This article was originally published on August 20th, 2019.
In 2013, ESPN called youth sports "so big, no one really knows how big."
A new report, WinterGreen Research, states the industry to be valued at $19.2 billion, in the U.S.
So, where does the money come from?
In a country such as the U.S., which is in the midst of a childhood obesity epidemic, keeping children active is extremely important.
To keep their children active, many parents are willing to spend a lot of money. Parents with a child in ice hockey spend on average $2,583 per year, to keep them in the sport. The average cost of keeping a child in any sport is $693. Some parents are even spending $12,000 or more on sports such as gymnastics, skiing/snowboarding, and tennis.
This move to pay-to-play has led to the youth sports market dwarfing other areas of the sports industry, including the $15 billion NFL.
It is no surprise then that private businesses are mining this industry. Building a number of revenue-generating segments including travel, private coaching, equipment, team membership, facility construction, software, and venue rental. Since 2010, the industry has grown by 55%.
As the market grows, it is expected to reach $77.6 billion by 2026, continuing to be catnip for investors. Municipalities that once vied for minor-league teams are now banking on youth sports to boost local economies, issuing bonds for lavish complexes that they hope will lure talented kids and their families.
As only 2% of high school athletes go on to play at the top level of collegiate sports, NCAA Division 1, parents are becoming more competitive in the search for scholarships.
“That’s a lot of chum to throw into youth sports,” says Tom Farrey (@TomFarrey), executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society program. “It makes the fish a little bit crazy.”
Many families have chosen to skip car payments and put off home repairs, in a bid to increase the chance of gaining that lucrative scholarship.
“I’ve seen parents spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars pursuing a college scholarship,” says Travis Dorsch (@BigSkyBoiler), founding director of the Families in Sport Lab at Utah State University. “They could have set it aside for the damn college.”
Social-media-savvy parents have even been developing Twitter and Instagram accounts around their athlete kids. One such account calls itself “a brand inspired by my 11 yr old son’s unique style and attitude on and off the Baseball Field.”
However, as the cost and pressure of participating in sports grows, it is forcing some children to drop out. Furthermore, parents are now concerned over injuries, in particular concussions and other brain injuries and the increase in video game playing which competes for a kid’s time
The average number of children between the ages of 6 and 17 has dropped from 45% in 2008 to just 38% today.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “burnout, anxiety, depression and attrition are increased in early specializers.” The group says delaying specialization in most cases until late adolescence increases the likelihood of athletic success. Devotion to a single sport may also be counterproductive to reaching that holy grail: the college scholarship. In a survey of 296 NCAA Division I male and female athletes, UCLA researchers discovered that 88% played an average of two to three sports as children.
Other factors that are more immediate than a child's mental health. As expensive travel teams replace community leagues, more kids are getting shut out of organized sports. Some 41% of children from households earning $100,000 or more have participated in team sports, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA). In households with an income of $25,000 or less, participation is 19%.
The sport to see the biggest drop in participation is by far tackle football, which has seen an 11.8% decline in just the last year.
The SFIA reports that in 2017, the number of students playing high school football fell for the fourth straight year to 1.07 million, down 20,893 players, at a time when participation in some other sports is growing.
A recent survey found that 78% percent of American adults do not think kids younger than 14 should play tackle football. This decline in tackle football coincides with public debates over the safety of the sport and medical research showing the harm that can be caused by concussions and repetitive hits to the head. State legislators in California, Illinois, New York, and Maryland have all introduced legislation proposing the minimum ages of 12 years or older for tackle football participation.
However, while tackle football is down, flag football participation is up 38.9%, reflecting the trend towards a safer version of the sport. In 2017, flag football passed tackle in popularity among kids ages 6 to 12 for the first time, with 100,000 more children.