Youth Sports. It’s come a long way since the days I started in the late 1970s. Dirt fields behind the cement-block elementary school (Camelot Elementary in Federal Way). Path-worn baseball diamonds at Steel Lake. Basketball rims. Cul-de-sacs that doubled as Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium in the minds of youngsters trying to crush vented plastic balls or tennis balls in to the Kepkie’s yard (automatic homer), but usually fouled it off into the Ray’s garage (horrible people with an aggressive Doberman and body odor). Recreational, city-sponsored leagues handing out hats and t-shirts that I would cling to as if they were the road unis for game 3 of World Series.
That stuff is GONE. O. VER. If you want your kid to get on the field and build a highlight reel, there’s an entirely different, over-the-top path to stardom now. You could still sign McKinsley up for tee-ball through the parks center. If you want to sign Rykkor onto a local soccer club via the Y, now’s the time; registration fees go up in 2 days for the Spring 2025 season! Don’t forget to put some money aside from every paycheck to cover these fees, usually in excess of $100 for a boxy t-shirt and a foam-front trucker cap. You CAN do those things… if you don’t care about your kid’s future in athletics.
OR… or you can look at local clubs, privately owned and operated away from the prying audits of city and state officials. Whatever sport you want your kid to dedicate their time and your money to, it’s available. You can also pay around $750 for 3 months of 1 practice & 1 game/week against a handful of kids who are pretty good, and a handful of kids who are scared of the ball. Yes, you can do this even if your child is in a school that offers multiple interscholatic sports. Yes, your child can play multiple sports at one time. Yes, there is no discount for being in multiple sports. No, there are no college scholarships for kids in these programs, no matter how good they are at tying their shoes in the middle of a game with the offense bearing down. You, as a parent or guardian, should have direct control over your kid’s involvement in sports, and the more you pay the BETTER the kid will be, right?
Oh… oh dear friend. No. That’s not true. This is not a business anymore. This is an industry. By 2026, one study projected that Youth Sports will be at $77.6 billion. By comparison, the juggernaut NFL is $15 billion. Feel it yet? Are you clocking the gravity of Youth Sports? Because it’s no longer mainly for kids to participate just for the FUN of it. It’s for kids to develop more quickly with sport-specific training at young ages (yes, I have known a 10 year old who left kid parties to work their PITCHING COACH), and if not sports, then it’s specialized Physical Conditioning.
“Worldwide $24.9 billion youth sports markets are poised to achieve significant growth as travel teams become more popular and families learn to enjoy time together during a weekend sporting event. Enormous market efficiency is being achieved as youth and recreational teams move to automated process. Apps can be used to book hotels and make travel arrangements.” – Youth Sports Market Projected to Reach $77.6 Billion by 2026
BILLIONS of dollars being spent for kids to be on teams that travel out of state to compete in tournaments in order to say they, uh, played in that tournament or maybe even won it? Great. It’s going to take up a lot of family time. Multiple games during tournament weekends. Road trips. Hotels, airfare, meals – none of which are are paid for by the team, usually – to watch kids whose voices have yet to change play other teams from around the nation. To what end?
Having seen just a small piece of what a “pay to play” league looks like in the past 8 months I have some deep, and possibly mis-targeted, feelings about what families are really signing up for. I might be totally off base and out of line in my observations. I could be expressing some sort of PTSD or unresolved anger at what I witnessed in the recent past.
But the goal of writing about this is to inform people of the changes in sports that the professionals of tomorrow are involved in today. We might not see the best players of the crop. Instead, we might see the kids whose families had the best credit scores to help their kids learn to throw an off-speed pitch in lieu of celebrating their friend’s birthday.
For the record, when that kid was told he had to leave the party for pitching practice, he showed off some incredible arm strength by whipping his left shoe directly at his father’s crotch. What fun.