Parents are spending thousands of dollars a year on kids' sports. The travel expenses alone for youth sports nationwide reach $7 billion a year, according to a recent report from CNBC. And there's still a bevy of other expenses, including club memberships, clinics, camps, individual coaching and equipment, all of which run up the bill even more.
Parents maintain that they're spending the money to help their kids, but that logic might be misguided. According to Utah State University's Families in Sport Lab, the more parents spend on youth sports, the more likely their kids are to lose interest.
"The more money folks are investing, the higher pressure kids are perceiving," said Travis Dorsch, an assistant professor in the university's department of family, consumer and human development. "More pressure means less enjoyment. As kids enjoy sports less, their motivation goes down. So the indirect effect is, yes, spending more money and less motivation."
Parents justify their financial outlay by saying that they're increasing the child's chances for a college scholarship or, down the line, a lucrative professional career. But a look at the numbers shows they might be deluding themselves.
According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), only about 2 percent of high school athletes receive athletic scholarships to college. Even fewer move on to the professional ranks. For example, just 11.6 percent of college baseball players go on to minor or major leagues.
The figures for athletes in other sports are even smaller: 1.7 percent of participants in football make the pros, 1.2 percent in men's basketball and less than 1 percent in women's basketball.
Further, the amount of scholarship money awarded is less than one might imagine. A 2008 analysis by the New York Times found the typical athletic scholarship to be valued at $10,409. Yes, $10,000 is a nice chunk of change, but the College Board reports that the cost of an in-state public college education for the 2013-2014 academic year averaged $22,826.
The Utah State study involved 163 families. Parents were surveyed on family demographic variables, gross household income and investment levels in youth sports participation.
The kids were asked about parental pressure, their own enjoyment and their plans on future participation. The results indicated that the more money parents invest, the more pressure the kids perceive.
The problem, Dorsch believes, is in the system. Youth sports in the United States are not set up for participation's sake or fitness or even fun, but to transform a young athlete into a star, to make that elite team, to reach the top of the pyramid.
"Why do we do this whole youth sport industry thing in general?" he asked. "I think it's to help kids acquire life skills and have fun. If the goal is to get them to participate longer — the dropout rates peak at 11, 12, 13 years old, unfortunately — we want them to be motivated and enjoy the experience. We should not do things that pressure them out of sport."
A better parental approach would help, he said.
"If you miss a game, and your kid comes home, what's the first question most parents ask? 'Did you win?' That's always first. And that's implicitly what the child is perceiving," Dorsch said.
"If we can teach parents to ask, 'Did you have fun?' 'What did you learn?' 'Are you excited about next time?' and make statements like, 'I love watching you play,' those things go a long way in creating motivation in our children."
Besides which, all that money parents are spending might be better invested in a college savings fund.