Once, youth sports meant some hodgepodge of stickball, two-hand touch and pickup games of H-O-R-S-E at the local playground. The rules accounted for inventive geography (“The giant tree is out of bounds”) and group policing of cheaters (“You have to count M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I”). The equipment was mostly secondhand—and precious, with hours spent looking for the “good” ball lost in the shrubs.
Odds against a youth soccer player going on to play on a Division 1 NCAA team
Kids self-organized only as much as necessary, and only as much as you and your friends could tolerate. Things got slightly more serious for those who played little league, before jumping up a level of intensity in high school. Money was rarely part of the conversation, with youth sports embodying the blend of avid competition and joyful play that gives the word amateur meaning.
In recent years, however, youth sports has come to mean something very different. Nationally touring AAU teams, personal coaches, expensive equipment, high-pressure tryouts for elite teams, and frequent air travel. And billions upon billions of dollars spent by parents. In other words, youth sports have come to look increasingly like professional sports.
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Pro Money Dreams
One basic and widespread force propelling the economics of youth sports has been aspiration driven by the enormous economic success of professional athletes. Kids idolize professional athletes, and parents fantasize about their kids developing into human lottery tickets.
In 1969, the year Cardinals centerfielder Curt Flood challenged the MLB “reserve clause,” which prohibited free agency, the highest salary in Major League Baseball was Willie Mays’s $135,000 ($1,134,000 in 2021 dollars). In 1989, it was Orel Hershiser’s $2.8 million ($5.9 million in 2021 dollars). In 2020, it was Mike Trout’s $38 million—34 times Willie Mays’s 1969 salary adjusted for inflation. Other sports have seen a similar trajectory (e.g., Patrick Mahomes’s new $500 million Kansas City Chiefs contract) and as the money for star professionals has risen at the top, the incentive to develop stars, starting at the youngest age possible, has developed in nearly all sports.
Sports, perhaps more than any other pursuit, rewards outstanding expertise in young bodies. To achieve enormous paydays, would-be professional athletes must achieve their peak skill by their mid-twenties (and younger in many sports). Since much technical training is required to attain those skill levels, many parents conclude that intensive, “professional”-level training and single-sport focus must be applied to children. Tiger Woods’s first national display of his golfing prowess was in front of Jimmy Stewart and Bob Hope on The Mike Douglas Show. The year was 1976 and Tiger was two years old.
Total Revenue – Industry Comparison
Youth Sports – 2019
NFL – 2019-2020 season
MLB – 2019
NBA – 2019-2020 season
Elite Schools and Post-Sports Payouts
A second, more widespread force driving youth sports inflation stems from an idiosyncratic feature of the US collegiate athletic system. Specifically, high-performing amateur athletes, particularly in moderately popular sports, are also given preferential access to elite education. Thus, teenage proficiency in certain sports opens the door to a much broader array of economic opportunities, most having little or nothing to do with the sports they played. Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and Bain Consulting, to name a few, recruit on the campuses of the universities that give admissions advantages to the top student-athletes. There is also some evidence that, within the pool of job candidates, recruiters prize athletes for their demonstrated ability to operate within a team context. Spurred on by the apocryphal “10,000-hour rule” popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 best-seller Outliers: The Story of Success, it’s understandable that many parents view, say, private field hockey lessons at age 10 as a pathway to a well-paying job at McKinsey at age 25.
Proprietors of for-profit youth sports organizations have been more than happy to indulge parents’ single-sport obsessions, despite ample data showing that year-round focus on a single sport results in more injuries, higher rates of burnout and, according to college coaches, worse performance compared to kids who play multiple sports.
In the years before COVID-19 struck, one set of youth sports numbers told a grim story, especially for kids in working-class families. Just 34 percent of children from families earning less than $25,000 played a team sport in 2017, versus 69 percent from homes earning more than $100,000. And even the rich kids couldn’t keep up, for the most part. In 2019, thanks to the combination of financial pressure and burnout, 70 percent of kids had dropped out of organized sports by age 13.
Bigger than the NFL
But another set of numbers was out of sight: annual industry revenues in the US alone hit $30 billion in 2020 before the pandemic, dwarfing the business of professional baseball ($10.7 billion) and the NFL ($15 billion). Analysts calculated the speed with which the industry was growing and predicted that it would triple by 2026 to just under $75 billion worldwide.
The upshot is perverse: there is vastly more money to be made by the youth sports industry, but less athletic joy and expression being experienced across a generation.
It took a pandemic to slow down this seemingly unstoppable money machine. For a few months, playing fields across the country were chained shut. MLB, the NHL and the NBA all closed down their seasons for three months, restarting with radically changed formats designed to stem the spread of COVID-19 among fans, players and staff. And in July, with the pandemic running full steam through the population, tournaments for youth club travel teams started back up, with
none of the protective measures that were employed by the pro leagues, prompting a surge in interstate travel and underscoring families’ psychological dependence on kids’ sports to provide meaning in their lives.
But the fact remains that the youth sports industry depends on disposable income, and the economic damage from COVID-19 will impact every level of the youth sports industry.
This disruption provides youth sports leaders an unexpected opportunity to reorient toward economic diversity, deprofessionalization and inclusion of more children.
The Future Is Already Here Dep’t
The town of Norwich, Vermont, has a population of just over 3,000—and the highest number of Olympic athletes per capita of any municipality in the US. The town’s secret playbook for athletic excellence? No cuts from Norwich youth teams, no specializing in a single sport before high school, according to Karen Crouse’s book Norwich: One Tiny Vermont Town’s Secret to Happiness and Excellence. With COVID-19 forcing a nationwide youth sports reset, look for the Norwich approach to take hold in more communities across the country.
During the “lost year” of COVID-19, youth sports parents realized they had reached a breaking point, and pulled their kids out of costly elite travel programs in droves. Educators, parents and policymakers reinvigorated school and recreational sports programs and encouraged kids to play locally, play more than one sport and do it for the fun. The reusable uniform made its return. Just as in 2020 we placed a premium on food grown locally, we came to value youth sports played in one’s neighborhood or community, abstaining from driving across the state or getting on an airplane to attend elite competitions. The “Thrift Class”—the segment of millennials getting by on freelance or gig-economy jobs and living frugally but contentedly—continued to grow, and their kids returned to playing sports for fun, for friends, for the town. And yes, for improved health. Parents (finally) understood that sports weren’t about some future payday, especially after decades of data showed that one-sport athletes from wealthy families actually have little to no advantage in scholarship acquisition or a path to college or pro sports.
Lower Costs, Sports for All
Elite club and travel teams still exist, but a more defined second track has developed for families and kids seeking a less time-consuming, less high-pressure and less costly experience lasting through the end of high school. The new youth athletic experience focuses on accessibility, participation and enjoyment, with robust infrastructure. Sustained community-level commitment fueled the creation, upkeep and equitable access to these locally focused athletic leagues and facilities.
Youth sports participation exploded, jumping from a modern-day low of 30 percent in 2019 to 90 percent in 2035.
COVID-19 vaccines were deployed worldwide in 2021, and the youth sports juggernaut picked right back up where it left off. The cost to families for club teams kept soaring, with some spending upwards of $20,000 per year per child to play on elite travel squads. Colleges recovered, and tuitions resumed their skyward trajectories. Any family with sports aspirations felt the need to hire a private coach, a nutritionist and, in many cases, a therapist to keep their kids from shattering psychologically while losing the childhoods they were never allowed to know. For-profit youth sports training facilities jockeyed for strip-mall space, and youth sports complexes exploded in and around every small city in America, with enhanced, pro-level services such as video tracking and machine-learning analysis of player performance. Inside, 3rd graders charted the spin rate on their curveball and trained in VR simulations as avatars based on their projected adult size and weight.
Sports became the exclusive province of affluent families, with a handful of (literally) elite clubs remaining, and US youth sports participation sank to 10 percent. Cultural enthusiasm for sports waned as Gen Z grew to adulthood, the US pro sports fan base shrank, and US Olympic teams fell from consistent top-three finishes in medal counts to placing out of the top 100.
Report: The Future of Youth Sports
10 in-depth topics from recruiting to brain development to esports.
We take a deep look at the best and worst-case scenarios for the future of youth sports as parents, coaches, futurists, industry experts—and former youth athletes.