By Tim Richardson
Thirty-five million children ages 5-18 play organized sports in the United States, according to Statistic Brain, a research provider to companies and media outlets.
Like any activity, youth sports come with a price tag. From equipment to league fees, clinics to travel expenses, the cost for a child to compete in an organized sport can be pricey for families, especially considering the high level of commitment from children and parents. With such a large number participating in competitive athletics, youth sports have turned into a lucrative business for many.
Mark Hyman is a sports journalist and author, who also teaches sports management at George Washington University. He has written several books about the culture surrounding youth sports. In his latest work, The Most Expensive Game in Town, Hyman probes the business of youth sports and examines the participants involved in its economic structure: parents, kids, coaches and corporate America.
"Youth sports is a $5 billion-a-year industry," Hyman said. "But I think that is conservative, as that number doesn't take into account things like gas parents use to drive kids to events, hotel nights, meals, etc."
In his book, Hyman chronicles his travels around the country to athletic tournaments and the time he spent with parents discussing the sacrifices they made, both in time and money, to give their children a chance to capture that elusive spotlight.
Hyman used to be one of those parents. He coached his son in little league, and recalled an instance when he let him pitch despite having a sore arm.
"I allowed him to pitch way too much as a kid," Hyman said. "We loved to watch him pitch; he was good, and we won. But by the time he was in high school, he needed Tommy John surgery. I didn't do him any favors letting him pitch every third day at such a young age."
For parents, it is easy to get caught up in the competition and look to sports as a ticket to college. Division I and II schools offer athletic scholarships, while Division III schools provide only academic scholarships. NCAA members provide more than $1.5 billion in athletic scholarships annually.
"The odds of a kid getting a scholarship to play sports in college are rare," Hyman said. "Five percent of high school varsity athletes will go on to play one down, one inning in college … and that includes [NCAA] Divisions I through III schools. And only 1-2 percent of high school varsity athletes even receive athletic scholarships to play in college."
Making it to the pro level is even more of a challenge. Statistic Brain put the odds of a high school football player making it to the NFL as 1 in 6,000, and getting a shot at the NBA as 1 in 10,000.
Despite these statistics, parents continue shelling out big dollars in hopes their youngster will be the next LeBron James, Robert Griffin III or Albert Pujols.
Take the Anderson family of Lawrence, Kan. Hyman said their lives revolved around hockey, and they drove thousands of miles per year for their youngest son's travel team. With costs for hotels, food, tournament fees, equipment and rink time, Hyman said their yearly tab amounted to around $8,000. The father said the family was spending more on their teenager's hockey career than it was on the oldest son's college education.
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly when corporate America started to infiltrate the world of youth sports, but many cite the Little League World Series, which began in 1947, as a prime example of using games for corporate prosperity.
"Almost immediately, Little League World Series sponsors saw that it was a tournament for kids, but a lucrative business opportunity," Hyman said. "Bringing in kids from around the world and domestically to one area and having to pay for it was costly. By year two, the LLWS signed a sponsor, US Rubber, to cover the expenses, and the kids wore the sponsor's name across their uniforms."
The first broadcast of the LLWS was on ABC Sports in 1963. According to Nielsen, the 2011 series averaged 1.3 million viewers, a 60 percent increase from just three years before. The average cost of a 30-second spot that year was around $8,000, and advertisers included Kellogg's and Best Buy. ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC hold the TV rights for the tournament through 2014.
John B. Saul of MSN Money wrote an article last month highlighting Debbie Jones of Apple Valley, Minn., who estimated she had spent $50,000 since her son, Tyus, was in the first grade so he could play in basketball camps and attend clinics. Jones told Saul she would spend around $10,000 during the next two years to help her 16-year-old continue pursuing his goals of playing Division I basketball, making it to the NBA and being on the U.S. Olympic basketball team.
Tyus and his mother may just see a return on that investment, as he was named the 2012 Gatorade Player of the Year in Minnesota and ESPN ranked him as the third-best basketball prospect in the class of 2014.
For families like the Joneses, Andersons and others that want to provide their children with the best resources available to help improve their skills, there are companies such as Maryland-based Baseball Factory. Established in 1994 by Steve Sclafani, a baseball player at the University of Pennsylvania, the company aims to help players and their families navigate the oft-confusing college recruiting process.
"Our initial focus was on providing detailed evaluations and quality videos that players could use, along with guidance from Baseball Factory, to find the right college fit, both athletically and academically," said Jason Budden, Baseball Factory's senior vice president of marketing and brand. "Early in the company's history, it became obvious that in addition to recruiting advice, players also needed high-level skill development opportunities to help in the advancement of their game.
"Our National Training and National Team programs provide players with world-class instruction and unmatched baseball experiences that help them find increased success while moving from youth to high school to college baseball and beyond."
Baseball Factory holds more than 500 annual events nationwide in more than 40 states and 100 cities. Budden said the company prided itself on giving players an unbiased assessment of where they stood against other players in the country. He said the combination of instruction and life-changing experiences helped players achieve success both on and off the field.
Participants in Baseball Factory programs range in age from 8-18, and the company said more than 25,000 players would take part in their programs in 2012 alone. These opportunities range from one-day workouts to five- to six-day training programs and have a price point that begins as low as $99.
"While there is more commercialism in youth sports today than there was 20 years ago, we feel like this is part of the evolution of sports and our society," Budden said. "Along with more commercialism comes more opportunities and great options for players to increase their success and enjoyment within sports.
"Through organizations like Little League, American Legion and the National Amateur Baseball Federation, kids can play baseball for a minimal investment and find good competition, sportsmanship, friendship and numerous other benefits through sports participation. It's easy to get overwhelmed with the different options out there and the potential costs within sports, but if you take your time, do your research and talk to other families that have had success, you can find the right events, products, training and programs that match your goals and budget."
When players enter the Baseball Factory system, they receive more than on-field instruction, enabling them to develop both on and off the diamond.
"We pride ourselves on serving as a resource for all families that attend events," Budden said. "Once someone teams with Baseball Factory, they are a member for life and have access to our staff, online tools and expertise in all areas associated with the game. Whether a family does one program or 20, they can connect with us at any time, and our staff does a great job of educating families on the player-development and college-recruiting process."
Experts said it's important for parents investing time and money into nurturing their children's athletic prowess to ask their young athletes whether they still enjoy the sport, investigate the options available and choose opportunities that serve the overall needs of their children.
"Parents have the best of intentions for their kids," Hyman said. "They want their kids to be successful and succeed, but sometimes we just show it in the wrong way and have our heads down."
Baseball Factory wants to ensure parents keep their heads up and become fully educated about everything from on-field opportunities to what school is the overall greatest fit for their child on every level.
"We teach players how to talk to college coaches, what to look for in a college program, how to develop a good college application and essay, the ins and outs of financial aid, how to locate an athletic scholarship and various other topics," Budden said. "In addition, we hold seminars for players and parents on topics including academics, life skills, proper nutrition, scouting and college recruiting and the dangers of performance-enhancing drugs. While our main responsibility it to assist on the field, it's the experience and education we provide off the field that helps build the complete student-athlete."
There is no set amount of money involved in supporting a child's sports interests, as situations, economics and abilities vary. But experts agree that when deciding where to spend money on children's sports activities, thoroughly researching the options available is a critical first step.
Baseball Factory is the official and exclusive player development partner for Little League Baseball, and serves as Under Armour's scouting, selection and operations partner for its annual All-America Baseball Game, which airs on MLB Network.
"There are so many rewarding parts of what we do," Budden said. "But helping over 40,000 players reach their dream of playing college baseball and having a role in those athletes receiving over $1 billion in scholarships ranks very high on that list of rewarding items."
Issue 177: September 2012