Are Youth Sports Worth the Drain?

crowd watching baseball game
Gina LaGuardia

Being aware of the costs—and devising a game plan accordingly—can lead to a winning investment
Gone are the days of kids grabbing a basketball to shoot hoops in the park or joining a little league team for a season of softball. Many of today’s parents will do—and spend—whatever it takes to support their son or daughter’s love of a game.

There are registration fees, uniform costs, skills clinics, private training sessions, sports camps, equipment fees, and gym time. And for those players who join travel teams, the out-of-pocket spend can be record-breaking thanks to league membership, transportation, and hotel costs, meals out with teammates, chipping in for coaches’ gifts, and more.

Indeed, the landscape of youth sports has changed. The current U.S. youth sports economy is valued at $17 billion with estimates it’ll reach $57.8 billion by 2024 according to a 2018 report from WinterGreen Research.

What a billion dollar youth sports market may mean to your retirement
Many kids are no longer just involved in sports to play, they are competing—and it’s costing parents money and time. Lots of it.

In fact, three in four American sports parents’ ability to save and invest for retirement is impacted by these expenses, as highlighted in TD Ameritrade’s recent Sports Parents Survey. One in four admit to spending $500 or more on their kid’s athletics each month; 8% spend upwards of $1,000.

And that can spell trouble if it’s at the expense of other financial goals.

“While children’s involvement in sports leagues can be greatly beneficial in helping to develop life skills, parents should never lose sight of saving for retirement and building a long-term financial plan for the well-being of their family,” cautions Dara Luber, senior manager of retirement at TD Ameritrade.

Parents say one-third of their income, on average, goes toward covering their children’s expenses, including sports. “For many parents, that could parlay into college savings,” Luber says, in addition to their own retirement savings.

While supporting their children’s endeavors, Luber explains, “They should work toward their own dreams as well.”

Being aware of sports sacrifices is key to a healthy balance
As a self-proclaimed “hockey family,” Nikki B. explains that she and her husband’s support of their children’s interest on the ice began at an early age.

“Both my kids started playing hockey around 4½ years old,” says Nikki. As their team commitments expanded from a house hockey team to a travel league, so did the expenses.

“My daughter has been on two to three teams per year since then, and she is now 16. With the majority of tournaments out of state, I spend well above $1,000 a month for hockey.”

While Nikki admits her kids’ sports have impacted her family’s savings and retirement, she and her husband have been diligent about setting aside a fixed monthly amount.

Not many families, however, are able to do so.

For Carmine C., whose son will be playing lacrosse at an NCAA Division III college in the fall, savings often played second string to other initiatives, including sports.

“I tried to save where I could, but between paying for private school tuition and sports, I wasn’t always able to save every week, month, year,” he says. “It didn’t always work out.”

Luber explains that this is an all-too-common issue.

“Not only are many sports parents not saving for tomorrow, potentially, they’re also not spending money today.” She points to study findings that indicate they’re cutting back on entertainment and are taking fewer vacations.

“Many are even working a second job and selling personal possessions to fund their kids’ endeavors,” says Luber.

“Our family vacations have definitely dwindled as hockey has become more competitive,” says Nikki. “We’ve also stopped skiing a few years ago due to both the expense and a lack of time during hockey season.”

Win big by strategically creating—and sticking to—a game plan
Regardless of sacrifice, many parents insist the sports spending was worth it.

“Through sports, my son is developing into the man I would like him to be,” says Carmine. “The monetary investment wasn’t in making him a great player, but in making him a great person.”

Nick M., whose son grew up playing baseball year-round before switching to lacrosse in high school, recognized that his initial costly investment was not necessarily going to pay off as he originally hoped.

“I didn’t get a penny from colleges for my son to play baseball, but I got joy. And once he got into lacrosse, my theory on why I was doing what I was doing changed.”

His advice: “You are better off as a parent spending as much money as you can on academics.” Consequently, Nick explains that his son—”a true student-athlete”—balanced scholars classes while finding that lacrosse was his ultimate sports choice. He played all four years of high school and received a three-quarter scholarship to a Division III school, where he will be attending (and playing) this fall.

Just as a great coach puts a winning plan in action, pivoting as needed, sports parents should do the same when it comes to spending and saving, says Luber.

“Set goals, then once those are clear, have a plan in place so that you’re prioritizing what you hope to accomplish—retirement, your kid’s college, a dream vacation—and have some timelines and milestones to get you there,” she says.

But if you feel you’re falling behind, don’t panic. As the sports adage goes, “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over.” Plus, your kids can learn other valuable lessons in compromise, flexibility, and self-empowerment by finding other (less expensive ways) to enjoy their sports endeavors.

Get the ball back in your court with a well-rounded, realistic outlook
If you find you’ve had a hard time getting your financial game on, that doesn’t mean you’re destined to lose. And realigning with a balanced approach to sports and savings doesn’t mean your kids’ athletic interests have to suffer.

According to Alex Molden, a former NFL defensive back who now coaches high school football and is a father of eight, kids need to understand that sports are not who they are, it’s just what they do.

“Find out their likes and what drives them,” he says. Then encourage them to develop a robust “movement library,” as Molden calls it—something that doesn’t require deep pockets.

Opportunities like recreational soccer, football, basketball, golf, and lacrosse are typically more affordable options for year-round skills development than some of the more intensive, sports-specific travel programs. They also prevent the burnout many kids suffer when focusing too much on one sport—something that doesn’t make a huge difference in the early years, says Molden.

“Colleges and coaches don’t care, for instance, how many touchdowns you score in the fifth, sixth, seventh—even eighth grades,” says Molden.

Before overcommitting to one sport, or trying to get back on track after neglecting their finances, a family should look at their budget and be realistic about what they can afford to spend and what their expectations are, says Luber.

“Maybe you cut back on the vacation, give up a date night, or go out to dinner less frequently in favor of financing your kid’s sports involvement, but make sure it all fits into the budget,” she says.

It also needs to fit into a family’s already-packed days.

“During the season we spend anywhere from 12 to 15 hours a week for my son and 15 hours a week for my daughter—not including out-of-state tournaments,” says Nikki.

Luber points out that on average, sports parents dedicated twice as much time a week to their children’s activities as they did to financial planning.

“Parents should be regularly reviewing and making adjustments to their budget and ensuring they not only have a retirement plan and other goals, like college, covered, but also have set up an emergency fund,” Luber advises.

Properly train your expectations and let the fun of the sport take over
“We have taught our kids to always shoot for the moon in everything they do, but we have zero expectations of where hockey will take them,” explains Nikki.

“The beauty of hockey is they can play until the day they die,” she says. “They can move anywhere in the country, join an adult league, and have instant friends for life. Hockey is a bond like no other.”

Yet not all parents take that laid-back view. Many are anticipating that college scholarships for their kids will cover more than half of tuition; one in 10 are even optimistic their child will receive a full ride. From 2016 to 2019, however, the number of sports parents’ children who secured an athletic scholarship has declined by more than half (from 24% in 2016 to 11% in 2019). And with the average college scholarship valued at $8,700—less than a third of the cost of a private university—it pays to be more realistic about the end goal.

“For every dollar, you are going to invest in your child’s coaching and their team, you should put a dollar in savings,” suggests Molden.

It’s all about balance, says Luber, and maintaining realistic expectations and goals.

“There’s nothing wrong with helping your son or daughter realize their sports dreams, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of your own retirement and other family funding needs.”

Image via iStock
Only first names are used at times in this article to protect the identity of the individuals interviewed