Youth sports can be excellent character-building activities for children. They instill teamwork, communication and discipline — which can pay dividends later in life. Along with physical benefits, kids engaged in sports can also reduce stress, increase cognitive skills and create better emotional well-being, according to the U.S. Department of Health.
That said, participating in these activities often comes at a steep price. Sports can cost anywhere from $191 a year (for track and field) to $2.583 a year (for ice hockey). And with inflation at the highest it’s been in 40 years, that cost is increasing. Wintergreen Research predicts that the youth sports industry will grow to a $77.6 billion industry by 2026, from $24.9 billion in 2019.
Our guide on saving for youth sports will help you learn about the costs involved and plan for those expenses before they become untenable for your finances.
Cost of youth sports
The cost of youth sports varies depending on the sport. Expenses can include registration fees, equipment, camps, private lessons and travel. Travel, in particular, can be the most expensive cost when you factor in fuel or airfare, hotel, meals and other items. Travel costs average around $196 per sport, according to Project Play, a 2019 research initiative by the Aspen Institute to track youth sports’ participation and costs. This amount can vary greatly per sport, with the average travel cost of field hockey, for example, at $934.
Project Play estimates sports families spend an average of $693 per sport and per child each year. Their study also provides averages for different types of sports. Swimming, for example, costs an average of $786 annually, while skiing costs $2,249 annually. A child enrolled in skiing and swimming would amass $3,035 in costs in a year, according to this data
The graph below shows the annual costs of the top five most expensive sports.
Key statistics for youth sports expenses:
- Travel is the most expensive youth sport cost on average ($196 annually), followed by equipment ($144) and private lessons ($134). (Project Play)
- The sports most likely to have no costs for families are skateboarding and bicycling, with 38 percent of parents reporting spending no money on skateboarding and 33 percent spending none on bicycling. (Project Play)
- Of children ages 6-12, just 24 percent of those with a household income of $25,000 or less played sports on a regular basis, compared with 43 percent from those with household incomes of $100,000 or more. (Aspen Institute’s 2021 State of Play report)
- 37 percent of male children participated in youth sports, while 30 percent of females did. (State of Play)
- The sport with the highest participation rate in 2020 was bicycling, with 18.2 percent of kids ages 6-12 participating in it, followed by basketball with a 14.8 percent participation rate). (State of Play)
- From 2019 to 2020, the sport that faced the greatest decline in participation was swimming (-23.6 percent). Meanwhile, tennis saw the greatest increase in participation (37.7 percent). (State of Play)
- The three states with the highest percentage of reported sports participation in kids ages 6-17 are North Dakota (67.4 percent), Vermont (66 percent) and New Hampshire (65.8 percent). (2019-2020 National Survey of Children’s Health)
- The three states with the lowest percentage of reported sports participation in kids ages 6-17 are Louisiana (46 percent), New Mexico (46 percent) and Arizona (46.1 percent). (2019-2020 National Survey of Children’s Health)
- School work was reported as the top reason why children don’t play sports in surveys of several regions, including Harlem, New York; Mobile County, Alabama; Seattle-King County, Washington; and Hawaii. (Aspen Institute’s community youth surveys)
- There’s a gap in youth sports participation between low socioeconomic schools and high socioeconomic schools; 24.6 percent of eighth graders in the low socioeconomic schools played sports, compared with 36.1 percent in high socioeconomic schools. (State of Play)
How to fund youth sports
- Open a savings account for sports expenses and contribute to it regularly. When shopping around for a savings account, look for high savings rates, no minimum account balances and no or low monthly fees. Some savings accounts may also offer bonuses that can contribute toward a sports expenses fund.
- Set up automatic transfers. There are several bank apps as well as third-party savings apps that can help automatically move money from a checking to a savings account for you, such as Digit and Current. Even if you set up automatic transfers to save just $10 biweekly, that’s still $260 saved up in a year.
- Take advantage of travel rewards. Many sports require regular travel, so it makes sense to earn rewards on those travel expenses. Travel credit cards can offer cash back or redeemable points for things like hotel stays, rental cars, flights and dining. Just make sure to pay off the balances each month, so you can avoid interest charges.
- Check to see if there are fundraising opportunities. Some youth sports teams hold fundraisers to help offset the various costs of participating, including equipment and travel costs.
- Consider low-income or free options. Organizations like Every Kid Sports and the Kids Play USA Foundation work with low-income families, providing them with resources so their kids can play. Local organizations, like the YMCA, may also offer aid opportunities.
- Encourage your child to take on a summer job. Washing cars, dog-walking or babysitting during the off-months could be a way for your kid to learn more about money management while also incentivizing them to save up for sports.
How to reduce costs and establish a budget
Even with fundraising and lower-cost options, you’ll still likely have to pay some out-of-pocket expenses for youth sports. However, knowing the costs ahead of time and preparing a budget can make these expenses more manageable.
Here are some ways to budget the costs of youth sports:
- Factor sports costs into your savings goal. Consider making a separate line item in a budget for saving for the various expenses of youth sports, including participation fees, camps, uniforms, equipment and travel fees.
- Anticipate costs that can arise at different times throughout the season. For example, you may have to pay for equipment and registration fees at the beginning of the season, and later have to pay for specific travel expenses as the season progresses. Knowing what expenses are to come can help you save up ahead of time.
- Cut back on costs by buying used sports equipment. Equipment can be one of the highest costs of youth sports—and one of the biggest areas you can save. Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist or retailers like Play It Again Sports are some places to get used (and cheaper) equipment.
- Pool resources together to save money. Carpooling kids to local games or receiving a group hotel rate can reduce fuel and travel expenses.
- Look for volunteer opportunities within the sports organization. By volunteering, you could reduce or eliminate the participation fee.
- Register as early as possible. Many sports organizations offer discounts when you register for games and tournaments early.
With high inflation and youth sports already being quite costly, it’s important to know what to expect when paying for your child’s sports participation so you can prepare ahead of time.
Some ways to reduce the burden of these costs include establishing a budget, fundraising and seeking out low-cost alternatives. Consider opening a savings account and contributing to it regularly. Then, you can build up a fund for sports expenses while also earning some interest.
— The original version of this story was written by Sean Jackson.