How High School Sports Became a Business


High school athletics is a huge industry, and vitally important to Gen Z. Nearly eight million students currently participate in high school athletics in the United States. That’s 55.5% of high school students that play sports. But where sports used to be a fun pastime, they’ve now become a serious business, and that means serious money invested into the athletic careers of children. 

Before an athlete even steps foot on a field, they must invest in the required equipment and safety gear, such as goggles, helmets, mouth guards, and cleats. A high school baseball catcher may well be sporting $2,500 worth of gear between catcher’s mitts, leg guards, bats, shoes, protective undergear, helmets and bags, most of which must be replaced every few years.

Then, there are the participation fees. Today, these cost hundreds of dollars per child, per sport, per season. Athletes who play for more competitive travel teams can pay far more, depending on the sport. Ice hockey travel teams, for example, can cost $10,000 or more per year due to equipment, facility costs, enrollment fees, and coaching. The typical parent spends between $100 and $500 per month, per child on elite youth sports, with the bulk of the money going toward travel and team fees; but even $1,000 per month is not unheard of, according to a 2016 survey on youth sports statistics by TD Ameritrade. Those fees do not include the cost of private training clinics or sports summer camps, which can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars more per year. 

My dad used to swim in high school. For him, swimming meant a couple hours in the school pool every day. He was excited when I started swimming, and then moved on to playing waterpolo. He was less excited when I asked for $1000 for club waterpolo membership. Then, an additional $175 for USA Waterpolo membership. Roughly $200 for every travel tournament with the team to Orlando. Then, I got recruited to go to Regional Championships in North Carolina: $250 to play, plus airfare. I was further selected to go to Nationals in California, and I was really excited. But that meant an additional $500, plus airfare, plus $175 worth of gear. Oh, and Dad? Can I have $5000 to go to California over the summer for a three-week training trip with my team? It starts to add up very quickly. 

High school sports nowadays are expensive, and not everyone can afford to pay thousands of dollars a year. But to be competitive in a sport, you have to cough up the dough. High school sports only last for a season, that’s a couple months a year. If you want to be good, you have to play year round. That means joining a club, and going to travel tournaments, clinics and summer camps. Being successful isn’t about natural ability, or work ethic, it’s about whose parents can afford to have that natural ability honed into something more. According to data released by the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society program in 2017, household wealth is the primary driver of kids’ athletic participation. Time reports that the business of kids’ sports has grown 55 percent since 2010, and is now a $15.3 billion industry.

This industrialization of youth athletics is what pushes less-fortunate kids out. Driving this growth is the perception that a child’s athletic achievement might improve her college prospects, and lead to an athletic scholarship. But to even get near the level to get recruited for an athletic scholarship, you have to be good, yes. But you also have to be prepared to pay for it, in more ways than one. Gen Z, watch out. If you want to go big, I hope you saved up your birthday money.