The Olympics spark hope in many a child of going for the gold. But in financially supporting those dreams, some parents are going for broke.
For his 15-year old son’s travel hockey team, Tim Richmeier was spending about $5,000 a season: using his tax refunds, halting contributions to his 401(k), and putting travel expenses on a credit card — including $6,000 he’s still paying off.
Richmeier said it was a great experience for his child. But after four years, it was a financial relief when his son didn’t make the team.
“I was kind of dreading the upcoming season, knowing I’d go deeper in the hole,” said Richmeier, a single father in Phoenix.
Competitive youth sports in the U.S. are rising in popularity. The exclusive club and travel teams come with added coaching and intense competition, as well as much higher costs than a school or community team.
A survey released July 25 by TD Ameritrade of 1,000 parents whose children are involved in such elite endeavors finds most pay between $100 and $499 a month. For one in five, it’s more than $1,000.
Some parents can absorb the cost, but others are working second jobs, depleting their savings or otherwise compromising their own financial well-being to fund the activities. In the survey, 60 percent say the expense has them concerned about their ability to save for the future.
Parents largely say they don’t regret the spending because of the physical, mental and emotional benefits for their children. But financial and athletic experts suggest parents make a more objective assessment of at what cost the kids are pursuing these dreams.
Of nearly 8 million U.S. students currently participating in high school athletics, only 480,000 compete at the college level at an NCAA school, according to the organization. Few from that group will move on to compete at the Olympic or professional level.
And parents hoping for a scholarship to offset their sacrifices may be disappointed. NCAA schools awarded more than $2.9 billion in athletics scholarships last year. But a full ride is rare, and a partial scholarship may come to a fraction of what it cost to get a child to that level.
“The presenting of those numbers doesn’t discourage many people; it’s in the American character to go after it,” said Tom Farrey, who leads the Sports & Society Program at the Aspen Institute.
Farrey says the economic hurdles of the elite teams leave many kids behind, and it’s not always good for those who do participate.
“Parents are coming from a place of love, they want what is best for their kids,” said Travis Dorsch, founding director of the Families in Sport Lab at Utah State University. “Unfortunately they are misinformed.”
Specializing in just one sport early, common among elite team players, leads to greater burnout and an increased likelihood of injury, Dorsch said. And he found that families who made larger financial investments in a child’s athletic participation led to kids feeling more pressure, less enjoyment and a lower commitment to the sport.
Of the families in Dorsch’s research, which spanned many income and sport participation levels, more than half invested less than 1 percent of their gross income. But nearly 15 percent invested between 2 percent and 5 percent, and 3 percent invested more than 5 percent of their gross income.
Even for those who can afford it, there is stress.
Lisa Williams of Wilmette, Ill., sees the $2,000 or so she spends each season on her daughter’s soccer team not as an investment in a sports future but in her child’s skill set off the field. In her affluent neighborhood there is a “certain expectation of excellence” and the assumption if your child plays sports that they’ll do so on a travel or elite team.
“Some of it is parent peer pressure, do you want to be the parent who doesn’t send their kid to the extra training and the summer camps and the extra clinics?” Williams said. “You don’t want people to think, ‘Oh, she doesn’t love her kid.’”
That pressure is part of a shift in parenting and culture over recent decades, experts say.
“We tend to get very emotionally invested in the life of our kids in sports, it makes us more vulnerable to making questionable decisions,” said Mark Hyman, who teaches in the business of sports program at George Washington University.
He notes that many people have an economic interest in parents spending more on sports — from elite coaches to the facilities that host the tournaments. So parents may be urged to make decisions that are not based on neutral input.
“The challenge is to recognize sports for kids are great but they are great because they give you these positive lessons they can carry on through life,” Hyman said. “You should never do sports as an investment. ... If you do that you are almost certain to be disappointed and to turn your kids off sports.”
Debbie Amorelli of Upton, Mass., says she wrestles with how much she and her husband spend on hockey participation for her 17-year old son, who hopes to play at college. The fees, gear and travel add up to about $10,000 a year. They pay for it using an inheritance from her father, but without it Amorelli says she doesn’t know what they would have done.
“The experiences he is having are priceless,” she said. “But we keep saying to him: ‘This is essentially coming out of your college fund, this is money we could be putting away.’”
Amorelli’s son, a junior in high school, may need to keep playing for a year or two after graduation to make a college team. That’s an expense they’re unsure about.
“We have no idea if this is going to turn into anything other than literally money down the drain,” she said.