The setting: 1979, in a middle school gym with hazy morning sunshine streaming in through windows high above the bleachers, fans straining to keep the Texas summer heat at bay. I, along with dozens of high-school girls, had lined up outside the gym doors, waiting in eager anticipation for the doors to open at 9 a.m. Once the doors were unlocked, we all ran in, did a quick warmup, split into teams, and spent the next three hours scrimmaging. There were no coaches, no referees, no parents. At noon, we streamed out—happy, tired, and already thinking about playing again the next morning.
Throughout the summer, the gym was open for us five days a week. On each of those mornings, Duncanville High School coach Sandra Meadows, then Texas’s winningest high school girls’ basketball coach, unlocked the doors, sat at the top of the bleachers for three hours, then locked the doors behind her, without ever saying a word to any of the players.
We were told the University Interscholastic League (UIL) rules stated that high school players could not attend any summer camps to improve their skills. UIL wanted to promote fairness across all income levels so that those who could afford expensive camps would not receive an unfair advantage over those who did not have the means to attend such extracurricular luxuries. Therefore, Coach Meadows made the gym available in silence so it could never be construed as a summer camp or instructional program.
Fast forward to today. Children play on “select” sports teams, with hefty registration fees and a year-round season full of travel. Elite summer sports camps abound, costing thousands of dollars. More children than ever receive private lessons to improve their skills. And it’s all happening earlier and earlier—usually as young as elementary school.
Mark Hyman explores the increasing price tag of youth sports in his new book, The Most Expensive Game in Town: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today’s Families (Beacon Press, 2012). This is a follow-up to Hyman’s previous book, Until it Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids, in which he investigated how today’s manifestation of youth sports has had negative effects on kids and families. He described the negative effects of how organized youth sports have become adults’ “hostile takeover” of kids’ athletics, including the alarming rise in youth sports injuries.
The Most Expensive Game in Town continues along similar themes, focusing on the business of youth sports (a $5 billion industry) and the detrimental effects that it can have on families, children, and the youth sports community.
Hyman researched the business of youth sports through responses from his own online survey as well as extensive interviews with those who are buying (parents) and those selling (tournament coordinators, DVD producers, organizers of sports combines, and the like). He also spoke with numerous experts, including sociologists, physicians, and leaders in education.
Hyman provides in-depth insight to the economy of youth sports. He lists experiences that range from commonplace to shocking:
• The rising cost of team registrations, uniforms, and equipment. Most families will spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on their children’s athletic pursuits. Hyman lists examples of some families who have spent close to $10,000 per year to keep their child in elite sports leagues.
• Sports teams whose seasons get longer and longer each year, with more and more out-of-town tournaments added to the schedule. He describes one 8-year-old girl whose softball team played 70 games in one season (including 11 road trips).
• Mega-sports complexes, including Old Settlers Park in Round Rock, which play host to mammoth youth tournaments, and the economic effects from “youth sports tourism.”
• Programs for babies and toddlers, including sports DVDs for babies, toddler gyms, and a soccer class for 18-month-olds.
• The increased exposure to children from corporate sponsors such as Mountain Dew, Red Bull, Gatorade, Nike, and dozens of equipment manufacturers.
• The commercialization of high school football, including the profit-seeking objectives of major corporations like ESPN and Nike, and the entitling effect it can have on teenagers.
Hyman has no solution. In fact, he identifies the paradox for well-meaning parents: parents may not like early specialization in sports and having to shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars but, in order for their children to improve in their sport and remain competitive with other kids, parents often feel they have no other choice.
Hyman does a good job of describing the excesses, emphasizing how, in many cases, the organizations who stand to profit from the youth sports machine are more interested in the almighty dollar than the well-being of those involved—at an age where sports should be just plain fun. I wish Hyman had reported more in-depth about how the youth sports machine has been detrimental to the players themselves. And he does not spend much time describing the benefits of sports for youngsters: learning self-discipline, following instructions, winning gracefully, losing with class, working within a team, goal-setting, and so much more. Most parents will agree that it’s worth spending some money to help instill these values; Hyman’s message is that it’s become a runaway train.
As a parent, I witnessed the youth sports phenomenon within my own community. And as a former high school and collegiate athlete, I recognize the values that sports can promote. However, I have often wondered whether these values are being pushed upon children too early these days, often at ages where they’re too young to really grasp the lessons to be learned.
When I was growing up, there were a few “for-fun” Little League and Pee-Wee football teams and lots of pick-up games in neighborhood fields or sandlots. Now kids are encouraged at a very young age to participate in structured year-round sports teams, try out for select leagues, travel to out-of-town tournaments, gear up with expensive equipment, and spend hundreds of dollars on private lessons.
By the time kids can try out for their middle school teams, they fall into one of three camps:
1. Those who have played their sport for years and, as a result, have developed terrific skills.
2. Those who have played their sport for years but are burned out, tired of playing, and ready to quit (this is especially true with girls).
3. Those who have not been playing for years but, because they’re trying out against the other kids who have been on select teams for years, they haven’t got a shot at making the team.
The paradox is that the kids in the last two groups will likely not get to participate in youth sports at the age when their minds and bodies are most primed for it. By the time children reach adolescence, they begin to change physically and mentally. Their bodies become stronger, taller, and faster. They develop better coordination. They begin to understand how to set goals and work hard to accomplish them. They learn how hard work at practice reaps benefits on game day. They learn how to be self-motivated.
Contrary to when I was growing up, it’s not likely for kids without experience to try out for and make a 7th grade team and then get enough playing time to be able to mature into the sport by 9th or 10th grade. And the irony is that parents either don’t get sucked into the mega-intensive youth sports trap (but then worry whether their kids have any kind of chance of making the school teams) or get sucked into the trap (and end up feeding the machine—the haves vs. the have-nots, the commercialization of youth sports, and the possible burnout and/or overuse injuries of their kids).
Mark Hyman says the businesspeople who offer elite camps and leagues, high-end equipment, DVDs, and the like are selling hope. Parents are investing in the hope that their kids will eventually be able to make the high school team—hope that their kids can earn a college scholarship, hope that money can buy athletic excellence.
In poorer communities, most children don’t have access to the camps, lessons, and leagues. Inner city schools must compete against richer suburban schools and, all too frequently, there is an obvious difference in the skillset of the more affluent teams. It’s a blatant display of the haves vs. the have-nots and a marked digression from UIL’s noble goals of yesteryear to promote fair access to interscholastic sports for all income levels.
The Most Expensive Game in Town is a worthwhile read for parents and coaches alike. It helps open eyes to the excesses that have plagued the youth sports industry in the last decade (a decade ago, the term “youth sports industry” didn’t exist).
I can’t help but wonder if high school coaches and collegiate coaches are going to realize that their athlete pool is actually diminishing as a result of the uber-intensive youth sports machine and whether, one day, they might band together to say “enough is enough.”
Tracy D. Nelson is a head coach and co-founder of Tri Zones Training and trains adult runners and triathletes, many of whom did not get to participate in sports when they were young. Nelson played high school varsity and collegiate basketball (having been told by teammates that she was “awful” in junior high, and the only reason she made the team was because she was tall). She looks forward to cheering for her daughter at the Vandegrift High School Viper swim meets next year.