The cost of participation is changing the youth sport landscape in North America

Rising costs that make youth sports an upper middle class activity are bad socially and hurt sport performance overall

When we talk about youth sports it's often with a somewhat pollyannaish view of the way it used to be compared to how it is now. Things like too much parental involvement, high costs, pressure on youngsters, no free time, the list is long. But these arguments are really just complaints that don't go anywhere; they're either a scold on something someone doesn't like or they merely highlight a problem that would exist regardless. Solutions are almost never offered and eventually people get tired hearing about these problems because they are so predictable. Costs going up? We know. Sports taking up too much time? Got it. Parent and coach politics creating unfair situations? What a shocker!

The real task is not identifying problems, that's the easy part, but figuring out why they exist in the first place. Issues in youth sport are often demographic in nature which means that getting to the so-called root of the problem is the only real way to solve it. Some issues are not sport problems per se but are linked to larger social circumstances. These are obviously harder to crack since the reasons they exist are outside the control of coaches, clubs, and national governing bodies (NGBs).

The primary difference between current and past youth sport environments is that the volunteer, ad hoc nature of what used to be has been replaced with a business model that supports a more professional operation, better coaches, more competitions, more travel, and year round opportunities. While this is certainly different from the nostalgic visions of sandlot baseball that we get in some popular movies it's hard to argue that the current youth sport reality isn't better than what we had before.

Along with the switch to more professionally run NGBs and clubs the cost of youth sport participation has risen. Many sports are now so expensive that participation demographics have shifted toward upper middle class families. Cost is now a direct barrier to many NGB efforts to attract underserved populations. It is confounding efforts to attract a wider swath of economic and ethnic diversity into many youth sport programs.

Cost of participation

There are several different contexts in which young athletes can participate in sports ranging from well organized, year round clubs with top notch facilities and professional coaching to recreation programs offering short seasons once or twice per year and staffed mostly by volunteers. No matter the context though, youth sport participation costs more -- a lot more -- than it used to.

A 2019 study by the Aspen Institute and Utah State University reported that the average cost per athlete per year in a survey of 21 sports was $693. The most expensive sports were ice hockey ($2583/year), skiing/snowboarding ($2249), and field hockey ($2125). The lowest cost sports were track and field ($191), flag football ($268), and skateboarding ($380). Costs analyzed included registration, travel, equipment, camps, and lessons.

Swimming, a sport I coached for over 30 years, had an annual cost around $786. To me and anyone else involved in a USA Swimming club this sounds ridiculously low but the survey linked above included various contexts in which the sports were offered. So while swimming clubs have a much higher cost than the average, swimming as a recreational sport is largely free, which skews the final numbers. This resulted in unusually low average costs across most of the 21 sports surveyed.

The study also reported some families were willing to pay much more for their child's sport participation, $12,000 to over $30,000 per year in some sports. While these may be considered outliers they indicate how much the cost of participation is rising.

Rising costs change athlete demographics

Participation by lower income families in U.S. youth sport is impacted by higher costs. The resulting demographic changes in the athlete pool are happening at a time when NGBs are hoping their diversity strategies will attract families from wider ethnic and economic backgrounds.

Looking at swimming again, as of 2019 USA Swimming had over 410,000 registered athletes. This number varies slightly each year but in general it is trending up (in 2009, for example, there were 350,000 registered athletes). But as the sport gets more expensive it is gradually becoming an upper middle class activity like tennis or golf. The NGB has implemented several cost reducing measures including slashing national registration fees for athletes in low income families and banning the use of high-priced swimsuits for youngsters to help lower equipment costs. Even with these measures though many other factors not under the control of the NGB contribute to the increasing cost of participation.

Efforts to counter the effects of high cost are happening but mostly at the club level. There is little the NGB itself can do to reduce expenses to clubs or individual athletes. Some clubs have aggressive recruiting efforts in low income areas and offer scholarships and corporate sponsorships to support eligible athletes. A few clubs have gone so far as to create their own makeshift transport schemes to get youngsters to and from practice sessions. While the efforts are certainly laudable one has to wonder if they are sustainable because what they demonstrate is how difficult it is to overcome economic pressure, and how much success in diversifying youth sports depends on individual or club initiatives. Sometimes all it takes is a change in leadership and these kinds of efforts collapse.

Also, scholarships and sponsorships merely shift an economic burden to something or someone else; they work for the individuals who receive them but they don't really address the cost of participation in a meaningful way. The economy is like a river, you can swim upstream for a little while but eventually you have to go with the flow.

Effect on training age and retention

Cost is also a factor in sport dropout. There are many reasons why youngsters might quit their sport participation but as I pointed out in a previous article it is in the NGB's best interest to keep youngsters involved for as long as possible. NGBs should try to mitigate as many reasons as they can for youngsters leaving the sport so that the long term benefits of a robust retention metric and high average training ages can be maintained.

When surveyed about reasons for why young athletes leave sport the financial costs are usually somewhere on the list although never at the top. However, NGBs should not interpret this to mean that the cost is of lower importance because unlike other reasons for leaving such as not having fun or didn't like the coach, which can only be assessed after the athlete joins, information about the costs involved (or some of them) is available to parents before their child even begins participation. Thus the financial commitment may be a major reason families do not join in the first place.

Youth sports in the United States faced a similar economic challenge in the 1980s when a lack of affordable liability insurance for NGBs threatened to close sport clubs and end competitions throughout the country. That problem was solved. Perhaps NGBs could marshal a similar mindset to address the cost of participation in their sports.