The state of youth sports is far from what was portrayed in The Sandlot. Whereas youth sports used to be an inclusive, community-building activity, today they are a cutthroat, expensive means to a very specific end: college recruitment. In turn, youth sports has transformed into a $15 billion industry whose investors include Bain Capital, NBA star Stephen Curry, and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Most importantly, expensive travel teams’ domination in youth sports has created a high barrier to entry for athletic participation, privileging wealthy, white athletes in the college admissions process.
Money is the principal determinant of youth sports participation. A report by the Aspen Institute’s Project Play, an initiative aimed at improving equity in youth sports, found that children from families making more than $100,000 per year are twice as likely to play sports as those from families earning less than $25,000 per year. This gap is widening as well.
The increasing costs of youth sports are driving low-income children out of sports. The average family with child athletes spends about $700 per child per year on youth sports. Cost, thus, is the most common reason low-income kids are not playing sports. As costs have risen, youth team sports participation for children aged 6-12 has declined from 45 percent to 38 percent from 2011 to 2018. This decline is due to lower participation rates among children in families making less than $75,000 per year.
The rise of pay-to-play club sports teams is responsible for this decline. As a result, cheap high school athletic programs and community sports leagues have fallen to the wayside. For example, even though youth baseball participation has decreased only modestly since 2008, Little League participation has plummeted. The culprit? Travel ball. A high school athletic director in Illinois describes this shift as an “ever-growing conflict between club sports and interscholastic athletics.”
A soccer club in the Northeast, New England Football Club (NEFC), typifies modern club sports. Its mission is “to develop players for the next level in an elite soccer environment.” The promise of ascending to the “next level” has siphoned ambitious, college-minded athletes from high school programs into club teams like NEFC.
Club teams are not cheap. While $700 is the average annual per-sport price tag, intensive club teams that demand interregional travel and offer special assistance in college recruiting can cost far more. A study by TD-Ameritrade found that 20 percent of American families spend more than $12,000 per year per child on youth sports. This includes team tuition, travel costs, accommodations, equipment, and specialized training.
Obviously, low-income families lack the means to pay for these travel teams and all of their additional expenses. A parent of a child competing at the US Youth Soccer Championships, for example, lamented that the tournament represented “a sliver of the upper middle class” while another critic called it “economic discrimination.”
Expensive travel teams are also racially exclusive. A 15-year study of travel teams conducted by a researcher at the University of Nebraska found that only 4 percent of players on youth travel teams are Black. A browse of the rosters for the local New England Ruffnecks, which costs $3,300 per year, reveals that most players either attend expensive prep schools or public high schools in affluent school districts.
Because private sports clubs are hotbeds of college recruiting, white, wealthy players—like those on the Ruffnecks—have the most access to college sports. A recent NCAA survey of 21,233 athletes found that the vast majority of participants in soccer, basketball, swimming, women’s volleyball, baseball, softball, and ice hockey played on a club team. Youth athletes that cannot afford club are relegated to cheaper teams with little to no infrastructure to help them get recruited. Moreover, five of these seven sports are disproportionately white, according to the NCAA, suggesting that the increasing barrier to entry to youth sports brought about by travel teams has benefited the rich and the white in college admissions above most others.
A comparison between two local soccer teams illustrates how making it to the “next level” often rests on how much one pays. The website for NEFC, which costs $2,500 per year or more and promises an intensive soccer experience, boasts a long list of recruited athletes. In contrast, South County Youth Soccer in Wakefield, Rhode Island—also a club team—costs $325 per year and values “having fun playing soccer” over college recruitment.
Even in the diverse sports of basketball and soccer, the high rate of club team participation among NCAA athletes suggests that having the money to pay for a club team—even an inexpensive one—is crucial to recruitment. A talented basketball player who can only afford to play in her church league or on her underfunded high school team is far less likely to receive looks from college scouts than a player who can pay for club team fees. Holy Cross baseball coach Greg DiCenzo admits that “there are a bundle of kids who maybe aren’t good enough to be seen [by coaches] based on their skill set alone” and require club teams to get recruited. The resources and know-how of club coaches afford travel team athletes a recruiting edge over those who just play on their high school team.
Sports in which high school sports still predominate and club teams pose less of an advantage, like football and track, are more diverse. Although a host of other factors could also contribute to the diversity of these two sports, the lack of club teams for this sport may provide a framework for making college recruitment more accessible.
In college sports, the usual suspects—lacrosse, hockey, baseball, tennis, crew, and more—are predominantly white, as participating in these sports at a high level requires significant financial investment. But even the demographics of basketball, where white athletes are not in the majority, indicate the admissions advantage that sports confers upon white applicants. The NBA and WNBA are 74.4 percent and 68.5 percent Black, respectively, so white NCAA players are overrepresented compared to the demographics of these two professional leagues.
The rise of club sports appears to privilege wealthy white students not just in the general college admissions process, but also in the increasingly competitive realm of selective college admissions. Wealthy applicants already have an advantage in selective college admissions. But being able to play on a varsity team—which often necessitates this exorbitant spending on travel teams—has given wealthy white kids an admissions edge. Per the Harvard Crimson’s annual freshman survey, nearly half of recruited athletes in the class of 2022 came from families making $250,000 per year or more, compared to only one-third of the entire class. Moreover, in basketball in the Ivy League and the NESCAC—which includes prestigious liberal arts colleges like Williams and Amherst—white players are the most represented group.
Despite an increasing desire among elite colleges to bolster their racial, socioeconomic, and geographic diversity, the professionalization of youth sports is helping to keep them wealthy and white. This past year’s college admissions scandal, which revealed the privilege wealthy children receive in selective school admissions, barely scratches the surface. Many of the parents buying their kids’ admission to an elite school do so through the legal, indirect route of club sports.
Photo: Image via Dej611 (Flickr)