It only took a few seconds for Rachel Kennedy to grab her phone after leaving the checkout line at the sporting goods store where she had just finished buying new gloves, pants, a belt, cleats and other gear for her son, Liam’s, upcoming baseball season.
“I texted his dad and asked him, ‘Did we really spend $350 on all this last year?'” Kennedy said.
Sticker shock in youth sports is nothing new, but the onset of double-digit inflation in America this year has added a costly wrinkle on the way to playgrounds, swimming pools and dance studios across America. That has forced some families, like Kennedy’s, to cut back on the number of seasons, leagues or sports their kids can play in a given year, while motivating league organizers to get more creative in coming up with ways to keep prices low and increasing participation.
Recent surveys conducted before inflation began to take a toll on everyday America showed that families spend about $700 a year on children’s sports, with travel and equipment making up the largest portion of the cost.
Everyone from football coaches to swim meet coordinators are struggling to find cheaper ways to keep families coming through the doors. Uniform and equipment costs, along with venue hire, are rising – all products of an onslaught of supply chain problems, hard-to-find staff, a lack of coaches and rising petrol and travel costs that have been exacerbated, or sometimes caused, by the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted and sometimes completely canceled seasons. Annual inflation for the 12 months to September was 8.2%.
Kennedy, who lives in Monroe, Ohio, and describes her family as “on the lower end of the middle class,” turned Liam out of summer and fall ball, not so much because of the fees to join the leagues, but because “they don’t include all the equipment, what you need.
“And gas prices have gotten to the point where we don’t have the bandwidth to drive an hour or two” for the full slate of weekend games and tournaments that peppered the typical youth baseball schedule each season. The Kennedys rarely stayed overnight in hotels for multi-day tournaments.
A study published by The Aspen Institute conducted before COVID-19 says that, on average across all sports, parents already spend more each year on travel ($196 per child, per sport) than any other aspect of the sport: equipment, lessons, registration , etc. A number of reports say hotel prices in some cities are about 30 percent higher than last year and about the same amount as in 2019, before the pandemic began.
At venues, it costs more to hire referees to organize matches, security guards to keep pitches ready, porters to clean indoor areas and coaches to run training sessions. Even sports that are traditionally on the cheaper end of the spectrum are facing problems.
“You talk to people and say, ‘What do you mean you get paid $28 an hour to be a lifeguard?'” said Steve Roush, a former Olympic world leader who now serves as executive director of Southern California Swimming, which meets the sanctions in one of America’s most expensive regions. “The current price has just gone through the roof, and that’s if you can even find one. And that explains part of the big difference in swimming prices today compared to three years ago.
One Denver-area dance studio director, who did not want her name used because of the competitive nature of her business, said she began looking for new uniform suppliers as a way to keep costs down for families. Some destinations for the two out-of-state races that are typical of a given season have been moved to cities that have more — and therefore, cheaper — flight options. Some of these teams make a third trip, this one to a major competition, only if they receive a “paid” invitation.
“The price is just high enough to ask them to travel a third time,” the director said. “And often you don’t know you’re getting that offer until February or March and you have to turn around and travel to it in April, and that turnaround just makes it very difficult from a cost perspective.”
At stake is the future of the youth sports industry, which generated about $20 billion, according to one estimate, before COVID-19 sharply reduced spending in 2020.
Inflation also gives some families a chance to revisit an issue that first arose when COVID-19 more or less canceled all youth leagues for a year or more.
“There was some optimism that maybe families would say, ‘OK, let’s maybe have a more balanced approach to how we’re going to participate in sports,'” said Jennifer Agans, an assistant professor at Penn State who studies the impact of youth sports . “But until this economic wave, everyone was so excited to get back to normal that we forgot the lessons we learned from slowing down our lives.” Maybe it gives us another chance to reassess it.”
It’s a choice that not everyone wants to make, but one that is forced more on middle and lower class people. Another Aspen Institute report from before the pandemic concluded that children from low-income families were half as likely to play sports as children from higher-income families.
Kennedy said she’s long been fortunate to have a supportive family — including grandparents who pitch in to cover some of Liam’s baseball expenses. But some things had to go. A spot on a travel team can run as high as $1,200, and that’s without equipment and travel, “and we just don’t have that much money,” Kennedy said.
Still, Liam loves baseball and waiting for him wasn’t really an option at all.
“It’s the whole ‘I’m going to starve to make sure my kids get what they need’ parenting situation,” Kennedy said. “So if I give up my Starbucks or some little extras for me, then it’s worth making sure he can play. But it’s certainly not getting any less expensive.”