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How Can Ordinary Families Meet The Costs of High-Level National and International Athletic Competition?

Money Matters

How Much Should You Expect to Pay?

Not all sports carry the same price tag. Skiers can easily spend more than $40,000 per year, whereas nationally competitive soccer players may spend only $5,000 per year. The so-called class differences among sports are not accidental; in a society where families are expected to shoulder the costs of their children’s sports involvement, prestige attaches to those sports that carry the higher price tag. But children are unaware of such subtleties, and you cannot always steer a fanatical figure skater toward field hockey.

Moreover, elite sports quickly attain the status of a “calling,” akin to a talent in the arts. A friend whose son is a cello prodigy writes:

The problem for me as a professor, which is to say, a person with a relatively modest income, is to support his prodiginess or should I say prodigality? Maybe prodigy and prodigality are related, and anyhow, they have the same effect: they cost a lot of money. I have been spending about $25,000 a year on the kid. It would be worse if I had to buy him a cello, which eventually I'll have to do; he has won a cello as a free loan for 3-4 years from the Carlson Foundation in Seattle. However, his bow, now for example, is of inferior quality, worth only $800. An excellent bow would be 10,000, and naturally, I am not going to buy it, unless I win some major book contract or a movie deal, which is not likely. . . . Maybe this enterprise, which has cost me let's say an apartment on the Adriatic, will eventually pay; maybe he will make a living as a cellist and play in a good symphony and a quartet. He is hitting adolescence, so who knows. Last month he fell and broke his arm.

What’s the Solution?

If you make more than a million dollars a year or are willing to sacrifice everything for your child’s sport, then you have already found your solution and need not read on. (Though for those who would sacrifice everything, experience offers strong words of caution: let this sacrifice not be your child’s responsibility to carry!)

For those who want to preserve some sort of family nest egg and do not have unlimited amounts of disposable income, here are some partial solutions:

  1. Go after the grants. Virtually every national youth sports organization has need-based awards available for summer training programs, travel, housing, etc. Some of these grants, like the USTA’s High Performance Program, are available only to athletes who have already attained a national ranking, so some early sacrifice might be required to bring your child to the level at which she can reasonably hope for grant support. But ask and ask again, and you may find funding for as much as 1/3 of your annual costs.

  2. It takes a village. Encourage your young athlete to put up posters, go door-to-door in your neighborhood, or place an article in the local paper listing his accomplishments thus far and his dream to go to XYZ national competition. Be sure he understands his obligation to report back to those who want to share in his accomplishment via their donations—they should get a picture of him on the playing field, or (if he’s lucky!) holding the trophy.

  3. Make friends everywhere. If you attend all the local events, your young athlete will understand that you can’t make it to the events far from home. Contact that old college buddy who lives in Florida and ask if he could host your daughter at the national meet. Generally you’ll find a welcome mat. You’ll save money from your own transportation, accommodation, and time lost from work; your daughter will discover other adults who think she’s terrific; and she will learn new skills in negotiating travel and being a guest.

  4. Pile up the award miles, via business travel or credit cards. Not only are the trips free, but the return date can be changed without a fee, possibly saving hundreds of dollars in hotel costs if your athlete loses early.
  5. Attend the one-room schoolhouse. Not only is professional coaching very expensive, but too much of it can result in burnout. Help your athlete connect with older athletes in your area who will play or exercise with him and share tips for a much reduced fee or a home-cooked meal. There are NCAA rules against coaching in-season, but no rules against play dates and gifts. 

  6. Just say no. It’s very easy for a sport to get out of hand; for your child to start thinking she must compete in EVERY event, however over her head or far from home. Sit down each season and make a plan: this much competition, this much training, and no more. Yes, extraordinary opportunities arise occasionally, but few of them will make or break your young athlete’s future.

Long-Term Planning

Above all, do not count on future rewards to recompense your family for present expenses. For the low-down on college scholarships, see my article on college recruiting. As far as dreams of going professional, consider not just the odds of success (very low), but also the odds of your child’s happiness in that environment. The brother of a good friend is, at age fifty, a professional golfer. In a good year, he makes a middle-class income. He often travels to tournaments by bus. My friend watches for him on televised tournaments, and sometimes catches a glimpse before an international superstar knocks him out of the draw. The life suits him, but if his parents had hopes that it would repay their debts, they have been sadly mistaken.

Should you, then, sit your child down and tell her that elite sports are simply something you cannot afford and that she should be content on the town fields or in the town swimming pool? That depends, in the end, on your and your child’s priorities. If you can manage the “hat trick” of supporting your child’s enthusiasm, keeping family finances in order, and keeping a healthy perspective on the sport, you’ll find rewards that have nothing to do with college or career. Your young athlete will have gained confidence; found new friends from all over the country or the world; learned to handle himself in unexpected situations; come to understand that he, too, must make an investment in his own dreams; and perhaps formed a unique bond with you, his parent, through these intense years. Good luck!

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