Do We Spend Too Much On Youth Sports?

“If they can pay, they can play.”

That’s the mantra of tournament organizers and club coaches. And I’m not making it up.

According to the Families in Sports Lab at Utah State University, the first group of researchers to investigate these trends, the average family spends around 2% of their yearly income, or $1000, on sports. But some spend as much as 10%.

In theory, spending more means more opportunities and better coaching for kids. But is the more than $7 billion dollars spent per year on youth sports justified?

Probably not. When parents spend more, they expect results. And whether those results come in the form of improved fitness, fond childhood memories, or the highly-sought-after but misunderstood college scholarship, the data shows that more spending isn’t helping.

I’m no economist, but the point of diminishing returns in youth sports spending appears to be around $2000 per kid, per year. As spending approaches and surpasses that amount, bad things happen.

This study from the Utah State research team shows that as parental spending increases, so do their expectations for success. And those expectations have negative consequences for kids: the authors concluded that youth enjoyment and motivation decreased as spending went up.

If you haven’t already, read this post on the psychological causes of burnout and overuse injuries in high school athletes. The most common psychological symptom of young overtrained athletes was feeling bad when not performing up to parents’ expectations.

There’s also this evidence that kids from higher income families are more likely to specialize at a young age, and are up to 68% more likely to suffer a serious overuse injury.

Combined, these studies indicate that spending more leads to poorer outcomes, both psychological and physiological.

And when you compare the likelihood of burnout and overuse injuries to the slim chances of getting a significant amount of scholarship money, the spending really becomes irrational.

According to NCAA data, about 2-4% of high school athletes go on to play at any level in college. And far fewer actually earn scholarship money. For all the dollars and odds for each sport and division, check out – it paints a pretty sobering picture.

Many people think athletic scholarships are worth lots of money. But in every sport except football, basketball, and volleyball, scholarships are divided among athletes. That means partial scholarships, renewed on a yearly basis. Men’s soccer has 9.9 scholarships for 30 or so athletes; women’s lacrosse has 12. Men’s track & field and cross country has exactly 12.6 scholarships to use on about 50 athletes; women’s teams have 18.

The average athletic scholarship is around $10,000 per year. But average tuition is $20-50,000 per year.

I was lucky – I earned a scholarship during college, not high school. After walking on to the track team, I had a pretty successful freshman year. For my efforts, I was awarded a 30% scholarship.

That doesn’t mean my performances were worth 30% of a full scholarship. That’s just the amount of money the team had at the time. My head coach awarded scholarships mainly on merit, but most coaches have a system based half on junior year performance, half on family income, half on position needs, half on experience, half on video tape, height, weight, zodiac sign, all divided by wingspan, or whatever else they think predicts future performance.

In other words, it’s pure luck. And it’s a risky gamble.

My 30% of tuition helped a lot – college is expensive these days. But it’s not even close to what some parents think their kid is worth in scholarship bucks. If my parents had spent anywhere near the 5 – 10% of their income that some do – they didn’t, thankfully – it would have been a losing investment.

If you’re looking purely at the dollars, tutors are better investments than coaches. There’s about ten times more money available in academic scholarships.

Kevin Fasing is an Exercise Physiologist in Denver CO. An athlete, coach, scientist, and avid dog-walker and bike commuter, he believes everyone can accomplish their goals through personal data collection and the information to interpret it.

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