‘We have spent so much money this year, it’s crazy’: The cost of youth sports

Columbia Missourian

December 12, 2021

The Columbia Supreme fourth-grade girls team is down by two points in the championship game.

“We needed a basket,” Anthony Johnson, founder and executive director of the organization and coach of three teams, said. Johnson draws up a play for one player to shoot. But on the off chance she misses, he sets up another, less confident player to get the rebound and take the last-chance shot.

“If it misses, it’s going to come to you,” he tells her. “You’re going to catch it, and time’s going to run out, so as soon as you catch it, I want you to shoot it.”

Even if she doesn’t believe in herself, Johnson believes in her.

“Sure enough, the other player misses the shot, and it comes right to her,” Johnson recalled. “She catches it, and she shoots it.” The buzzer sounds. The shot goes in.

“She started crying; she couldn’t believe she did it.”

For many, sports are more than just a game. Sports are universal, something we can all relate to, whether we play or not. Sports bring unity, tradition, victory, loss and passion.

The state of youth sports

Youth sports leagues of today start with parents. For previous generations, youth sports were based at community centers and churches, with limited numbers of leagues and minimal travel.

The list of factors that increase the cost of participating in youth sports now is extensive, especially for parents like Rob Patterson, who has a kid in multiple sports year-round. An element of youth sports that hikes up the cost is travel. Leagues located in Columbia tend to make St. Louis and Kansas City trips, but some teams go as far as Florida to compete.

Some youth sports now require league fees, customized uniforms, travel, equipment, coaches, personal trainers and more. With a running tab, parents are forced to choose between paying the money or running the risk of their child being left out. For kids chasing athletic scholarships, this could be one less opportunity to have exposure.

Youth sports have become more formalized as they move from a fun way for kids to be active into a high-dollar industry with clear winners and losers. While free recreational sports do still exist, their availability is shrinking and they tend to not offer the level of competition some young athletes want.

CYFL and the Diamond Council offer both sides of youth sports — recreational and competitive — to families.

“Recreation division is just kids that want to play and have fun. We set those leagues up, based on the school area that the kids are in, so we try to keep friends together,” said the executive director of Diamond Council Paul Blythe. “Now the competitive and the travel ball side, that’s for the little more serious player, and there are a lot of changes going on in that area. When I was coaching competitive and travel ball, there’s only a couple of different organizations that were hosting tournaments; now that number has just exploded.”

Hoop dreams, everything in between

Despite knowing the costs and sacrifices it takes, parents all over the country take a deep dive into their wallets to ensure that their kids have those opportunities. But there is very little guarantee that their investment is going to pay off in the long run.

“I’d say maybe 10% of the kids I had, and that’s probably kind of a high number, played in college teams,” said Blythe. “I had a huge number that went on to play high school ball. But as far as college, not a real huge number, percent-wise.”

Shoveling out the cash doesn’t always mean athletic scholarships are within a kid’s grasp, especially if what parents are paying for doesn’t maximize the talent of their child. Taurus Bursey, a seventh-grade football head coach, did not want to take that risk for son Bredun.

But for Bredun, who has been playing football since he was in kindergarten and hopes to play quarterback for Battle in a couple of years, playing in less competitive leagues just wasn’t going to do.

“My son was part of the rec league last year, and each kid had to get a minimum of six plays (in each game),” said Taurus Bursey. “They would come to practice one day a week (or) three days a week, and they still got to get those six plays.

“We went to play a competitive team in St. Louis, and they beat us pretty badly. We had to forfeit in the third quarter. My son came to me and said, ‘The rec side made me soft. I need to go competitive.’”

After some discussion with CYFL President Ken Moyers, the Warhawks — the CYFL’s first competitive seventh grade tackle football team — began their competitive journey. But on this side of youth sports, the tab begins to grow, as the team has to travel to St. Louis five out of 10 games this season.

According to the Aspen Institute, which advocates that all kids regardless of zip code or ability should have access to high-quality sport experiences, the average annual costs for youth sports are over $1,000 but can be upwards of five figures, with travel now being the costliest factor.

Three-quarters of sports parents said the cost of youth sports has had an impact on their ability to save and invest for retirement, according to an April 2019 survey conducted by TD Ameritrade. Nearly 50% of parents believe the payoff will come in the form of a college scholarship.

The cost and sacrifice

Jayco Jones, a parent of a Columbia Supreme player, estimated that with travel expenses factored in, he easily spends about $7,000 to $9,000 per year. Moyers estimated that he pays anywhere between $500 and $1,000 per year for his son, who plays middle school football. Patterson had put in around $1,200 midway through this season. For Diamond Council, Blythe estimated that on the competitive side, parents will spend from $500 to $5,000 per year.

“I had to cut back quite a bit in my personal life,” said Jones. “We got rid of cable to be able to afford hotel stays when we travel outside of the town. Just picking up a second job, you know that has helped quite a bit, but it takes me away from home life as well.”

Greg Ross, whose daughter who was on the fifth-grade Columbia Supreme team, noted that the sacrifices families make for their children to play are more than just financial. During his children’s sports seasons, Ross said there are daily practices, extra workouts and conditioning outside of practice and playing every other weekend. All of this equates to long nights, loss of personal time for relaxation and sacrificing 10 or 12 hours a week to sports alone.

Amber Bussey, a local parent with a son on Columbia Supreme, also has a second job. She had to take on working a night job just to make sure she was able to travel with her boys and their teams to out-of-town tournaments. Jason Grant, a parent from CYFL, makes similar sacrifices as his son Isaiah “Bubba” does track, football and basketball yearly.

“Every weekend you got three or four track meets, and then you got to qualify for district, regionals, national qualifiers,” Grant said. “So now you have to buy two plane tickets, hotel rooms and then in their meet if they qualify then you have to stay an extra day, so it’s just craziness.”

It takes a village

Leagues like CYFL, Columbia Supreme Leagues, Diamond Council and many others have been trying to keep youth playing sports despite the financial demand. One of the main contributors to ensuring kids aren’t turned away due to cost is the Day Dreams Foundation. Joe Bradley, the current board president, founded the non-profit to find financial assistance for his then-little brother through the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Missouri program in 2014. Despite having a sports background where the cost never was a concern for Bradley, he started the foundation to eliminate financial barriers for all extracurriculars.

Day Dreams provides 5- to 18-year-olds in the Columbia School District with scholarships to help cover the cost of fees associated with youth sports and other non-sport extracurriculars. It also assists with uniforms and other equipment through its gently used equipment closet. If Day Dreams doesn’t have the equipment or size needed, they can provide a gift card for families to purchase what they need. The application process is simple. If a kid qualifies for free and reduced lunch at school and can get a letter of recommendation from someone outside their family, he or she will be considered for a scholarship to cover part or all costs for an extracurricular activity.

This year, CYFL has around 20-25 kids who have received a scholarship through Day Dreams. Last year, the league reached the maximum number of kids that could go through the foundation during that time. Moyers said about 10-15 kids out of 220 received scholarships. The foundation, in its seven years being open, has helped out a ton for organizations like CFYL that don’t have a scholarship program like the Diamond Council does for its recreational side.

“It’s getting more and more difficult, you know, the cost of running a league it’s going through the roof,” said Moyers. “The cost of equipment is going up, and parents want better, newer equipment to stay up with the safety protocols. And so, you know, it’s getting more difficult, but we still try to keep our cost low.”

In a survey done by the Aspen Institute in 2018, only 38% of kids ages 6 to 12 played team sports regularly, a 7% decrease from 2008. On average, according to the same survey, the average child today only spends about three years playing sports and quits by age 11. While there are multiple reasons why a kid might retire from sports, parents, coaches and leagues don’t want cost to be one of them.

Another organization helping to make a difference in Columbia is the Michael Porter Jr. Elite team. Porter Jr. announced the creation of this team March 9, 2021, on Instagram. Currently, that team only serves high school boys. Unlike most teams, Michael Porter Jr. Elite covers all costs for all players on their team, making this team essentially free for those skilled enough to earn a spot.

For many families, though, funding their kids’ recreational opportunities remains a life-changing challenge.

Nikki Bonaparte, sister of Columbia Supreme coach Anthony Johnson and the mother of a Columbia Supreme player, had to move back in with her parents to regroup and figure out how she would pay for and support her two sons playing basketball. “I just had to make that sacrifice to start over a couple of times,” said Bonaparte. “At that time, I was afraid of what people would think, how’s this going to affect my kids.

“Even now, I’m very meticulous with my finances because I need to make sure that I can cover not just our traveling, but I need to make sure I have what I need.”

Johnson reflects on his own life and see how his lack of ability to participate in travel teams gave him fewer opportunities.

“Some of these kids, (sports are) necessary to their advancement, to their growth and for them to be successful in life,” he said. “And I just think it’s a shame that you have to be able to afford it, to have those benefits.”

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