It’s About More Than Making A Buck

By Fred Engh

The numbers are staggering—roughly 20 percent of children live in households with incomes below the federal poverty threshold—and many lack athletic opportunities because of it. And that’s troubling.

We know how valuable sports are in kids’ lives for the physical benefits: Regular exercise fuels healthy habits and carves out a foundation for leading active lives as adults.

But it’s those life lessons—discipline, sacrifice, resilience, teamwork, abiding by rules, winning and losing with grace, and so many others—that are incredibly meaningful.

Shrinking Participation
A few years ago, a University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on children’s health asked parents of middle- and high-school-age children about participation and cost of school sports. Researchers found that 12 percent of parents overall said the cost of school sports caused a drop in participation for at least one of their children. However, that varied substantially based on income.

Among lower-income families—those earning less than $60,000 per year—19 percent said their children’s participation decreased because of costs. But among families earning more than $60,000 per year, only 5 percent reported costs had caused their children to participate less.

Plus, consider this: Children ages 6 through 12 whose family income is under $25,000 are nearly three times as likely to be inactive and half as likely to play on a team sport even for one day. Registration fees, equipment costs, and uniforms can all play a part in shutting kids out of sports.

Give Kids A Chance
Helping to ensure that children from low-income homes don’t miss out on all the incredible benefits of being involved in a youth-sports program is a major challenge for recreation departments nationwide. I checked in with Tracey Lawrence-Thomas, a Certified Youth Sports Administrator (CYSA) with the Detroit (Mich.) Parks and Recreation Department, to see how it addresses this challenging issue. Here’s what she had to say:

Working in an urban city is very difficult when it comes to fees and charging for events and sports. The first thing we do is to make sure we have a meager cost for memberships. Youth fees are just $5 per year, and teen fees are just $7 per year. This membership allows for participants to come to our facilities and participate in open gym, swim, and other sporting activities. With specialty programs, we always factor scholarships into the budget. This allows us to offer fee-based programs to those who are unable to afford them, for minimal to no cost. Though the programs are inexpensive to start, we are aware that every family cannot afford $20 for a swim lesson, especially when there is more than one child in the household who wants to participate.

Better Than A Bottom Line 
Whether it is sports or something else, it is very important to have activities for youth. If they are not occupied with positive options, they tend to find negative things to do. We work with partner organizations and school systems to find options for communities that do not have facilities in their neighborhoods. This past summer, we opened “Summer Fun Centers” that gave youth open activities to participate in for free! These fun centers were open along with 10 other recreation sites to give youth plenty to do for the summer months. We strive to make these same opportunities available all year long so every child is given a chance.

“We Make It Happen!” is our motto and we do just that. If we have to allow a youth participant to bring in $1 per day (or sometimes less) to pay towards the membership fee or program fee, we do just that. It is important that facilities are accessible to all and that programs are available to even those who cannot afford them!

Fred Engh is founder of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla. He can be reached via email at To join more than 3,000 communities by starting a NAYS chapter, visit or contact Emmy Martinez at or (800) 729-2057.