No Free Ride

John Yeigh

WE ARE A NATION obsessed with youth sports. Time magazine says it’s a $15 billion-a-year industry. As many as 60 million kids participate.

Sports are good for kids for all kinds of reasons: promoting exercise and a healthy lifestyle, enhancing team work and relationships, providing structure, instilling confidence to overcome challenges and delivering the joy of playing.

During our children’s sports journeys, we parents are often led to believe that our little sports stars are on the path to the holy grail—a full athletic college scholarship. The sports-industry complex of coaches, trainers, camp and tournament directors, and recruiting advisors often promote this fantasy. And we parents bite hard. After all, who doesn’t want their kid to receive a $200,000 free ride?

But will they? Make no mistake: Youth sports aren’t free. College athletes typically require five to 10 years of dedicated travel sport participation, with the associated fees, equipment, travel and hotel costs, coaching fees, supplemental training, camps, showcase tournaments and tryouts, and perhaps a video or recruiting advisor. The commonly used and derided term “pay to play” highlights the financial underpinnings of youth sports.

It’s common for families to spend $2,000 to 5,000 a year for travel team participants, and $20,000 a year or more isn’t unheard of. I am intimately familiar with youth soccer and estimate the typical college soccer player incurred total costs of around $50,000 to get there. Even a barest-of-bones elite youth soccer journey would likely cost $25,000. On a strictly financial basis, 529 savings plans and Coverdell education savings accounts are far more reliable sources of college funding.

In addition to high costs, youth players must grapple with all the other aspects of becoming an elite athlete—maintaining interest and discipline, remaining injury-free, continuous training and constant competition at the highest levels.

Elite athletes then face the final challenge in capturing an athletic scholarship: selection by a college coach. Only 3% of high schoolers get to play NCAA Division 1 and 2 college sports, according to—and not all will receive scholarships, let alone a full ride. They may also end up at colleges that aren’t the best fit for them. The bottom line: The odds of landing on a D1 or D2 team roster are about the same as landing on a single roulette number.

D3 colleges, which comprise the largest NCAA division, do not provide athletic scholarships. NAIA and junior colleges do offer athletic scholarships and may provide a good alternative, assuming the academic and campus programs fit the athlete.

Selection numbers are particularly daunting in widely played sports like basketball and soccer, where less than 1% of U.S. high school boys are chosen for D1 teams. Some D1 obsessed parents even steer their kids to sports with fewer youth players, and larger college rosters, such as ice hockey, lacrosse or men’s baseball. With these sports, selection chances are roughly triple that of basketball and soccer, but still a miserly 2% to 6%.

Another tactic, utilized mostly to gain acceptance—rather than money—at stretch academic colleges, is to have kids excel in niche sports. Talent at equestrian, crew, fencing, rifle and javelin throwing may increase the odds of being noticed. One father helped his two kids get into Ivy League colleges by undertaking a multi-year program to assist them in becoming among the best high school javelin throwers.

Even for those few players selected to play college sports, most don’t receive a full ride. Only football, men’s and women’s basketball, and a few additional women’s sports—volleyball, tennis, gymnastics—are NCAA D1 full-ride sports.

In men’s soccer, for example, D1 and D2 colleges can grant 9.9 and nine scholarships, respectively, for a roster of around 29 players—in other words, just a one-third scholarship per player. Some colleges, including members of the Ivy League, don’t offer athletic scholarships. Others don’t fully fund all athletic scholarships, such as some Patriot League colleges.

Women’s scholarship opportunities in some sports are higher than men’s. That’s largely the result of Title IX equivalency requirements, which means colleges essentially need to offset the 65 to 85 football scholarships granted to men. Women’s D1 soccer can give 14 scholarships, versus 9.9 for men, plus women’s soccer has 129 more D1 teams than men’s soccer. Still, like high school boys, girls face the same dismal overall 3% selection rate to NCAA D1 and D2 sports.

Children should participate in youth sports for the many positive benefits. Meanwhile, parents should relax and enjoy their kid’s sports journey. Too many families hang onto the false hope that youth sports will lead directly to a college scholarship. But unfortunately, this ride isn’t free—and there’s likely no scholarship at the end of the journey.

John Yeigh is the author of a book outlining the highs, lows and challenges of youth sports, with publication slated for 2020. His two children overcame their Dad’s genetic deficits and became college athletes. John’s previous articles include Other People’s StuffAll Stocks and Off the Payroll.

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