Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

May 1, 2012

The Business of Baby Sports

An overemphasis on youth sports can harm kids, Mark Hyman has found, but it can be a boon for a surprisingly wide range of businesses.

Shlomo Sprung

In a recent book, Mark Hyman argued that taking youth sports too seriously—even obsessively—harms kids. Now, in a follow-up, The Most Expensive Game in Town: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today's Families, he reports that this national obsession can be good for business, at least some businesses.

Mark Hyman
"Parents (including me) often make the assumption that more is better when it comes to youth sports."

Mark Hyman

From infant gyms to high-school-football combines, youth sports and fitness programs are pushing parents to spend thousands of dollars a year on children who are highly unlikely to get a college scholarship. Then there are corporate sponsors like Mountain Dew, Gatorade, and ESPN who profit on youth sports and on cities nationwide that have invested so much to make their towns the new Youth Sports USA. Hyman, also the author of Until It Hurts: America's Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids, says there are powerful financial interests obscuring a point made by child-sports experts: starting children down a specialized-sports path before a certain age confers few or no real advantages.

In the following interview, conducted over email and edited for clarity, Hyman tells Gelf why unilateral disarmament isn't appealing in the youth-sports arm race, when corporate interests can coexist with kids' best interests, and which program provides a welcome contrast to the mounting expenses of childhood athletics.

Gelf Magazine: This is your second book on youth sports. You've had kids who were active in youth sports Were there any other factors that led you back to write a second book on the topic?

Mark Hyman: It was the idea of my editor at Beacon Press, Helene Atwan. Several months after Until It Hurts was published, Helene suggested that we think about a second book. She'd re-read a couple of paragraphs in the first book about Athletic Baby, a company that produces sports videos for small children. She thought there'd be an important story to tell about the business of youth sports: why we spend all that money and where it goes.

Gelf Magazine: There were a few examples in the book describing the extremes of the youth-sports market that could be seen as off the wall or outrageous. What was your initial reaction to infant and toddler gyms? Do you think children should start formal exercise at such a young age?

Mark Hyman: I've spoken with many pediatricians and sports-medicine experts about the right time for a child to start in sports. Usually, the answer is, before the age of six or seven, kids aren't becoming athletes. They're not developing sports skills.
There are good reasons to sign up your kid for a gym class. Maybe you want to expose her to a social setting with other kids. Maybe it's just a social hour for parent and child. However, if you're banking on giving your child a competitive edge in sports, don't bother. Some gyms and organized programs quietly plant the idea that they're training babies and toddlers. I like what Bob Bigelow has to say about that in the book: "If they are out there propagating claims that if a baby does this, it will be [a good athlete] and if it doesn't it won't, I am going to put my hand up and say this is crap.”

Gelf Magazine: Parents must face so much pressure to buy their children the latest equipment and pay for wherever their athletic journey takes the family. How did the sports psychologists you spoke with react when you told them that some parents spend several thousand dollars a year for a daughter's travel softball team or a son's hockey team?

Mark Hyman: Out of context, it seems absurd. Why spend thousands of dollars (sometimes tens of thousands) training a child athlete? Why devote weekends to driving hundreds of miles to and from tournaments when a child could be playing in the park down the street?
In the real world of youth sports, in which parents are trying to give their child the best of everything, these choices seem reasonable. If every family agreed to take a step back, we might accomplish something. The idea of unilateral disarmament isn't that appealing. That's the take of several child psychologists I have spoken with.

Gelf Magazine: A large portion of the book is devoted to corporate sponsorship of youth events and how companies specifically target youth athletics. Do you think there is a moral or ethical problem with Red Bull, Mountain Dew, Nike, or Gatorade directly profiting from various travel tournaments and youth leagues?

Mark Hyman: Let's talk about two from that list—Mountain Dew and Red Bull. Mountain Dew is far from health food. It's very high in caffeine. And it isn't exactly recommended in a program to promote dental health. In the book, I note that a dentist in Kentucky went on Good Morning America to talk about the $150,000 he'd invested in a mobile clinic so he could fix the teeth of rural kids rotted by Mountain Dew and other high-calorie drinks.
For the book, I spoke with the head of the agency that handles sports marketing for Mountain Dew, Bill Carter, whom I respect. He explained, "I don't see it as a negative to acknowledge the truth and the truth is that teenagers shouldn't be drinking soft drinks or eating certain snacks in anything but a moderate way." The fact remains we're using youth sports to encourage behavior that isn't healthy and may be harmful.
Red Bull is a more egregious case. It's widely acknowledged that energy drinks such as Red Bull are risky for kids. Yet, until recently, Red Bull's marquee pitchman was Shaun White, the hero of every 12-year-old.

Gelf Magazine: Do you support corporate interests in youth sports?

Mark Hyman: I support a kid-centric approach to youth sports. When the interests of kids come first, there's no problem with corporate interests pitching in.

Gelf Magazine: You mentioned in the book that you paid for your son, a talented youth baseball player, to attend various baseball clinics (Cal Ripken's and others), even though there was only a small chance he'd play college ball. With all these private lessons and combines selling false hope to children and parents year after year, how can there ever be a point where this kind of "exploitation" wanes or levels off?

Mark Hyman: Parents (me included) often make the assumption that more is better. Two summer camps are better than one. Three are better than two. And a summer and fall (and maybe winter and spring) devoted to practicing and playing that one sport in which a child shows ability is best of all. Any pediatrician will tell you the opposite is true. We think we're helping our kids reach their full potential as athletes with the year-round focus. Instead, we're putting them at risk of burnout and overuse injuries. If more parents could be convinced of that, attitudes might change.

Gelf Magazine: You devoted a chapter to great organizations like SquashBusters that use sports and academics to change the lives of inner-city kids. Why did you decide to devote a chapter called "Beyond Commercialization" that diverged, in a way, from the tone of the rest of the book?

Mark Hyman: Commercialization is pervasive. So is the privatization of youth sports, a concept written about extensively by the sports sociologist Jay Coakley. Many kids have the expensive equipment, play in travel tournaments, stay in the Best Westerns, and eat in the Pizza Huts. Their families have the financial means to pay for those pricey sports experiences.
Other kids are totally left out. In their neighborhoods, there aren't organized leagues. Often, there are no fields. Their parents are working three jobs just to get by. In a book like The Most Expensive Game in Town, it's important to acknowledge the disparity and to bring attention to the people and organizations trying to reach these kids. Squashbusters is a wonderful program. Several others like it are highlighted in that chapter.

Gelf Magazine: Ten years from now, what do you think will be the biggest change in youth sports?

Mark Hyman: Sports training for babies? Wait, we already have that.

Gelf Magazine: If you had written this book before you had children who would grow into athletes who would travel hundreds, and even thousands, of miles for their specific teams, would you do anything differently with your kids?

Mark Hyman: I've thought about this. If my children were five and eight now (instead of 21 and 24), would I handle things differently? If so, how? I'd like to think I would do these things differently. I would spend less on the latest, greatest equipment. I would limit sports seasons to the actual season. I would do a better job protecting my older son's pitching arm. I wouldn't feel that awful churning in my gut when my child was at the plate or the foul line. (Forget that last one).

Shlomo Sprung

Shlomo Sprung is an accomplished sportswriter and blogger who graduated in 2011 from Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.

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Article by Shlomo Sprung

Shlomo Sprung is an accomplished sportswriter and blogger who graduated in 2011 from Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.

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