mostly suburban, parents can keep up as tributaries to such a massive revenue river.

Yes, “keep up” is the right term.  So much of youth sports has become an athletic version of “keeping up with the Joneses.”  The youth sports business tries to pigeonhole little kids to make them specialize in one game as young as possible, and to start competing with other kids at the most demanding level as soon as possible.

Next, coaches solicit parents to sign up their offspring for travel teams—with a big selling point being FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). The sales pitch tries to scare parents into worrying that kids who don’t compete hard and young and join a travel team will  lag far behind when high-school varsity tryouts come around, and later, college ones. So the deluded parents start aspiring to college athletic scholarships, which might get them off the hook for four years of higher-education expenses. Unfortunately, only 1.35 percent of high-school varsity players get college athletic scholarships of any kind, and the odds of anyone making it into professional sports are vanishingly small. (For example, there are 400 players active in the NBA; a single urban basketball league might easily include that many teen athletes.)

The remedy? Give games back to the kids.  Sandlot games.  Pickup, playground, and backyard games.  Invert the top-down pyramid of adult coaches and parents calling the shots, and reframe youth sports from the bottom up, beginning at the grassroots level. Put the learners in charge of the learning, instead of the instructors. Encourage children to play as many different sports as they want to with their peers, and find their own styles as athletes. Youngsters might even roll right into their teens without playing “organized sports.” They’ll actually become better athletes, and will keep on playing—because the games continue to be fun.

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