More than 40 million children in the United States play sports—approximately half of all kids between the ages of 6 and 16. There is no doubt that many kids today are deeply connected to sports. While sports have long been deeply embedded in youth culture, the form and intensity of kids’ connection with sports has shifted rather dramatically.
As travel clubs became commonplace, the system has grown more hierarchical and profit-driven. Playing for an “elite,” academy or regional team has become the new marker of status for the competitive athlete. Individuals must travel to other states and regions of the country to set themselves apart from other talented athletes.
My research examines those changes and their effects on families. In a piece for USA Today last year, I argued that the COVID-19 pandemic offered an unprecedented opportunity to reset the industry.
With pandemic restrictions being lifted, now is a good time to revisit that issue—to see how families are approaching athletics in the aftermath of COVID. Are parents taking steps to reduce the pressure of their children’s experience? What have been the effects on youth sports organizations?
The evidence indicates the pandemic had a powerful impact on the youth sports industry, but not all teams or families have been affected in the same way. Community-based programs have had a particularly difficult time building back. Many never recovered. This was especially true of organizations in economically challenged neighborhoods.
Elite travel programs, in contrast, quickly rebounded from the pandemic. Most clubs that were thriving before 2020 are back in business, eager to help their clients pick up where they left off. Those teams are holding multiple practices each week, entering showcase tournaments, and traveling long distances to compete against other highly ranked clubs. At upper levels of the youth sports hierarchy, very little appears to have changed.
As was true after the 2008 financial crash, parents with resources continue to invest in their children’s athletic careers. In both cases, a crisis exacerbated existing gaps between the haves and have-nots. Adults may find the idea of children leading balanced lives alluring, but few can resist temptation to do whatever they can to set their sons and daughters apart.
The costs of playing for a travel team vary significantly, but typically total between $1,500 and $2,000 per year. Not all parents have the means to fork out such large sums of money, producing a hierarchy of athletic participation tightly linked with race and class. The COVID-19 pandemic magnified that reality.
A year ago, I was cautiously optimistic that the COVID-19 shock would provide the impetus to create a healthier, more developmentally appropriate youth sports culture. Recent events have dulled my enthusiasm. The travel sports industry has proven remarkably resilient. Clearly, more energy, focus and commitment is needed to refashion the youth sports industry to better meet the needs of developing athletes. As we have seen, time to pause and think carefully about the goals of youth sports was not enough to spur meaningful change.
Christopher Bjork, a professor of education at Vassar College, is currently writing a book about the youth sports industry. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbjork6.