Growing up in the 80’s, the desire to be a “rock star” seemed almost ubiquitous. Not everyone was in a band at one point but the numbers were high enough to take notice. The proliferation of MTV allowed for widespread exposure to a life that many people assumed that they wanted. In the end most of those dreams faded because the path was too difficult for most to bear. Constant practicing, trying to get signed, playing small gigs for no money and myriad of other obstacles were enough to teach “would be” rock stars to look for another direction. Another key obstacle was parental approval. Most parents saw the dream as unlikely and allowed their kids to pursue it but not overly invest themselves.
Fast forward to the present day where we have a similar situation surrounding professional sports. While kids have always aspired to be professional athletes, it has a much greater parental push than ever. Youth sports are a multi-million (probably billion) dollar industry. With the pervasive use of professional training, specialization and speed/agility work, one might think that every twelve year old kid was preparing for life as a professional athlete. The truth of the matter is that they already are.
Whether NBA, MLS, NFL or NHL, the business model is the same. The fans pay money for tickets which the owners then use to pay the players, coaches and for equipment. Sometimes sponsors help to offset costs but they usually reap an advertising reward. The only real difference is that the parents don’t receive a physical season ticket. They pay for the coaches and equipment but since this is a developmental league, the players don’t get paid yet. Although I am saying this with a little tongue in cheek, it is not far off.
The youth ranks seem to become more “professional” each year. So what explanation should be given to all of the players who don’t make it to one of the top levels? Is the justification for the capital investment going to be that it taught teamwork, confidence and other life skills? Seemingly it’s not teamwork, as parents move their kids in an almost mercenary fashion to different clubs for “exposure” or “better competition”. Not for confidence building as overly competitive teams focus on results rather than development so players are chopped and changed annually. Getting a kid to believe in themselves is tough when always under a performance microscope. Any life lessons that could be taught would have been administered as well by a parent with experience. Rather than a trainer whose interest in the kids may be based more on financial gain and results and not the kids personally. So how is the seismic shift toward youth professionalism going to be explained? Will it be an unfortunate memory like a bad hairstyle? Or will it be an core identifier of an entire generation?
At a certain point each of us must decide if we are on the right path. Supply is often based on demand. The demand for professional youth players may wane as the academy system matures and is less of a “cash grab”. Until then all of us must identify our desired outcome from sport. There is nothing wrong with chasing a life as a professional provided that it is done with open eyes. Traveling salesmen with miracle cures used to move from town to town selling their products. It’s easy to blame the salesman when he’s gone. It’s much more difficult to justify being hoodwinked by ourselves. So decide early which path you are truly on. It’s OK to change course but heading east to get to the Pacific is a bad strategy anywhere in the US.
Enjoy the week!