TRENDS IN SPORTS: TIME Magazine Cover Story Reveals Youth Sports is a $15 Billion Industry

Hard to believe, but true.

I grew up during a time when youth sports were not influenced by parents, travel teams, elite camps, the college recruiting of middle school kids, and so on. When you went outside to play with your friends, you found an empty field or sandlot, put down markers for boundaries, and depending on the season, you played touch football, baseball, basketball, soccer, whatever. Markers usually consisted on somebody’s jacket or a sweater to show where out of bounds were. There were no white lines. If your (wooden) baseball bat broke, you didn’t throw it away. Rather, you took it home, found some small nails to fix it, and taped it up so you could use it again.

I know, I know. This all sounds ancient and prehistoric. No youngster today could even imagine this kind of world. But of course, it did exist, and it existed not that long ago.

That’s why Sean Gregory’s cover story in this week’s TIME Magazine had such great impact. Why? Because it summarized the out of control parental obsession with their kids in sports, and even worse, that this obsession – and that’s what it is – not only shows no sign of letting up, if anything, it’s only accelerating. On my show this AM, Sean talked about 10-year-old Joey Baseball, a talented but smallish kid who travels all around the country to play baseball. He’s able to do this because his parents are affluent and they figure that since they have the financial means to do this, why not? But as Sean also cautioned, these parents know that everything might change when their son becomes a teenager, and he may no longer be the star that he is today.

JOEY BASEBALL?

Even worse, Sean writes about other parents of other promising athletes, and how they spend a fortune to make sure their kids play on elite travel teams. Problem is, these families are not as well off as Joey Baseball, but these Moms and Dads are hellbent on making sure their kid gets an athletic scholarship. But as you know, just because your kid is a star at age 10 or 12 doesn’t guarantee they will grow into being a star at age 18. And that’s the rub.

In short, travel teams and private coaching have become big, big business, and the article details how cleverAmerican entrepreneurs have tapped into this market and made millions. Witness the U.S. Specialty Sports Association, which used to run slo-pitch softball tournaments back in the day. They pivoted to now running youth sports tournaments in Florida, and business is booming. And because USSAA is a not-for-profit, not only do they enjoy the benefits of that status, but their CEO earns more than $800,000 a year. Before you become outraged or envious, you should know that this is all perfectly legal.

Same thing with LL Baseball. As a not-for-profit operation, they like to boast about all of their volunteers, including coaches, umpires, ushers, and so on. Of course, LL Baseball doesn’t talk about having $87 million in its cash reserves, or their multi-million TV contracts or corporate sponsors. And their CEO makes close to $500,000. How much do the kids and their families who make it to the playoffs in Williamsport? Well, they get the fun of making the trip, and that’s about it.

ARE TIMES CHANGING?

Personally, I do think we’re gradually reaching a turning point in youth sports. Parents will soon begin to figure out that it’s just too much money, time, and effort to expend on a kid who may or may not make a college team. Or, as Sean pointed out, we’re already seeing this become the domain of only wealthy families who can afford the “pay-to-play” mentality.

And of course, despite their having a fancy brochure or slick website, the simple truth is that no travel or elite teams or private coaches are regulated, certified, or overseen by any state or federal agency. As a result, it’s all caveat emptor.

Here’s hoping that someday soon that real guidelines and rules are finally put in place. I have preached for a long time that this would be a perfect opportunity for the President’s Council on Physical Fitness to jump in, but alas, that still hasn’t happened.