The Most Expensive Game In Town: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today's Families
I spent a couple of evenings last week reading Mark Hyman's new book, The Most Expensive Game in Town: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today's Families (Beacon Press). The book is an investigative deep dive into how big businesses - and many little businesses - are profiting from the youth sports boom, and, sadly, how so many are putting their bottom line ahead of the interests of kids, and in the process ruining a critically important time in their lives, when they should be having fun, and allowed to just be kids.
The book chronicles the insane amounts of money families are either required to pay or, many times, feel compelled to budget for extra lessons, clinics and products for their children in today's hypercompetitive world of youth sports, including a chapter on the burgeoning business of youth sports tourism, which has become part of the $7 billion youth sports industry, in which hundreds of summer tournament organizers together spend more on marketing and advertising than Proctor & Gamble and Gatorade combined.
If anyone had been watching me while I was reading the book they might have thought I was a bobble head doll I was nodding my head so often in agreement at the stories Hyman tells.
For me, The Most Expensive Game In Town isn't news. Being in the youth sports "business", the subject of the book is very familiar territory. It's my life. Every day my e-mail inbox, and those of MomsTeam's editors, are flooded with press releases, meeting invitations, and pitches from public relations professionals and companies wanting to tell us more about a new product or service being marketed to sports parents and youth athletes.
I have also seen the big business of youth sports, as they say, "up close and personal," attending my share of so-called "combines" and "showcases." Last summer, for instance, I spoke to the parents of nine hundred elite high school football players who were only too happy to practice and play in the dangerous heat and humidity of Virginia in the hopes of impressing all of the college scouts there to watch enough to land a college athletic scholarship.
I've walked the fields of mega-tournaments, watched countless instructional DVDs and books, appeared on television to promote new football helmets, and, over the years, have turned down the chance to promote hundreds, if not thousands, of products, many making claims that could not be backed up by peer-reviewed studies, some whose advertisements were later found to be misleading by the Federal Trade Commission.
Not a week goes by without an introduction to some new money-making youth sports-related product or service being touted as a "must have" in order to be the next champion this, pro that. MomsTeam and I would be swimming in sponsors if we accepted even 10 percent of the sponsors who want to advertise on our site. And, yes, it is mind-numbing and exhausting.
Which is a long way of saying, I am so glad someone else wrote this book!
Hyman has done his homework. The book is meticulously researched. It includes interviews with some of the country's top youth sports scholars from academia, among them such luminaries and personal favorites as child psychology professor Frank Smoll, and sports sociologists, Michael Messner and Jay Coakley.
The stories Hyman has selected beautifully illustrate the book's central theme: that too many organizations and individuals are putting making money well before the health and safety of kids playing sports, in the process essentially robbing them of their childhood and separating their parents from their hard-earned money, money that would, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, be better spent on a certificate of deposit to help defray their child's college tuition.
A personal favorite is Chapter Two, titled "Baby Goes Pro", which tells the story of a business called Gymtrix, founded by a woman named Doreen Bolhuis, which sells parents of infants as young as six months on the idea that its DVDs and gym sessions will somehow give their baby an edge against their peers. It is based on a piece Hyman wrote in 2010 for the New York Times about Bolhuis and other "baby-sports" entrepreneurs who tap "into a wide vein of angst and insecurity among parents about when to start a child in sports", playing on a fear of "waiting too long" which "nudges us to search out soccer leagues with nursery-school divisions for three-year olds."
Soon after the article appeared, I got a call from a producer at the "Today Show" who had read my book, Home Team Advantage, the second chapter of which, titled "Too Much, Too Soon", dealt with the subject four years earlier. She felt it provided ideal background information for a segment the show was doing on how the tentacles of the youth sports business machine were now reaching into the cribs of babies in a search for new customers. To make a long story short, I ended up as a guest on the show as part of its "Baby Goes Pro" segment, during which I pointed, not only to the absence of any studies to show that getting babies and toddlers started in sports gave them an edge later on, but to data showing that only one out four kids viewed as "superstars" at the age of 10, 11 or 12 went on to be a star in high school sports (e.g. were what is called "early bloomers").
The Gymtrix story, though, highlights both the greatest strength of The Most Expensive Game in Town and perhaps its biggest weakness. While Hyman does a great job of reporting, the book raises more questions than it answers. Perhaps it is because the author is a journalist, not someone like me, whose business it is to offer practical advice to sports parents on how not to get, as I put it in Home Team Advantage, "sucked into the crazy vortex of competitive youth sports." For instance, if the problem parents face is marketers trying to separate them from their money for organized sports at ever earlier ages, instead of giving kids time for the unstructured, free play they need for healthy child development, perhaps the solution for parents is to start their own parent-run free play group for their kids at a local church, synagogue, mosque, or community center.
While The Most Expensive Game in Town does a good job of dispelling the myth that youth sports has become so expensive that it is beyond the reach of inner city children and the poor, I wish the book had included a discussion of ways in which we can keep sports affordable for everyone.
But even for someone who lives and breathes youth sports, I found the book thought-provoking and a "good read." Sports parents, less familiar with the subject, are likely to find The Most Expensive Game in Town to be an eye-opener. If the book gives parents pause, to stop to think about how and where their money is going, it will have done its job. But it will still be up to all of us who want to see youth sports become safer, saner, less stressful and more inclusive to do ours.