It isn’t uncommon for young athletes to dream big. Any youth devoted to their sport will eagerly tell you their ambitions of playing in the big leagues, mimicking the roar of the crowds as they score that buzzer-beating shot. But in the face of reality, we intuitively know that those childhood dreams rarely come true, and the data backs that up: according to the NCAA, there are 10 million high school athletes in the US compared to just over 400,000 college athletes across all sports. At the professional level, that number is drastically smaller. So why do youth training camps and similar programs in the youth sports industry continue to peddle parental fantasies about their children as future professional athletes?
First, let’s get the bare-boned statistics out of the way. It’s important to remember that just 3.5% of all high school basketball players will play for a college team (only 1% at a Division I school), and a measly 1% of all NCAA players will make it to the NBA. For football, just 7% out of every one million high school players will play in college; of that percentage, 2% have a chance of scoring a coveted position in the NFL. For other sports, the numbers look largely the same, but that doesn’t stop the youth sports industry from goading parents into spending more.
If you didn’t know, the youth sports industry is valued at nearly $20 billion a year. Sports camps, private coaches, recruitment videos, showcase tournaments, and more all have a vested interest in making money. It comes as no surprise to me; then, those sports expenses are one of the leading causes of financial stress for millions of parents across the nation. According to an Ameritrade study, one-third of parents surveyed were not regularly contributing to their retirement funds due to sports-related expenses for their children; 40% reported not having any kind of emergency fund. The belief is that these expenses will guarantee their kids a sports scholarship at a number of select “dream” schools, but again, the data will tell you that very few of those scholarships are actually awarded. This problem also highlights a big economic divide: a recent survey found that youth athletes from low-income homes were six times more likely to quit sports due to the costs.
It only seems logical that youth sports are largely money-driven, but if you’re the parent of a young athlete, it helps to be acutely aware of the more predatory services that are willing to lie to you for a good payout. A training camp should focus on community and health, and fun, not push fantasies of scholarships, and NFL contracts abound. It isn’t fair to already financially struggling parents, and it isn’t fair to the children who are led to believe that they have a huge chance of making it big.