By EDDIE PELLS
It was only seconds before Rachel Kennedy grabbed her phone after exiting the checkout at the sporting goods store where she had just purchased a new glove, pants, belt, cleats and the rest of the gear for her son, Liams, for the upcoming baseball season .
“I texted his dad and I was like, ‘Did we really spend $350 on all of this last year?'” Kennedy said.
Sticker shock in youth sports is nothing new, but the onslaught of double-digit inflation across America this year has added a costly wrinkle to its way to baseball stadiums, swimming pools and dance studios across America. It has forced some families, like Kennedy’s, to reduce the number of seasons, leagues, or sports their children can play in any given year, while motivating league organizers to get more creative to find ways to keep prices low and participation high .
Recent studies, conducted before inflation began to affect daily life across America, showed that families spent around $700 a year on children’s sports, with travel and equipment accounting for the majority of spending.
Everyone from soccer coaches to swim event coordinators are struggling to find more cost-effective ways to get families to come through the doors. The cost of uniforms and gear, as well as facility rentals, are skyrocketing — all products of the onslaught of supply chain problems, hard-to-find staff, shortages of trainers, and rising fuel and travel costs exacerbated, or sometimes caused, by the COVID-19 -Pandemic that has interrupted the seasons and sometimes canceled them altogether. The annual inflation rate for the 12 months ended September was 8.2%.
Kennedy, who lives in Monroe, Ohio and describes her family as “lower end of middle class,” chose Liam from the Summer and Fall Ball not so much because of the fees to join the leagues as because “these does not include all the equipment you need.”
“And gas prices are at a point where we don’t have the bandwidth to drive an hour or two away” for the entire list of weekend games and tournaments that shape the typical youth baseball schedule each season. The Kennedys rarely stayed in hotels for multi-day tournaments.
A study published by the Aspen Institute and conducted before COVID-19 states that, on average across all sports, parents already spend more on travel each year ($196 per child per sport) than on any other aspect of the sport: equipment, Tuition, registration, etc. A number of reports indicate that hotel prices in some cities are about 30% higher than last year and about the same amount higher than in 2019 before the pandemic began.
At venues, it costs more to hire referees to announce games, groundsmen to keep fields ready, janitors to clean halls and coaches to direct drills. Even sports that have traditionally been on the cheaper end of the spectrum are encountering problems.
“You talk to people and say, ‘What do you mean you get paid $28 an hour to be a lifeguard?'” said Steve Roush, a former leader in the Olympic world who now serves as executive director of Southern California Swimming , hitting sanctions in one of America’s most expensive regions. “The common rate just went through the roof and that’s if you can even find anyone. And that explains part of the “big gap” in prices for swimming events today versus three years ago.
A Denver-area dance studio manager who didn’t want her name given because of the competitive nature of her business, said she had begun looking for new uniform suppliers to keep costs down for families. Some destinations for the two out-of-state competitions that are typical in a given season have been moved to cities that offer more, and therefore less expensive, flight options. Some of these teams only make a third trip, this time to a major competition, if they receive a “paid” invite.
“The cost is just so high to ask her to travel a third time,” the director said. “And often you don’t know you’re going to get that offer until February or March and you have to turn around and go there in April and that turnaround makes it very difficult from a cost perspective.”
At stake is the future of a youth sports industry that one estimate was generating around $20 billion before COVID-19 severely curtailed spending in 2020.
Also, inflation is giving some families a chance to reconsider an issue that first surfaced when COVID-19 canceled pretty much all youth leagues for a year or more.
“There was some optimism that maybe families would say, ‘Okay, let’s maybe have a more balanced approach to how we’re going to play sports,'” said Jennifer Agans, an assistant professor at Penn State who studies the effects of youth sports . “But up until this economic surge, everyone was so excited to get back to normal that we forgot the lessons we learned from slowing down our lives. Maybe this will give another chance to re-evaluate.”
It’s a choice not everyone wants to make, but still one that’s being forced upon more and more people in the middle and lower classes. Another pre-pandemic Aspen Institute report concluded that children from low-income families were only half as likely to exercise as children from higher-income families.
Kennedy said she has long been fortunate to have a supportive family – including grandparents who step in to help defray some of Liam’s baseball expenses. But some things had to go. A spot on a travel team can reach $1,200, before equipment and travel, “and we just don’t have that much money,” Kennedy said.
Still, Liam loves baseball and quitting it altogether wasn’t really a choice.
“It’s the whole parental ‘I’m going to starve to make sure my kids get what they need,'” Kennedy said. “So if I’m giving up my Starbucks or a few little extras for me, then it’s worth making sure he plays. But it certainly won’t get any cheaper.”