The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Sunday November 27th

Column: Pay to play is breaking youth sports

Hooker Fields hosts a wide variety of activities, including rugby, ultimate frisbee, and soccer. Here, two players fight for the ball during a pick-up soccer game on April 20, 2021.
Buy Photos Hooker Fields hosts a wide variety of activities, including rugby, ultimate frisbee, and soccer. Here, two players fight for the ball during a pick-up soccer game on April 20, 2021.

Youth sports are a cornerstone of the childhood of millions. Love them or hate them, youth sports have a largely positive impact on those who choose to participate.

Unfortunately, the club model that has overtaken youth sports makes some of them pay to play. This model hurts youth sports in several ways that need to be addressed immediately. 

There is always a cost of participating in anything, especially youth sports. But today, the cost is well beyond what most can afford. Here in the Triangle, one elite soccer club costs almost $2,000 per player, per season — or nearly $4,000 a year. This is only club fees, which does not include transportation, gear, uniforms or the opportunity cost of time spent.

There is also inherently a racial barrier that is ingrained in the cost to play. High costs typically exclude minorities, who, on average, have a lower household income than white people. The decreased income can also account for the lack of time to play sports, since parents who work more to pay the bills may not have the time to transport their child to sports.

This leads to the breakdown of cheaper youth sports options, such as city recreation. These programs see a decrease in participation as better players leave, resources wear down and funding dries up.

The breakdown of the cheaper options leads to a decline in participation, as many cannot afford to participate any longer. Those that can still participate have to stretch their wallets to the limit to allow their child to play sports. In these situations, unforeseen expenses could force the family to choose between youth sports and medical bills.

The decline in sports participation is a unique problem due to the positive impact that sports have on children, especially in the long term, with health and social benefits.

There are positive long-term health impacts associated with youth sports participation. Participation in sports as a child leads to a decrease in the likelihood of obesity, heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Student-athletes are also less likely to smoke, use drugs and have risky sex — all of which are potential health hazards.

There is also the possibility for positive social impacts from participating in youth sports. There are ties between sports participation as a child and desirable social skills such as leadership, teamwork and discipline. These skills are desirable in a school and work setting, which leads to those who have those skills being seen as more desirable students and workers.

The issues surrounding equitable access can be solved with reinvestment in local youth sports. Funding that has been shuffled around at the state, county and city levels should be purposefully reinvested in youth sports to make them more widely available. This could potentially reverse the positive feedback loop of migration to club teams from local youth sports, and close some of the problematic racial gaps seen in youth sports.


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