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As the chairman of the department of tourism, recreation and sport management at the University of Florida, Michael Sagas had a pretty good idea what to expect when his daughter started playing travel soccer. But even he was taken aback by the tally when her team started playing in regional and national tournaments.
Her latest season, which ended July 24, cost the family $18,115.41, Sagas said. "It's ridiculous."
Sagas' daughter is lucky: Her parents have the resources to make high level soccer happen for her. Yet in soccer and other sports, the rising popularity of expensive club and academy teams and the spread of costly tournaments all over the country are making it harder for low-income youth to participate.
Even school teams are getting more expensive. A study by the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital found that 61 percent of respondents reported paying to participate in middle school and high school sports.
"From a sport development perspective I think we're in trouble."
The end result is that a significant share of lower-income children and adolescents find themselves shut out of team sports.
"From a sport development perspective I think we're in trouble," said Sagas, who just left the U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships. He said the crowd there was "a sliver of the upper middle class, mostly upper middle class to wealthy. We're seeing the best of that group, but we're definitely not reaching the entire population." The rate of sports participation has a direct relationship to income. About 25 percent of the population has household income under $25,000, but only 15 percent of sports participants are in that group and only 11 percent of soccer participant households, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
About 20 percent of households have incomes over $100,000, but 33 percent of households participating in sports have incomes at that level, and 37 percent of soccer participants are in that income category.
In the C.S. Mott study, only 5 percent of families with incomes over $60,000 said the costs associated with school sports caused a drop in their child's participation. But in families with incomes under $60,000, 19 percent said costs led their kids to participate less.
Amount of playing declines
Not surprisingly, then, as the cost of playing rises, the amount of playing declines. Between 2011 and 2012, participation in team sports fell to 50 percent, from 54 percent, for kids ages 6 to 17, according to Sports & Fitness Industry Association data.
"Although our industry continues to grow, it's on the backs of fewer kids every year," said Don Schumacher, executive director of the National Association of Sports Commissions.
To some extent, both the rise in pay–to–play policies at schools and the ascent of club and academy teams are natural responses to tight state and local budgets. When school districts cut funding for sports teams, some decide that participating students can pay to participate. In addition, when sports budgets are cut, families with means may seek out club and academy teams.
But the rising financial barriers in youth sports have side effects. Children and adolescents who do not play sports are at greater risk for obesity. And if low-income kids do decide to go outside and move around, they are more likely than wealthier kids to live in high crime neighborhoods where the chances of getting in trouble are greater.
"What communities think they are saving in making these cutbacks will cost them in the long run," said Darryl Hill, founder of Kids Play USA, a fledgling organization advocating greater access to youth sports. "In the long run, the community is losing because these kids become a health burden and in some cases a societal burden." He cited research showing that girls who participate in sports are less likely to get pregnant and more likely to graduate.
"We have more young people between the ages of 6 and 16 playing soccer. But you are leaving a big chunk of the talent out."
The have–have not element of team sports is not great for the sports themselves, either.
"We have more young people between the ages of 6 and 16 playing soccer," Hill said. "But you are leaving a big chunk of the talent out. You can't be competitive if you are going to do that."
It's also not great for the youth sports industry. Young people "are playing a lot of games and entering a lot of tournaments. The spending keeps increasing," Schumacher said. But at some point, the rising cost to play will backfire, he warned. "In any other human endeavor, if you charge too much for too long, your business is not going to do well."
Making sports more inclusive
There are efforts under way to make youth sports more inclusive.
Hill's organization is just getting some programs off the ground, like a lacrosse academy, a volleyball academy and an inner city soccer league.
Sports leagues do offer some financial aid and make some effort to promote greater access to sports. For example, Major League Baseball has a program called RBI, or Return Baseball to the Inner City. Club teams may also offer financial aid.
The Aspen Institute has created a program called Project Play, which promotes creative approaches to reimagining youth sports.
But are these efforts enough to meaningfully boost access to youth sports? Dev Pathik, founder of Sports Facility Advisory, a planning and management firm, is skeptical.
"There are access issues,and groups doing things about it. There are foundations supporting lower-income athletes and their access, but it's a needle in the haystack in terms of where the real need is," he said.
Sagas pointed out that for families, the issue is not just money but time. "I took three weeks off this year just to get to tournaments," he said. "How many blue-collar families can take that time?"
In the meantime, club and academy sports teams remain busy. Sagas, for one, sees little time to rest. The new soccer season starts Aug. 15.