My home sits less than a half mile from youth soccer Mecca. Nearly everyday I’ve spent in my home involves interacting with youth soccer players and parents, near this giant soccer complex with 15-20 perfectly manicured fields. I’ve seen thousands of chartered buses, tens of thousands of out-of-state license plates, and hundreds of thousands of man hours go into youth soccer. To say it’s overwhelming is actually an understatement. How can so many resources, both time and money, be spent on something as seemingly trivial as children’s soccer? I’ve been searching for answers on my quest to understand what’s actually happening, and more importantly, the impact this use of resources has on the lives of the participants. While I don’t have definitive science, I do have several theories and probable outcomes that I’d like to share with you.
What does it cost to be a young athlete today? More than it should. If you want to stay competitive, you need to go to clinics and camps. You need to be on a travel team with extraordinary fees and time commitments. You need uniforms, equipment, and Marriott Rewards points. You are, in many ways, a miniature professional athlete. But instead of being paid for playing a game, you are paying to play a game.
Travel sports range from lacrosse, hockey, and soccer, to gymnastics, baseball and softball. Each sport has its own hierarchy of leagues, policies, and costs. Each travel sport has its own level of prestige and social status. But at what cost? Do parents allow participation in these activities due to peer pressure and to keep up with the Joneses? You gotta think love and dedication to your child has something to do with this, right? Or do people subject themselves to this as part of well-crafted financial plan?
Overvaluing The Insignificant
What are you teaching your child when you spend thousands of dollars on youth sports? Some people may argue that you are showing your child how much you love them. But when has it ever made sense to measure love with money? Think of the sacrifices that parents willingly make in the name of youth sports. I’ve personally seen people take on extra shifts, or even an extra job, in order to pay the expenses associated with youth sports. While it certainly is none of my business how someone chooses to spend their money, I would like to offer up a strange financial/psychological side-effect that can appear in the children of those people that spend thousands of dollars on youth sports: a lack of financial perspective.
A commitment to travel sports, in spite of finite financial and time resources, isn’t simply a way to display your love and support of your child. I think it can actually suggest the unwillingness to say no to your child in the midst of a tremendous number of facts and math. Is it possible you are teaching your child a terrible lesson when you are saying yes to a situation that calls for no? Because if you are prioritizing youth sports over college, or youth sports over debt-free living, you are being irresponsible. Your children can either sense the obvious absurdity of your irresponsibility and vow to never repeat it, or they might just adopt your flawed way of thinking.
Take a look at the ideal household budget. Where do you think youth sports fits into that budget? In my opinion, it fits into the entertainment category. Entertainment can occupy 5% of your household budget (based on net income), if you don’t have consumer debt. The youth soccer fields, or any sports field for that matter, isn’t necessarily filled with the children of the wealthy. The fields are filled with people of all socio-economic demographics. In this spirit, I will use a family making $60,000 per year in household income as my example. What is 5% of the net pay (after taxes, insurance, and other employee benefits) for a family that has a $60,000 gross household income? I would say $1,950 (based on a $39,000 net income). This money can be earmarked for things like youth sports, vacations, movies, concerts, et cetera. And again, these entertainment expenditures are generally justifiable if a family DOESN’T have consumer debt. If a family is dealing with the crush of debt, entertainment is truly a luxury you can’t afford.
The Scholarship Argument
In an effort to justify the money spent on a game, many parents have turned to the scholarship argument. The scholarship argument is a lie told to oneself in the midst of spending money on something as trivial as a game. “My son is the best player on his team. We’re really hoping all the time and money spent equal a scholarship.”
According to Active, there are 1,970 Division I men’s soccer scholarships and 4,480 Division I women’s soccer scholarships. US Youth Soccer insists that over 3,000,000 children ages 5-19 sign up through their programs each year. While your child isn’t competing with all 3 million players, given the different ages, they are competing with kids three years ahead of them in school, kids their own age, and kids three years behind them, when it comes to getting and keeping a scholarship. If the 3 million players were perfectly distributed by age, then your child is still competing against 7/15 or 47% of the 3 million players, or 1,410,000 players. Gender aside, this means your child has a .4% chance of earning a soccer scholarship. And this figure doesn’t account for any youth soccer players that aren’t signed-up through US Youth Soccer, which would make their chances even worse. Let’s reframe this, your child has a 99.6% chance of getting jack squat for their soccer skills. This isn’t to suggest that your child shouldn’t play soccer, or any other sport for that matter. It’s simply to illustrate that probability isn’t on your side.
Why would a group of 9 year olds from one community drive to another state, stay in a hotel, and spend two days of their lives to play soccer against another group of random 9 year olds? Why? Step away from your situation, your knowledge of youth sports, and your relationship with your little person, and ask yourself the question: Why would a group of 9 year olds from one community drive to another state, stay in a hotel, and spend two days of their lives to play soccer against another group of random 9 year olds? It’s a very important question. It doesn’t make sense to use valuable resources, both time and money, to bus a group of children hundreds of miles away to play a game against other children.
In what I find to be a powerful twist of irony, the parents that are making these decisions generally didn’t live the travel sports lifestyle when they were kids, and are no worse for the wear. The popularity of travel sports has seen exponential growth in the last decade, yet what are we getting in return? Are we paying for more college educations with more scholarships? No. Are we better financially? No. Are we teaching our children the value of a dollar? No. Are we improving the quality of athletics in our country? Yes, but who cares? When you weigh all the costs, including opportunity costs, the math doesn’t work. Our investments don’t pay off.
I’m not suggesting that anyone who spends money on youth travel sports is doing something wrong. I am, however, suggesting that viewing the costs as anything other than an entertainment expenditure, is a mistake. You can sacrifice for the sake of your child’s entertainment and games, but wouldn’t it make more sense to sacrifice for their financial future? Wouldn’t it make sense to rally your budget to defray the cost of the child’s education? It’s a terribly difficult decision. Put another way, your child ends up paying for their youth sports experience with student loan money. The less you save for college, the more student loans they obtain in order to pay for that education. Given the complexity of some student loan programs, your child may be repaying their student loans some 25 years post graduation. This is to suggest they may be paying off their youth travel sports experience while their children are playing youth travel sports.
I suggest you weigh the risks associated with your travel sports “investment”. I suggest you operate in the both/and, and not just the either/or. You can both fund your child’s education, and their participation in travel sports, if you are purposeful and wise with your money. The default behavior leads people to either spend money on youth sports, or save for college. Unfortunately, the reality is saving for college isn’t the default behavior. Increased student loan amounts suggest this. The solution to this problem is increased scrutiny of one’s finances. Budgeting is often looked at as a practice which limits possibilities. The opposite is true. Budgeting makes things possible.
Peter Dunn a.k.a. Pete the Planner® is an award-winning financial mind and a former comedian. He’s a USA TODAY columnist, author of ten books, and is the host of the popular radio show and podcast, The Pete the Planner Show. Pete is considered one of the foremost experts on financial wellness in the world, but he’s just as likely to talk your ear off about bass fishing.