Thursday Sep 28, 2023

Rising youth sports costs leave some families at risk of being left behind

Rising costs leave some families at risk of being left behind

Kamiya Vasquez, 12, looks back at a teammate during a recent basketball game. Kamiya loves the sport, but her family is struggling to handle the rising costs of competitive programs. (Evan Cobb for The Washington Post)
Kamiya Vasquez, 12, looks back at a teammate during a recent basketball game. Kamiya loves the sport, but her family is struggling to handle the rising costs of competitive programs. (Evan Cobb for The Washington Post)


Kamiya Vasquez gathered with her seventh-grade basketball team before they tipped off a youth league game in a dimly lit gym. She nervously ran her hands through her red hair. Some of her teammates had never played the sport, and they tugged on their black jerseys. Kamiya looked over to the opposing huddle, an eighth-grade team stocked with some of the best players in Grand Rapids. Some had walked in with customized, matching backpacks and sporting uniforms that featured the logo of one of the area’s top travel teams.

“Don’t be scared — just go play,” Kamiya’s father and coach, Juoquin Vasquez, said before she took the floor.

Kamiya drove the lane once the game started, determined to prove she belonged. But she was quickly swarmed by two taller defenders and lost her footing and the ball. The other team cruised down the court for an easy score. Kamiya shrugged in frustration and glared at her father. He immediately turned to his bench and asked for a substitute. She ran to the sideline and sank into her seat. Juoquin knelt in front of her and lowered his voice. “Change your body language,” he told her.

The other team was a well-funded, well-oiled machine, setting defensive traps, launching three-pointers and finishing backdoor cuts with left-handed layups. For some of the girls on Kamiya’s team, the frustration boiled over. “I don’t f—ing get it!” one of them yelled, and Juoquin sat her down. They eventually lost by 52 points.

To Kamiya and her teammates, the differences between the teams could not have been clearer. It provided yet another reminder of the gulf between the haves and have-nots in youth sports, in which parents are spending between $30 billion and $40 billion annually on their children’s sports activities, according to a recent report from the Aspen Institute, and rising participation costs have created an economic divide that has diminished opportunities for kids from impoverished and marginalized families.

Costly travel leagues and club programs have surged in popularity in recent years as families pursue high-level competition and college scholarships. While 58 percent of children who participate in sports played in community-based programs this fall, three of 10 parents said their child’s community program had closed, merged with another organization or operated with less capacity than last year, according to the Aspen Institute.

The number of kids competing in travel clubs, meanwhile, doubled to 29 percent over the past year, a reflection of some parents not only believing that their children would receive better coaching, training, competition and ultimately more exposure to college recruiters but also an overall better experience for their children than community-based programs. (The Aspen Institute’s results are based on a survey of 1,200 youth sport parents Sept. 22-Oct. 9, 2022. Participants were recruited using opt-in online panels and users of a team management service, which may not be representative of youth sports parents nationally.)

Travel leagues can run thousands of dollars just in registration fees but also often require costs for travel, equipment, camps and private coaching. Household income is a primary driver in early participation of sports, and only 24 percent of kids from low-income families, like many of those on Kamiya’s team, have an opportunity to play, according to the Aspen Institute. The country’s wealthiest households spend about four times as much as impoverished families on their child’s sport.

“It definitely mirrors trends nationally in our society in which families in the highest income category have experiences and access to a sustained experience that peers in the lower end of the income category do not. And that only seems to be growing,” said Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program. “When you look at the industry of youth sports, it is an industry. It is business interests first. . . . It’s not interest of the child first, and so money chases money.”

Young athletes such as Kamiya sit at a crossroads: Costly travel basketball is not an option and recreational opportunities are sparse in many communities, so they are in danger of being left behind by those who can afford specialized training in hopes of earning college scholarships. Girls’ basketball has been particularly affected by the explosion of travel programs — the sport dropped to the fourth-most-popular high school sport last year as many athletes quit or simply aren’t exposed enough to the sport before that level.

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Kamiya often asks her father if she can try out for local travel teams, some of which charge more than $1,200 just for registration. He explains that the family can’t afford it right now but that he and his wife, Summer, are saving as much as they can, putting away $20 or $30 each month from their paychecks.

“We could pay, but we would be hurting,” Juoquin said. “It’s like, ‘We’ll pay the fee, but can we attach the car payment to it?’ ”

After a full day of basketball, the Vasquez family returned to their home, which they bought last year with the help of their pandemic stimulus checks. Their 14-year-old daughter, Kiyana, blared her trumpet through the hallways. Their youngest daughter, 8-year-old Kendyll, danced to TikTok videos on Summer’s phone. Kamiya and her friend used markers to decorate a purple wall in her bedroom, next to her athletic trophies and Michigan State basketball posters.

“I want to go to college and play there,” she said.

They ate together as a family because sometimes that is difficult during the week. Juoquin cooked arroz con gandules in homage to his Puerto Rican roots. Sometimes he and his mother cook food on the weekends and advertise plates for sale on Facebook, with some of the proceeds going toward family expenses.

That night Juoquin, 34, called his friend to see if he could open an elementary school gym to hold a free clinic the next day. Despite limited coaching experience, this is how he helps develop Kamiya, a raw and gifted athlete with long limbs who excels in multiple sports. “Basketball is my favorite,” she said, and her parents’ conversations increasingly revolve around her future in the sport.

“If we don’t get her into traveling ball, she’s not going to get the visibility to do what she wants to do,” said Summer, sitting in her living room. “We know we need to get her into it at some point, but, like, how do we figure that out?”

“We also have the baby coming up,” he said of Kendyll, also an aspiring athlete, and he began calculating the numbers in his head for both girls to play travel sports. It might cost several thousand dollars just for registration fees, he thought, and with inflation driving up gas prices and groceries, he didn’t know how they would pay for equipment, camps or coaching — not to mention travel, which saw an industry-wide 19 percent spike last year, according to the Aspen Institute.

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Even if they could afford for one kid to play, the family probably wouldn’t have enough for the other. Those are the decisions that often divide American families when it comes to youth sports. Last year, parents making at least $150,000 spent 83 percent more on travel for their child’s sports activities than families earning under $50,000 and 65 percent more than middle income households. Natalie Hummel, executive director of Every Kid Sports, a nonprofit that helps low-income families play youth sports, estimates that as many as 6.8 million kids are effectively barred from youth sports by financial constraints.

“Even if you just take 50 percent of that, that’s still 3 million kids that still aren’t getting a chance to play,” she said. “Unfortunately, in our country now, the model now is these highly competitive training programs, and we really believe that doesn’t serve the kids.”

One in three parents say their youth sports expenses increased last year because of inflation, according to the Aspen Institute’s annual State of Play report, and the prospect of another recession could mean less money is invested in parks and recreation departments — and the gap between kids who can afford travel sports and those who can’t widens as a result.

According to industry insiders, team sports participation declined following the Great Recession, when about 47,000 jobs were lost in the Grand Rapids area alone. Wyoming is an industrial town of 77,000, located just five miles south of Grand Rapids. It was hit especially hard by the recession and sits below the national household income average, with a poverty rate of 12 percent. Many middle-class kids here can’t afford to pay the thousands of dollars per year it typically costs to play travel sports.

Between Juoquin’s warehouse job and Summer’s job as a branch manager at an employment service, budgeting has always been a challenge. After they bought their home, costs continued to pile up; Juoquin’s truck was stolen last year, and he has been forced to drive a Chevrolet Express van he bought for $300 from his employer until the family can save enough for another car.

“You always think you’re getting ahead,” Summer said, “but then something happens.”

The next morning, Summer, 37, sat on her couch and scrolled through her phone, searching for new softball cleats. She swiped past countless pairs that cost $60 or more. The family had just bought new cleats this spring, but because Kamiya is growing, her toes were already forming a hole in those cleats. Summer found a sale — $30 for a pair of Nikes — and seized the deal. But soon Kamiya also will need a new aluminum bat, which can cost several hundred dollars. “Those little things just add up,” Summer said.

When Kamiya asked for new LeBron James basketball shoes this summer, her mother wondered how she would pay for the $125 sneakers, eventually doing so in four installments. “It’s an expression for her,” Summer said. “It makes her feel good.”

On average, families spend $883 annually per child to play sports, according to the Aspen Institute, but in many activities that number often soars into the five figures. Basketball was the second-most-expensive sport for families in the fall of 2022, costing on average just over $1,000 per child, according to the organization’s newly released report. (Soccer was the costliest sport; parents shell out an average of $1,188 annually per child.)

In August, with bills stacking up and another school year dawning, Juoquin and Summer asked for help to fund Kamiya’s athletic expenses on GoFundMe, the site that relies on donation-based crowdfunding.

“We are a low-income family of 5 and want our daughter to have every opportunity to do what she loves and with that comes league fees, tournament fees, new equipment, camp fees and travel costs,” Summer wrote.

The family has yet to receive any contributions. Summer has tried other avenues. She posted on Facebook last year that she would film Kamiya throwing 20 strikes in the backyard for any donations, and a couple of supporters chipped in. Kamiya has shoveled snow in their neighborhood for basketball money, and sometimes the family will buy a box of candy bars at Costco so Kamiya can sell them door-to-door in their neighborhood.

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“It’s become a business. There are kids that are better than her because they have parents who can put them in all of these trainings and travel teams,” Summer said. “She also knows we’re trying to work on it.”

Kamiya has been invited to join that high-priced world of top-tier youth sports over the past year: AAU basketball teams have recognized her potential and asked her to sign up, with registration costs ranging from $500 to $1,500; a trainer has offered to work with her for $75 per session; a softball program that cost $550 to join asked her to try out. Summer opted not to send Kamiya, knowing the family couldn’t afford the costs.

“I was like, ‘That’s pretty awesome they want Kamiya,’ ” Summer said, “but, man, that’s not even an option.”

Summer has found affordable alternatives to keep Kamiya active: She plays with a school team in a grass-roots youth basketball league for $90, which sometimes means playing older travel teams with handpicked rosters. The family was able to place her on a local softball team that travels to a few tournaments in the area because the coach allowed them to pay the $250 registration fee in installments.

That softball coach, Kaitlin Failing, started her own affordable middle school program last summer because many of the kids she coaches come from families that are barely making it. She offers hitting lessons on the side for $10 per session.

“That’s why we’re doing this. … [AAU] is big for more affluent communities. If you’ve got money, you’re starting at 7, which is like just one step above T-ball,” Failing said. “It’s thousands of dollars that some of these girls spend to get recruited.”

The family first got a taste of how cutthroat youth sports could be with their oldest daughter. Kiyana, whom the family nicknamed Kiki, was born three months premature and was on supplemental oxygen for the first months of her life. The family lived out of the Ronald McDonald House in Lansing, Mich., for months at the height of the Great Recession; Juoquin lost his job working for a poultry farm; and the family relied on Medicaid and Summer’s disability benefits.

When Kiyana was 2, they found out she had mild cerebral palsy, which has affected her walking and balance. She still was adamant about playing sports and played on a school-based basketball team in fifth grade.

Even though the Vasquezes were thrilled Kiyana was part of a team, they didn’t know how much she might play. During the final game of the season, Summer said, some players couldn’t make it and replacements were brought in from another team. Kiyana played about 30 seconds at the end of the game. Summer cried on her way out of the gym.

“Other parents saw it and were like, ‘This is ridiculous.’ Their kids were playing. They saw [Kiyana], and they knew that this was not okay,” Summer said.

“Especially when it’s a youth program,” Juoquin added. “If you’re AAU playing, I get that. We’re out here to win. But with a youth program, we’re trying to develop kids that don’t have the access to pay that money.”

Juoquin was so angry that he opted not to talk to the coach. Instead, he decided to get into coaching himself.

“I’m going to make sure I do things the right way and let these kids play,” he told himself, and even though Kiyana decided to stop playing, he took over Kamiya’s team and began to hold free clinics on weekends for anyone who wants to participate. It has shaped Kamiya’s experience in basketball. Even though she’s not on a travel team, Kamiya will often tell them she is playing for something more.

“I’m going to play for Kiki,” Kamiya tells her mother before games.

Kamiya laced up her purple LeBron sneakers in an empty elementary school gym on the west side of town. Only one other player showed up for her father’s free clinic, but it didn’t matter. Juoquin set up chairs and a trash can in the middle of the court as obstacles for a dribbling drill. When he put them through shooting tests, forcing the players to hit five three-pointers from five different spots, Summer and the rest of the family served as rebounders.

“Don’t kill her arms. She has to pitch later,” Summer told her husband.

“She’s got to hit five from each spot,” he responded, and after she did, Kamiya raced back to the house and eventually gathered her softball gear for her first practice of the season. Summer grabbed her own glove and was ready to help as a volunteer coach.

Juoquin stayed behind and cooked fried chicken for his other children. He was thinking of his practice schedule for the week, staring at the family’s dry-erase calendar on the kitchen wall as the food sizzled on the stove. After his team lost the day before to the well-heeled team from Grand Rapids, he had been thinking about how he could get Kamiya into that higher level of competition.

An AAU director had approached him recently about Kamiya joining for several hundred dollars, which would be reduced if Juoquin served as a coach in the program. They decided to hold off.

He has been thinking about starting his own traveling program, maybe kick-starting it with a fundraiser such as a carwash. They could afford to play in only a few tournaments per year, he figured, but it would give his daughter a chance to be seen by college coaches. He started doing the math again.

“I just wish it wasn’t so expensive. Say it’s only $1,000 per session for three sessions a summer — that’s three grand. And that doesn’t include travel, hotel, food,” Juoquin said.

Plates were piled up in the sink. He had to be at work in the morning. Bills were coming due again. The deck feels increasingly stacked against him. He shook his head.

“I’m going to have to sacrifice something,” Juoquin said as he poked at chicken on the stove. “But I’m going to do it.”


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