Back when Lowes Moore came of age as a basketball star in Mount Vernon, all he needed was a pair of sneakers and a membership to the local Boys & Girls Club. At first, even that seemed daunting.
“I went home and asked my mother if I could get a membership,” Moore said. “She said, ‘No, I can’t afford it.’ So then I said it was only one dollar. She said, ‘One dollar? OK.'”
That nominal expense opened up a new world for Moore. After years at the club and playing against the city’s best, he thrived as a guard on Mount Vernon’s varsity, became an all-American at West Virginia and played three seasons in the NBA.
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Due to the explosion of the youth sports business, a similar path to stardom almost never comes with such a small financial investment now. That’s even true in a more democratic sport like basketball.
“I remember back in the day, if you were going to be a tennis player, it cost you. If you were going to be a hockey player, it cost you,” said Moore, now the executive director for development at the Boys & Girls Club of Mount Vernon. “Basketball was one thing that you could do that was very low cost. Now to play on a team, if you’re really good, they’ll bring you on. But if you’re not very good, they’re going to charge you $1,500 or $1,600 just to play for the summertime. There are all these different costs that come with the game.”
What today’s club and travel programs and personal trainers charge most high school athletes tends to favor the financially comfortable.
A 2014 University of Florida annual survey, conducted by the university’s Sport Policy & Research Collaborative, said parents of travel-team athletes spend an average of $2,266 annually. The bill can run as high as $20,000 a year or more. Researchers found those costs created a significant divide as far as who can and can’t participate.
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In 2015, that same survey found 32 percent of parents from households with an annual income of less than $50,000 a year said youth sports were too costly and affect their child’s ability to play. Only 16 percent of parents with an annual household income over $50,000 agreed.
The same survey found that only 38 percent of children from families with an income of $25,000 or less were involved in team sports. That rate nearly doubled to 67 percent for those with an income of $100,000 or more.
“You have a tremendous amount of monetary pressure on parents and they see that the kid next door is not getting tutored in academics; they’re getting tutored in athletics,” North Rockland athletic director Joe Casarella said. “They try and keep up. People go in the hole for it.”
Karl Erickson, a faculty member in Michigan State University’s Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, believes the financial burden threatens to even further the divide between the haves and have nots. Some high schools even charge athletes just to play the more costly sports. Booster clubs can raise money to defray those costs, but only so much.
For example, families of ice hockey players have been asked to kick in upwards of $750 a season, according to players and coaches in the area.
“In trying to provide sort of the best resources for our kids, we actually marginalize huge chunks of the population by basically putting the bar for entry much higher than a lot of the population can access. It’s a major issue,” Erickson said. “Listen to the public rhetoric. Putting kids in sports is supposed to be this healthy, positive experience where kids learn life lessons. So we’re saying it’s important to have, but we’re sort of perpetuating a system that basically says to a large chunk of the population that you can’t have access to this healthy and positive thing we think is positive for everybody. I think it’s unintentional, but it’s a major worry, are we creating two different tracks here?”
ABOUT THE PROJECT: Journal News/lohud sports writers Josh Thomson and Mike Dougherty, along with photojournalist John Meore, fanned out this past spring and summer to investigate the growing world of youth sports in the Lower Hudson Valley for this series, Pay to Play.