The September 7 issue of TIME Magazine features our obsession with childhood sports. The statistics tell the story. In 2005, school age children played sports at a combined cost of about $8 billion per annum. Today that number is about $15 billion, almost double. And, during this same period there was no increase in the population of American children. About 73 million, then and now. So, how about household income over the same period? Nominally, it went from an average of $45,000 to $50,000, but if you adjust for inflation, it actually declined a little bit.
This writer’s conclusion? Americans are spending money they don’t have on something they want and enjoy but do not need. The cost of team sports for children is itself frightening. Time reports these as average costs including enrollment, uniforms and lots of travel:
Ice Hockey $7,000
This is not a sport economics blog but we see this every day in our divorce practices. Parents fight over the logistics of these sport activities. They fight over who will pay. They fight over whether the child belongs in the sport and, as we recently noted, whether the risk of injury exceeds the benefit.
As the cost of college rises, we also see many parents eyeing their children’s athletic skills as something they can capitalize upon in the form of athletic scholarships. Putting money in a 529 plan is a tedious way to prepare for college. But travel with the child’s team to Baltimore or Richmond to watch 72 hours of continuous soccer is now viewed as an “investment.” Curiously, as time has passed, emphasis is now focusing on athletic performance at younger ages. Time reports of colleges following “star” athletes at ages as young as 10. Middle school is now where the talent is first evaluated. This means, the sport and the child must be nurtured for seven years before the scholarship is awarded. And, children are seeing repetitive motion injuries crop up more frequently because many of these sports are now scheduled “year round.” A gifted basketball player cannot afford to risk his future by playing another sport where he could be injured, or worse-yet, his shooting and passing skills are allowed to wither.
In May, I testified before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives about some possible changes in support guidelines. The witness before me was a Father who, together with his wife, invested heavily in a child’s future as a competitive snowboarder. Much of this investment was borrowed using husband’s credit cards. Shortly after it became clear that son’s snowboarding career did not have much promise, wife departed leaving husband with massive credit obligations. Then she had the temerity to sue him for support. He wanted relief from the support guidelines because a lot of his income was paying credit card debt associated with promoting their child’s sport.
I must confess, I did not have much sympathy for either parent. But, as the Time article observes, modern day parents have difficulty saying “no” to their need driven kids. What child would not want to go to Baltimore, stay in a hotel and hang with his friends while assembled to play back to back softball games on gorgeous college campuses? Unfortunately, the psychological community is warning that in addition to premature serious sports injuries, many children and their families are starting to experience competitive sports burnout. Especially where scholarships are involved, many competitions and tournaments are mandatory because that’s where the college coaches and scouts are going to be found. I spoke recently with a fellow lawyer whose child is still reeling from seeing that her son finished both college and his baseball driven career with nowhere to go. His persona and all of his goals were erected around his athletic talent and now that talent no longer had value.
This is a bad cycle and one that often robs the children of their physical and emotional well-being while robbing their parents’ purse with little chance of return. Each year about 400-500,000 high school kids play baseball, soccer and basketball. Another 1.1 million play football. The likelihood they will take this skill to the professional world is frighteningly small. Baseball: 1 in 760; Football: 1 in 600; Soccer: 1 in 800; and, basketball: 1 in 1,860. Sports have much merit. But all good things must come in moderation.