Bird Brown: Losing our way with what's important in youth sports

I fell in love with soccer as a 7-year-old on the playgrounds of the American School in Rio de Janeiro, a love that continues with me to this day.

I began coaching soccer as a 19-year-old, second-year freshman in college. I coached youth teams and then coached (and played) in the early days of the Westminster Wolves Soccer Club’s men’s team.


When my first son was born, I couldn’t wait to get him on the soccer field to share my passion for the game that brought me so much joy and so many positive competitive experiences. I continued the same pattern with each of my three boys, introducing them to not only the game I loved so much, but also the world of youth sports that included soccer, basketball, T-ball, baseball, rugby, and lacrosse.

I’ve been involved for more than 20 years in some form of youth sports with one or more of my sons in practically every facet of the game, from parent to administrator, referee to coach, and from many levels of play from the beginnings at the YMCA as a volunteer dad coach to being the coach of the state’s No. 6-ranked Baltimore Celtic Soccer Club’s West 2001 boys team.

I helped or coached in each of the other sports in which they were involved.

In May I completed a masters degree in Collegiate Athletic Administration, and I studied in detail the explosive finances of major collegiate sports and the growth of the impact sports have had on the college campus and in the communities they support.

What I have realized through my experiences and my recent academic ventures is the alarmingly similar trends that are being reflected in the growth of youth sports as a business enterprise.

The fact that “youth sports” and “business enterprise” can be used in the same sentence should be enough cause for concern, but in fact that is exactly in to what youth sports has developed and the trends show a future with even more concentration on the financial investment of youth sports than the development of the player, or even more importantly, the person, through their involvement in youth sports.

I have been on the front lines of these sweeping changes, and have been caught up in the excitement and increased expectations that these changes have spurred. I’ve called for increased commitment from my players on the field and financial commitments of the parents to ensure that we give them the best possible opportunities.

I’ve written for years that we as a community jump in to the arms race of youth sports facilities that each and every one of our neighboring counties have committed to in recent years. I’ve complained as I’ve written the rental checks to other county recreation councils for use of their facilities as we don’t have the same ones to offer to our citizens, even the ones who are members of our own recreation councils supported by our own tax-funded local governments.

I’ve committed my teams to many tournaments across state lines and asked my parents to take off work on a Friday, spend their hard-earned money on gas, food, and hotel rooms, and drag their younger siblings along, sacrificing their own personal time.

A player’s annual fees can reach in to the thousands of dollars to pay for registration costs, uniforms, equipment, tournament fees, field rentals, league fees, referee expenses, and coaches training fees. A recent article I read estimated that many people spend up to ten percent of their annual salary trying to cover their child’s athletic fees.

I understand the main attraction to most of us parents that are willing to spend our precious resources to give our kids these opportunities — the skyrocketing cost of a college education and the lure the $3 billion pot of college athletic scholarships available each year.

Yet, only 2 percent — TWO PERCENT — of high school athletes will make it in to the Division I level of collegiate sport and tap in to those riches.

I really have no problem with the professional coaches and the entrepreneurs capitalizing on the estimated $15 billion youth sports market. Professional coaches spend the time to improve their skills, staying on top of their game and bringing that expertise to their teams.

My concern is with all of the emphasis of people lining their pockets on the backs of youth sports, have we lost sight of what is the most important element of youth sports — our youth?


Are we really reorganizing youth sports with more emphasis on specialization and higher costs associated with a higher level of competition and training without understanding the effects of those new principles on the participants?

Abigail Van Buren once wrote, “If you want your children to turn out well, spend twice as much time with them and half as much money.”

Maybe we’ve lost track of that in youth sports.