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Youth Sports…Economics, Ethics, & Equity

Updated: Jan 20, 2023

Youth sports have the ability to captivate and create an enduring love of a game or activity. Whether it be team sports like soccer, baseball, or basketball, or individual sports like swimming, tennis, and skateboarding, there is nothing quite like being a participant or sitting in the stands cheering on your favorite little person.

As someone who benefited from youth sports in innumerable ways, it is hard not to see youth

sports and all it intends to be as nothing less than inspiring.

Image: 2018 Youth Soccer Champions Crowned in Frisco, Texas

I was quite enamored with softball and baseball as a youngster and was fortunate enough to play in two Little League World Series’ as a kid, and in high school and college. I later coached in recreational leagues as well as in high school and college and put myself in many a hot seat when I officiated baseball, softball, and basketball games at a variety of levels.

Among my favorite volunteer coaching memories was helping a group of kids who had not played organized ball before. As a group they had little equipment, so we spent time shopping and seeking out donations. We started the season 0-6 but admittedly, they seemed to care more about the post-game snacks and free tacos one of the dads agreed to buy anytime someone got a hit more than they did about winning. After a while we hit our groove and went on to win our last six games. Of all the youngsters on the team, I have to admit my favorite was Diego. He was cared for by his older sister while his folks worked multiple jobs. He called each and every afternoon before practices and games with the same ask. “Coach, can I get a ride?.”

As luck would have it I started my career in parks and recreation as a youth sports coordinator. My love affair with sport continues today as it has the propensity to rally a community and can keep those who participate healthy and active.

Human nature makes it difficult to acknowledge deficiencies or inadequacies about the things we like or love when it conflicts with what we want to believe. These are the hard truths we just hate to admit. Such is the case with me and youth sports.

The harsh reality is that while youth sports are celebrated and considered a must have in most communities, youth sports also have their downsides. Carrying a narrow perspective into a conversation, debate, or decision regarding how we support youth sports without considering both sides of the coin does not serve any community well. We simply need to keep our eyes and hearts open to the realities and as well as the possibilities and disadvantages.

Among the most consequential issues associated with youth sports today are economic assumptions made involving taxpayer investments (subsidies) in youth sports. This is not to suggest that youth sports should not receive any taxpayer support. To the contrary. What is at question is the degree to which investments are made based upon incomplete or inaccurate claims or based upon social pressure. This has led to youth sport facility development and program planning decisions which have in certain cases, had significant consequences on communities across the country. These include:

  1. Subsidy (taxpayer) investment made in youth sports facility development projects presupposing a return on investment based on economic development interests;

  2. High subsidies gifted to youth sports in comparison to other types of activities/services which may serve a greater common good; and

  3. Divisions which have resulted from economic disparities in many communities in terms of who participates in youth sports and who does not.

Taking the economics of youth sports to another level, we now live in a vastly different day and age than we did just two years ago. Inflation is now at a 40-year high with no signs of slowing and its effects are not limited to individuals and families. Organizations are likely already feeling the effects of inflation including diminished purchasing power and elevated supply, equipment, and labor costs. That means basic expenses of youth sports like turf maintenance and trash removal are or soon will be more costly. In addition, interest rates are increasing – for every debt assumed, it will cost more to repay. Simply, if you are not paying cash for that brand spanking new facility, prepare for debt load and total payment to be higher.

There are fundamental questions seldom asked when it comes to the decisions that have been made for decades specific to youth sports in communities all across the land. It is time to ensure that we ask and answer these questions using both our hearts and our minds.

Are economic development interests clouding sound judgement?

When is enough, enough?

Who is really benefiting from investments made in youth sports today?

In the name of economic development

The oft used phrase made popular in the movie Field of Dreams, if you build it, they will come, has become synonymous with the idea that if you invest resources into making a vision a reality, people will start flocking towards it.

There are communities today that see investment in new youth sports facilities and complexes as a panacea to their economic development interests. Seeking ways to generate more revenue by way of youth sports is a phenomenon that has gained significant traction and support.

The tried-and-true playbook used to get towns, cities, counties, and special districts to pony up money for new youth sports facilities has become the standard - and one needing re-assessment. Economists have and continue to warn that paying for youth sports facilities and professional stadiums alike – especially with public money – has long been a boondoggle.

Image: Youth Sports Complex, Glendale, Arizona

To camouflage the ultimate liabilities a community assumes on behalf of their taxpayers when they choose to build these kinds of facilities, youth sports groups are known to step up to the plate and donate money and/or time to offset the assumed costs of a project. Regardless of whether donations are made in the name of goodwill or are used as a way for a facility to come to life sooner than later, these contributions are often insufficient in relation to the total investment a community will make in constructing and maintaining the asset over its useful life, the infrastructure needed to support these facilities, and the environmental costs (e.g., water). This includes not only the debt current citizens will face, but also the debt the citizens of 2050 will assume as well.

“Decades of academic studies consistently find no discernible positive relationship between sports facilities and local economic development, income growth, or job creation.” authors of a Brookings Institution report wrote in 2016. If local communities were to do the math based upon the total investments made to build and maintain these properties as well as the adjacent infrastructure required (water, roads, etc.) they would find that these facilities earned nothing close to a reasonable return on the investment of taxpayer dollars.

While examples of park and recreation systems that have chosen to construct youth sports facilities exist, what is important to note is the regularity with which there is an absence of complete analyses before breaking ground. Further, in cases where economic development studies are conducted suggesting new youth sports facilities will generate millions in return, common missteps include: the analysis is commonly commissioned by those expected to be the greatest beneficiaries of the project; and the calculated costs of these assets are not representative of all costs – therefore, the comparison of real cost to perceived economic benefit is mis-represented.

Considered one of the most prolific activities in the history of the leisure profession, the Olympic Games, provides a provocative case study relative to critical errors made based upon perceived economic impact and return on investment.

According to the article, “Are the Olympic Games a Bad Deal for Host Cities?” in the July 2021 edition of The Economist, calculating the economic impact of mega-events like the Olympics can be tricky. Organizers and critics argue over which costs are actually incurred by the Games, and which are investments cities would have undertaken anyway. But one near certainty is that the Olympics blow the budget. Alexander Budzier, Bent Flyvbjerg and Daniel Lunn of Oxford University have found that every Olympics since 1960 has overspent, by an average of 172% in real terms. In 2013 the price-tag for the games was $7.5B. By late 2019 the official budget had risen to $12.6B, and Japan’s audit board reckoned that the actual cost was twice that for the Tokyo 2021 games.

Rather than tourism and prestige, the Olympic Games have left not much more than high debt, wasteful infrastructure, and onerous maintenance obligations upon the citizens of the host city’s that chose to pursue and host the Olympic Games. The financial stressors the Games place on communities are an excellent example of the conflicts which exist between short term satisfaction and long-term consequence.

Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media outlets have become the platform for park and recreation professionals to participate in a game of show and tell as they celebrate new builds such as youth sports facilities and complexes. On occasion, construction costs are mentioned but what gets little airtime is where the money will come from to maintain these assets. What we are seeing is a bit of a dangerous “arms race” with a hint of “if they are building we should too!” or “If they have one, why can’t we?”

Image: Shawnee Sports Park, Charleston, West Virginia

When is enough, enough?

The economics of youth sports do not stop there. Local youth sports organizations (e.g., Little League©, youth soccer associations) which facilitate play in communities across the country, in the majority of cases, do not own the facilities (other properties) required for practice and game play. Their local communities do.

These organizations find themselves dependent upon their town, city, county, or special district to provide and maintain these facilities so that the activities they lead can exist. However, all too often, there is an expectation that these governmental entities will not only provide these spaces but maintain them at low or no cost to the youth sport organization and its participants while taxpayers assume the burden of cost.

What is almost certainly forgotten is that these governmental entities are choosing to subsidize these organizations and the children and families who benefit. While some may suggest that these subsidy (taxpayer) investments are good for the community as a whole, it is important to understand what this means in monetary terms in order to either rationalize these investment choices or begin to challenge them. It comes down to not only a matter of whether or not to subsidize, but also the degree to which to subsidize in order to ensure equitable and just investment so that these types of activities and their users are not benefiting more than they should at the expense of the greater community.

For example, let’s say a local park and recreation department finds itself subsidizing a local youth sports organization more than $250K per year – charging just $25 per field rental. This same department may suggest that it needs more funding to do a better job of addressing community needs and is having a tough time taking care of its existing infrastructure (a common plight today). Is this $250K subsidy investment in this one youth sports organization justifiable given the other responsibilities the department has? What if the department chose to continue to subsidize, if warranted, but to a lessor degree? Imagine what they might accomplish say, if they halved the subsidy investment to $125K – still a sizeable subsidy but one that might allow them to have a greater impact by way of a different investment choice.

The economic divide - who is really benefitting?

Driving by a youth sports complex in middle America can look a bit like this…manicured grass that is lush and green, a large scoreboard laced with corporate sponsor names, and kids in color coded uniforms. Along the fences are team bags with the same color coding. And all of this grandeur can cost a lot of money. The question is, “who’s paying?”

Data shows that the rising cost of organized youth sports has created an economic divide in which children from lower-income homes are increasingly priced out of any game. “Kids from homes earning more than $100,000 are now twice as likely to play a team sport at least once a day as kids from families earning less than $25,000, says Tom Farrey, the executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program.

Image: North Texas Celtic Futbol Club

To compound the issues of economic and racial/ethnic divisions, nationwide, sports participation rates for white children exceed those of children of color (Aspen Institute) as those who confront barriers to participation including registration fees, transportation, equipment costs, and access to play spaces continue to be left out.

A common defense used by some town, cities, counties, and special districts to support the decisions they make to invest taxpayer dollars in youth sports facility development assumes that these facilities are open play spaces accessible to any and all who may want to use them. However, when a youth sports facility is groomed early in the day in preparation of formalized team and tournament play – or is restricted in another fashion for a particular use or user group, naturally, this does not afford just anyone the opportunity to use these facilities at any time. What results is the select few benefitting while those with little to no access are relegated to the sidelines.

Image: Hoodview Park Baseball Fields, Happy Valley, Oregon

Most sports facilities tend to be spaces designed for a particular purpose with the characteristics and rules of specific games and activities in mind. For example, a baseball diamond has a skinned (dirt) infield and basepaths, an elevated pitcher’s mound, and an outfield fence. Apply this example to other sports facilities and we find that specialized play spaces serve a unique purpose, foster exclusive use, and can sit idle for weeks or months at a time inherently inhibiting their capacity to be of benefit to a broader community.

This helps explain what is happening in various local communities across the country. By subsidizing youth sports programs and facilities to the degree certain park and recreation organizations have, large subsidies are directed to those benefiting from specialized activities serving specialized interests. In the case of today’s youth sports programs, the beneficiaries are predominantly those who are white and whose families have an ability to pay (Aspen Institute).

In his 2017 book, Dream Hoarders, the economist Richard Reeves wrote that economic mobility in the U.S. has been declining in the past few decades in part because of “opportunity hoarding.” For example, rich parents may pull special levers to get their kids into hyper-select schools, or elite internships, or exclusive entry-level jobs. In so doing, they—in effect— snatch precious opportunities away from those who may need them most. Another way to think about it. Those who can pay have advantages over those who cannot.

Making the greatest impact

When we choose to forgo the daily Starbucks run in order to invest that money in our children’s education savings account, we have made the choice to invest where we believe we will have the greatest impact.

Gaping inequality, an aging population, and the enormous maintenance backlogs many park and recreation organizations face due to building when times were good with little concern for how to pay for maintenance should be enough for park and recreation professionals to re-think their choices when it comes to investing precious subsidy dollars.

In our work at 110%, alongside strategic partner, Amilia, we analyze, among other things, how local park and recreation organizations are choosing to spend and invest taxpayer dollars and whether or not these subsidy investments are justified. This includes among other things, the amount of subsidy park and recreation organizations are investing in maintaining youth sports fields, how these subsidy investments compare and contrast to other services afforded a broader community like parks and trails, and how organizations may re-think their subsidy investment choices to better serve a greater common good.

Table 1: Comparison between open access, sports field, and other service subsidy investment

While leading financial sustainability efforts for U. S. park and recreation organizations, we compared the investments made by 30 organizations with which we worked in 2020-21. Table 1 at right contrasts subsidy investments made in open access services such as parks, trails, and open spaces with those made in sports fields and all other services. As noted, the first four organizations listed invest more taxpayer money in youth sports fields than in their parks, trails, and open spaces.

Table 2: Comparison of cost recovery performance between sports fields and all other services

In Table 2 at left, the contrast between cost recovery performance for sports fields with all other services provided paints a more graphic picture of the subsidy investment choices being made by some park and recreation organizations today.

While both Table 1 and Table 2 provide compelling data and information, what only matters are the actions taken in response to what is learned.

When we consider the value society places on sports over other types of endeavors in the U.S., perceived social values seem to be enough to justify and rationalize the significant investments we make in sports today.

We know youth sports contributes to the social, emotional, and physical development of those who participate. But are there not other things that do as well? Where does that leave those who appreciate and value activities that are outside the lines of sport? Is it fair and just to invest millions of dollars in youth sports at the expense of strengthening the arts, community gardens, or parks and open spaces that are more accessible and serve a greater good? What if we simply expected youth sports beneficiaries who have the ability to pay to cover more of their costs freeing up subsidies to be invested differently in order to have greater impact on today’s communities?

These types of provocative questions are exactly why this is such a complicated issue and one that continues to fly under the radar in communities today. Questioning taxpayer investment in youth sports or any special interest area presents an opportunity for park and recreation professionals to raise the bar and level of intellectual analysis so that being smart and responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars is paramount.

What is trendy or popular seems to fascinate us and consume our precious time. As humans, we tend to put energy and resources into things that excite us – but, ultimately these fads, trends and whatever it was that he/she said was important fast become flavors of the day where impacts are likely not that great. All fun stuff but with a dated shelf life. Concerning ourselves with issues like intelligent and considerate investment of taxpayer dollars is where we have the greatest opportunity to make the greatest difference in communities across the country.

While youth sports will always be near and dear to me, I am at a crossroads in terms of what it has become, who benefits, and how we need to think differently about how best to see that they continue. I am hopeful we will keep our eye on the ball so we do what’s right on behalf of not only those who get to play, but all who trust us to do what is just.

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