Kids aren't playing enough sports. The culprit? Cost

Grant Kratzer

If you want to define a "super kid," look no further than Marcy Barnett's 7-year-old son, Malachi.

During the summer in Washington, D.C., he participates in just about every recreational sport: basketball, soccer, flag football, sailing, tennis, swimming and golf. He also has tried ice hockey, pingpong and pole vaulting. Anyone else tired after just reading that list?

Barnett wants her son to have fun and burn off his ample energy. But there's more to it. She spends time researching what she calls "quality programs" -- activities that display tangible evidence that he is learning valuable life lessons such as respect, teamwork and even basic social skills.

The problem is, she can't put him in just any program she finds and is interested in. Because of her financial situation, she picks only those that are free or subsidized or through the military, as Malachi's father is in the armed forces. And because she doesn't have a car, she relies on convenience, selecting programs that are easily accessible by public transportation from her house in Maryland.

Still, the pros of youth sports outweigh the cons for the Barnett family.

But a new survey of parents of youth athletes conducted by the Aspen Institute and Utah State University has ESPN.com wondering if the Barnett family is in the minority.

The Aspen Institute, through its Project Play initiative, looked at research from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association that found that in 2018, only 38% of kids aged 6 to 12 played team sports on a regular basis -- down from 45% a decade earlier -- and it decided to find out why.

The survey results point to all the struggles Barnett tries to avoid with her son: cost, inconvenience and kids simply not having fun anymore.

The Aspen Institute found the average amount of spending on sport was approximately $692. That's per child, per sport and per year.

Further, the average household income of respondents to the Aspen Institute survey was $90,908 -- a number that is significantly higher than the U.S. average of $59,039. It is likely because of that discrepancy that the Aspen Institute found that children from low-income families are half as likely to play sports as children from homes with higher incomes.

The Chicas family, like the Barnett family, faces hurdles of price and location. Gloria Chicas has two sons, aged 11 and 14, who she says are exceptional at soccer, but "there was always a barrier" when first looking for the right competitive travel team to join.

The Aspen Institute found that travel is now the costliest element of youth sports and that on average across all sports, parents spent $196 per sport and per child annually to travel. Thanks to travel teams, youth sports is now an estimated $17 billion industry.

Gloria's sons, Christopher and Axel, play in such competitive soccer leagues that registration fees can cost around $1,800 annually. This doesn't include the cost of uniforms, equipment, tournament fees and every cost associated with out-of-town travel, including hotel rooms and food. These costs are even higher if the families want to go with their kids to watch them play.

Chicas also has to account for two boys on two different teams, who are sometimes are in two different cities for their respective games -- something that can be difficult for what she calls "a family from modest means."

Addressing the issues

For families like the Barnetts and the Chicas, there are programs in the D.C. metro area such as Volo City Kids Foundation for Malachi and Open Goal Project for Christopher and Axel.

Volo City Kids Foundation -- the product of an adult social league -- was created when it was brought to CEO Giovanni Marcantoni's attention what barriers the Baltimore youth community was facing when seeking to have safe and healthy play during the 2015 protests. Volo City operates in cities all over the country, including in D.C., Baltimore, Denver and San Francisco.

Volo City is free for families, operating on donations and volunteering, yet the foundation has continued to grow year after year. According to Floyd Jones, the director of development at Volo City's D.C. and Baltimore locations, it is because there is simply such high demand for youth sports programs that are not just free but also in multiple neighborhoods and parts of the city so families can easily access them. A staff of coaches and volunteers who know the sports and care about what they are teaching the kids helps, too, he said.

"Our programs are free and there's no barrier to entry. Competitiveness really makes it so families can't get involved and kids aren't having fun. We really say come one, come all," Jones told ESPN. "We just want kids to stay active and get involved. It doesn't matter where you grow up; every single child should have access to free and healthy play."

Open Goal Project focuses on competitive soccer -- a niche that executive director Amir Lowery said needed to be filled immediately in the D.C. area when the nonprofit formed in 2015.

He and his co-founder, Simon Landau, discovered that travel soccer programs in the area were expensive and rarely located in convenient neighborhoods for families that did not have the means due to price and accessibility.

Open Goal, which doesn't turn any kids away, is able to fully fund soccer players in the D.C. area to play competitively. It also make sure that the teams it puts kids on have games and practices near where the families live, or if not, it makes sure kids get there via carpooling -- even if it means ordering them a Lyft or Uber.

"We basically try to address the pay-to-play issue in youth sport by essentially finding talented players from underserved communities or low-income backgrounds and filling the gaps for them to pursue high-level pay-to-play soccer," Lowery told ESPN. "We've been able to find out all the little things, whether it be time or travel or money or just logistics that stand in the way of kids participating in sport."

Without Open Goal Project, Chicas is unsure what would have happened with her sons not just on the soccer field, but in life: "They've found the opportunity in it all to develop in different areas off the field."

Christopher and Axel love soccer -- the former answered "all of it" when asked his favorite part of the game -- and have fun because of it. Axel, because of his hard work in soccer and academics, got a full scholarship to a private, all-boys D.C. high school, where he starts this month.

Moving forward

Despite the work of foundations and free recreational organizations like these, many are still worried about the state of youth sports if something doesn't change sooner rather than later.

"It's not like a panic button. Kids are always going to be interested in sport. The whole idea is, how do we get a lot of kids playing and have really good experiences?" Dan Gould, director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University, told ESPN. "If every youth sports coach in America's goal was to have kids fall in love with sport, they're going to be more active, healthy, safe and get the benefits. We better keep our eye on the ball and take care of it."

Gould said the drop in participation in youth sports is due to a "multifactor" reason, with cost definitely at the top. He believes the lack of fun that kids are having is another.

Gould dubbed it the "professionalization of youth sports": how society becomes so focused on college scholarships, going pro and becoming famous.

"People forget the true purpose of sports for kids is a developmental experience to help each kid fall in love with physical activity, become healthy, learn some things about themselves," he said. "How do we make sports more for kids and less about the professional model? The professional model is cool, but you don't give kids a college textbook when they're in kindergarten."

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is working to answer some of those questions.

Currently, HHS is developing a National Youth Sports Strategy, as directed by an executive order by President Donald Trump in early 2018 that aims to motivate more kids to play team sports.

It reads, "This national strategy shall focus on children and youth in communities with below-average sports participation and communities with limited access to athletic facilities or recreational areas."

After collecting public comments on the initial draft throughout July, HHS is set to update and release the final National Youth Sports Strategy this fall.

While the impact of that strategy remains to be seen, organizations such as Volo City and Open Goal will have to work to keep kids coming back in the meantime -- and hope parents are like Marcy Barnett and Gloria Chicas and have the drive to find the best means to give their kids opportunities.

As for those opportunities? Barnett says the access to play golf teaches Malachi respect and diversity. Tennis helps him with math. In basketball, he learned the lesson of helping others after he fell down and no one came to give him a hand up.

"Sports is healthy. One of the things I look for when I put him in sports is what benefit is he going to get -- not just playing," she said. "Everyone that meets me tells me how respectful and well-behaved my son is."

The benefits of youth sports are clear. But the laundry list of obstacles is, too.