By Sarah Lorge Butler for CBS MoneyWatch.com
Until now I've been naïve about the cost of youth sports. But my eyes were opened recently, first by a mom in Georgia whose 9-year-old son plays travel baseball. Then by a dad here in Pennsylvania, whose three daughters play club volleyball.
For the 9-year-old, the parents pay about $4,000 for baseball. Check out this e-mail the mom sent me:
In fees alone, we are looking at $1,500. That includes uniforms and what we have to pay for each tournament. That does not include the park fees. Just this weekend it cost me $35 to get into my own baseball park for the tournament we hosted. It's $5 for each adult and $3 for each kid for every single day you go - it doesn't matter that I'm the parent driving my player there, I still have to pay. This upcoming weekend we'll spend several hundred dollars on hotel rooms, food and gas. In July we'll head to Panama City, Florida, for an entire week to play baseball. That is also not included in the cost and is essentially our summer vacation. You also need to factor in costs for baseball bats (we went through two last year, approximately $450), cups, chest shields, you name it!
Then there's the volleyball family. The dad tells me that to be good enough to play high school volleyball, the girls have to play on club teams during the off-season. Fees for the more competitive club teams, which aim to qualify for the national Junior Olympic volleyball tournament, range from $1,500 to $2,000 per participant, and like baseball, that does not include the cost of travel. Last year the family went to Reno for more than a week at the national tournament. And if that weren't enough of a hit to the wallet, each family chips in to cover the hotel and rental cars for the team's coaches and director. Throw in summer camps (about $300 to $500 apiece) and this guy estimates he spends $8,000 to $10,000 per year on his three daughters for volleyball.
Not that they're complaining. "The experience overall," the dad says, "has been wonderful for our kids." Same with the baseball family. "We live for it," the mom writes. "My son loves every minute of it."
I can see that. You're a parent, your kid has some athletic talent, and you want to give your son or daughter every chance to nurture that talent and see where it might lead. Along the way, your kid improves at his sport, learns about teamwork and leadership, and makes friends, while you bond on the sidelines with the other parents. That's great stuff, and it's hard to argue that there's anything wrong it.
Here's what I see on the other side of the ledger:
Unfairness. This is a system for wealthy families. Most families in America today simply cannot afford to shell out that kind of money for their kids' sports.
Down the line, the kids who play on travel teams have a much greater chance of making a high school squad, because they've spent so many more hours practicing and competing. The volleyball dad says he knows of high school teams that require their athletes to play club. "What I think is disconcerting about that," he says, "is the high school coach is basically telling the parents they have to spend thousands of dollars for their kids to make the high school team."
Then there's the time. The kids are schlepping around every weekend to different cities, often missing time in school - a Friday here, a Monday there. No time to just hang around and be a kid.
And how about the parents' time? The volleyball dad says that he and his wife never get out alone. "We're not home on weekends, and when we get home, I'm whipped from all the driving," he says. "The sacrifice we make is the time she and I spend together." Call me selfish, but I'm not sure I could do it. I'm pursuing my own sports goals, however modest, and I like date night with the hubby. Believe me, the kids get plenty of my time.
Should a 9-year-old have to choose between football and baseball or softball and dance?
What about the siblings who aren't into sports? Is it fair to drag them to tournaments and make them sit in the bleachers with their Nintendo DSis for eight hours at a shot?
As I watch my daughter on the softball field, drawing pictures in the dirt with her sneakers, I realize this is not likely a decision I'll have to confront. Good thing, because it's one tough call.
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