American Meritocracy Is Killing Youth Sports

Expensive travel leagues siphon off talented young athletes from well-off families—and leave everyone else behind.

The winning team celebrates at the Little League World Series.
AI Project / Reuters

The state of youth sports in America is either booming or suffering, depending on which box score you’re checking.

You could follow the money. Kids’ sports is a nearly $17 billion industry, which makes it larger than the business of professional baseball and approximately the same size as the National Football League. Or you could follow the kids. The share of children ages 6 to 12 who play a team sport on a regular basis declined from 41.5 percent in 2011 to 37 percent in 2017, according to a recent report from the Aspen Institute. Going back to 2008, participation is lower across categories, including baseball, basketball, flag football, and soccer, in some cases by a lot: Baseball is down about 20 percent.

The decline of youth sports participation is the sort of phenomenon that seems exquisitely tailored to exacerbate fears about the state of American childhood. One might suspect that the falloff is the result of children gravitating to video games, television, and other electronic distractions that don’t require an open field or a court. Perhaps athletics is just another legacy institution that can’t compete for attention anymore, like church, community centers, and bowling leagues.

But dig into the numbers, and a more complex, two-track story emerges. Among richer families, youth sports participation is actually rising. Among the poorest households, it’s trending down. Just 34 percent of children from families earning less than $25,000 played a team sport at least one day in 2017, versus 69 percent from homes earning more than $100,000. In 2011, those numbers were roughly 42 percent and 66 percent, respectively.

This isn’t a story about American childhood; it’s about American inequality.

“Kids’ sports has seen an explosion of travel-team culture, where rich parents are writing a $3,000 check to get their kids on super teams from two counties, or two states, away,” said Tom Farrey, the executive director of Aspen’s Sports & Society program. Expensive travel leagues siphon off talented young athletes from well-off families, leaving behind desiccated local leagues with fewer players, fewer involved parents, and fewer resources. “When these kids move to the travel team, you pull bodies out of the local town’s recreation league, and it sends a message [to those] who didn’t get onto that track that they don’t really have a future in the sport.” The result is a classist system: the travel-team talents and the local leftovers.

Unsurprisingly, the leftovers often lose interest. As Chris Moore, the executive officer of the U.S. Youth Soccer Association, told The New York Times, “If you can’t make a travel team, some kids may say, ‘What’s the point?’ and quit playing altogether.”

In short, the American system of youth sports—serving the talented, and often rich, individual at the expense of the collective—has taken a metal bat to the values of participation and universal development. Youth sports has become a pay-to-play machine.

Declining athletic participation is a prime example of how the choices even benevolent rich households make can hurt poorer families—especially their children.

As a general rule, rich parents in the United States don’t just spend more money on their kids; they spend a larger share of their income on their kids. (One could say that enrichment spending on children is a luxury good.) If you divide American households into five quintiles by income, the richest group earns about five times as much as the poorest, but spends about seven times as much on kids—about $9,300 to $1,300 per child. Income inequality, vast at the household level, is even vaster at the child-investment level.

It’s commendable for all parents—rich or poor—to love, and desperately want to help, their children. But not all expressions of love are harmless. 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 the less fortunate.

Parenting doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, but it often is. As Matthew Stewart wrote in an Atlantic cover story this year on the new aristocracy, those in the nation’s upper-middle class have “taken their money out of productive activities and put it into walls”—physical walls and social barriers—that make it harder for any child not born into privilege to reach the same level of success.

In youth sports, many affluent parents have taken their children out of local gyms, put them onto planes, and shut the air-lock door behind them. “Many of the parents are not doing it with the intention to harm anyone, since they’re just trying to help their child,” Farrey said. “But they don’t think about the kids they’re leaving behind. They’re not thinking about what makes sense for the whole community.”

Well-off parents dedicate so much time and money to kids’ sports partly because of the college system, which dangles tantalizing rewards for the most gifted teenage athletes. In the 1990s, Division 1 and Division 2 colleges distributed about $250 million a year in full and partial scholarships to student athletes. Today that figure has grown to more than $3 billion. This scholarship jackpot gives some children from lower-income families a chance to attend schools they might not otherwise afford. But it also sends a clear message to richer parents looking to enhance their kids’ eventual application: Sports matter. As soon as some children enter second or third grade, their parents scramble to place them on youth travel teams, which will set them up for middle-school travel teams, which will set them up for high-school athletic excellence, which will make them more competitive for admissions and scholarships at select colleges.

The predictable rejoinder to the inequality of kids’ sports is basically: The system works just fine. Many famous athletes come from poor backgrounds, and some of them owe their careers to specialized super teams. Besides, one might argue, even though super teams for gifted and sufficiently wealthy young people might leave disadvantaged kids behind, this is simply the price that society must pay for excellence. It’s a version of a familiar conservative economic argument about the general economy: The U.S. has the world’s smartest people, because we celebrate success and punish indolence; so we should cut taxes on the rich and unwind collectivist welfare programs, which only dampen the nation’s competitive mojo.

But just as Europe offers alternative models for balancing equality and efficiency in the overall economy, it also offers alternative models for youth sports.

For example, Norway’s youth-sports policies are deliberately egalitarian. The national lottery, which is run by a government-owned company called Norsk Tipping, spends most of its profit on national sports and funnels hundreds of millions of dollars to youth athletic clubs every year. Parents don’t need to shell out thousands to make sure their kids get to play. And play is an operative word: Norwegian leagues value participation over competition so much that clubs with athletes below the age of 13 cannot even publish game scores. Remarkably, teams that release their scores online can face expulsion from the Norwegian confederation of sports.

It might seem like any country’s athletic prowess would atrophy under such socialist and anticompetitive policies. Instead, Norway is an athletic juggernaut. In the last Winter Olympics, the country won 39 medals—the most of any country in the history of the Games and nearly twice as many as the United States. It did so with a smaller population than Minnesota’s.

The U.S. sees itself as a land of winners bred by a culture of fierce competition that rewards success. But in youth sports, that competition doesn’t happen—excuse the metaphor—on a level playing field.

One way to address the class-related participation problem in youth sports is to tone down the competition that leads wealthy parents to pay for elite traveling leagues and unintentionally degrade the local leagues. In other words: Follow the Norwegian model.

Look at U.S. youth ice hockey, where participation has grown to an all-time record, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Among several possible factors—the NHL expanded recently into southern and western states, and the youth hockey organization banned body checking among players under 12— USA Hockey also recently eliminated national championships at the peewee (under-12) level to discourage parents from building super teams. “We felt it would be hypocritical for our sports to offer up an event that encourages people in the field to start to put together super teams at an early age,” said Ken Martel, the technical director of development at USA Hockey. At first, mothers and fathers complained, but “once it was eliminated, just crickets. People like it.”

Hockey parents thought they needed to win. But they were happy enough for their kids to just play.