Organized youth sports are the way our young people connect the dots between a passion and the construct of a support system, a team. It is widely noted that youth sports have their problems, from the obsession with results to premature specialization. However, economics are at the heart of these problems, and what often gets left unsaid is clearly outlined in Mark Hyman’s new book The Most Expensive Game in Town. One of the many stories Hyman tells is of a super sports dad of three, Fran Dicari, who keeps a blog that outlined all expenses he incurred in the pursuit of his children’s excellence on the field. In 2010, he dropped $8,921 on a plethora of questionably needed services and equipment so that he could support their soccer trips, pay for golf gear or have kids that were forced to look like pro baseball players.
Was all this required? Not necessarily, but without keeping up with the Joneses, a parent feels like they are sealing their child’s fate as an also-ran athlete and the guilt doesn’t stop there. It continues to press parents to open their checkbooks. You can’t have your child be the only one without Nike apparel or a constantly alternating uniform. I thought it was a bit much when I played with the Texas Rangers and we had three clearly defined uniforms (we mixed and matched too), but that pales in comparison to the example Hyman provided. The Cincinnati Stix, an elite traveling teen baseball team, has three different colored hats to go with two jerseys, two pants and the three colored undershirts. Dicari (a.k.a. StatsDad) even broke out his probability hat and found out that there were 72 possible combinations.
But forget about the uniforms or the price of crisscrossing the U.S. to get a barometer of how your child ranks within the country. If you want personal attention, or to be on the radar of those with access and influence, as Hyman points out, you could join, say, the IMG Golf Academy and drop nearly $55,000 for the year, or pay $700 an hour for a quarterback coach for your child.
Of course you wouldn’t spend that on a toddler, most likely, but that doesn’t mean the services are not available. The parents of younger and younger children are targeted so that they get ahead of the imaginary curve. Hyman cites Lil’ Kickers (from 18 months old on), Baby Goes Pro or even Gymnatrix, which is knocking on the door when your child is 6 months old. Then again, it is not just the parents who are getting targeted. The kids are as well. Mountain Dew is positioned very well in all sports that have high adrenaline attached to it. The kids make the connection and support the product, regardless of whether that product is healthy. Sponsorships introduce kids early on to the consumer sports culture and then make it unfathomable later to tell that same child no when he needs that head-to-toe Reebok outfit that matches the rest of his team.
Of course, we tell ourselves that our children are learning other valuable lessons, and in some regards, they are. But whenever the for-profit culture sinks its teeth into anything replicable, you lose something of value. It becomes a lot harder to tell someone, Your daughter probably will not have many opportunities in this sport at the next level. Especially when parents are willing to explore her talents to the bitter financial end.
The hope implied in youth sports — maybe my kid will be a star — isn’t entirely false, since no one has a crystal ball. But to give just one example, there will be 750 Major League Baseball players when the season starts this April. It is safe to say that this is elite company. For years, major-league players came out of the Dominican Republic, long before organized academies and high investments. They just played around the clock for the love and the opportunity. That does not cut it anymore. The unfortunate result of the big business of youth sports is that it creates another rich-get-richer environment. The privileged class reigns supreme: only those with resources can both afford to have hope, and afford to be wrong.