I wish I knew how it all started. The sponsorship deals, the exaggerated importance, and the sectors of commercialization in youth sports. The attention given to revenue and the creation of elite/luxury training programs for adolescents has significantly changed the sporting environment I grew up in . Maybe I’m just an idealist and I’ve always held sports on a pedestal when considering the significance of peer relationships and good coaching. Maybe it’s an inherent belief I hold that sports allows for the development of life skills instead of the development of marketing strategies. Whatever the reason, I could never have anticipated the changing youth sports market in the same way that opportunists like Stephen Griffin and John St. Pierre have.
After I finished reading Griffin’s “Front Row Seat: Greed and Corruption in a Youth Sports Company”, I held a lot of competing feelings. As a former employee of Legacy Sports and Global Premiere Soccer (GPS), I was keenly interested in what the former CEO (Griffin) had to say in his novel. This was a fictional retelling of the real events that lead to the rise and eventual bankruptcy of GPS. Simply put, I was frustrated with the outcome and I wanted answers as to how this happened. Simultaneously, I was curious. I wanted to understand the changing landscape of youth sports after witnessing some examples first-hand. Both reasons were motivating factors to read and engage with Griffin’s book.
To acknowledge my own bias, GPS furloughed myself and a majority (if not all) of the regional club coaches when COVID began. This in itself was difficult to deal with, but I ultimately felt like it was just another symptom of the pandemic. What I would eventually uncover through reading Griffin’s novel is that GPS had illegally organized American VISAs to be given to coaches from the UK. Again, problematic, but still I didn’t have a reason to feel any kind of animosity toward the youth soccer club. GPS had almost become an institution amongst my childhood friends involved in soccer. GPS was a club I played against growing up and an organization for which I sincerely enjoyed coaching. When the pandemic ravaged the soccer club, the truth came out. GPS refused to provide refunds to parents and players who had been paying thousands of dollars to participate. What seemingly occurred overnight, the competitive season, tournaments, and individual training programs were all terminated without discounts or financial compensation. This was because as Griffin notes, the accounting was shady and deceitful from the start. To clarify the following quote, Griffin refers to John St. Pierre (former Legacy Sports CEO) as Jamie Devlin throughout the novel and GPS as BBFC assumingly to avoid defamation.
They thought that a change in accounting methods would provide enough “messiness” and eliminate meaningful year-over-year comparisons to conceal whatever inappropriate things had been done. I could see what he (Devlin) was trying to do – it was not good.
He would rather preserve his job and the inflated valuation of the company than accurately present BBFC’s financial performance. They were taking a corrupt and myopic approach that would eventually catch up to both of them.Front Row Seat: Greed and Corruption in a Youth Sports Company
And eventually, it did catch up to GPS, St. Pierre, and those involved in the illegal VISA allocation and the disingenuous accounting practices. The greed and ignorance of those involved with GPS and Legacy Sports almost feels inherent after reading Front Row Seat, Griffin included. This problem isn’t just unique to club soccer either. In an article by Times Magazine, Gregory (2017) outlines the financial and time commitment of youth baseball.
The cost for parents is steep. At the high end, families can spend more than 10% of their income on registration fees, travel, camps and equipment. Joe Erace, who owns a salon and spas in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, says Joey’s budding baseball career has cost north of $30,000.(Gregory, 2017)
If swelling prices are a result of corporate greed opposed to a directly proportional improved product (coaching/player experience/skill development/opportunity), then the question becomes, why. Why do parents, families, and players enable the commercialization and increasing costs of sport participation? Griffin has a hypothesis of his own,
Some say that the industry preys upon obsessed, competitive parents living vicariously through their children, dreaming of college scholarships or, worse, a professional sports career. Parents often fail to consider that only between 3% and 5% of high school athletes go on to play at the college level. Regardless of their motivations, parents were spending on youth sports like never before.Front Row Seat: Greed and Corruption in a Youth Sports Company
Waldron et al., (2020) has found that early specialization in sport offered no advantage in determining if youth athletes would play professionally. Athletes who specialized earlier had shorter careers and tendencies for burnout, amotivation, and dissatisfaction in most cases. Conversely, athletes who engaged in sport specific training and competition prior to age 12 were more likely to reach elite status.
Whether specialization is the driving factor of commercial interests or not, it’s having an adverse effect on sport participation as a whole. Marin (2017) graphs the decreasing team sport participation amongst adolescent children in the U.S from 2011 to 2016. Again, there might be a number of factors that are contributing to this unfortunate decline but the outcome still insinuates that kids still lose out.
My role now as a researcher is to attempt to map the values and behaviors of the families participating in a means-based system of sport development. One framework that lends itself to understanding these questions and motivations is the Eccles et al., (1983) Expectancy Value Framework.
Eccles Expectancy Value Framework
Early February I had a chance to reconnect with Emily Wright, a burgeoning expert in the field of sport and exercise psychology. Emily is currently utilizing the Eccles framework to inform her dissertation. Emily’s work with hockey families seeks to answer and discuss questions related to every step of the Eccles et al., (1983) framework (re-created below). The framework rightly has some criticisms and limitations but we’ll focus on the potential implications for the purpose of this post.
During my conversation with Emily, I was interested in trying to connect the socio-economic implications to a dynamic youth sports landscape through the lens of the Value Framework. Emily identified the associated benefits and costs of these task values as an important component of the resulting achievement behaviors. Families are seeking a “return on investment” with their children after giving time, money, and energy to a sport or specific team. With some of the families Emily is working with, individuals who had previously played hockey when they were growing up held beliefs of their children’s continued involvement. Given my own introductory admission to the personal significance of playing soccer growing up, I can imagine this feeling to be true for most individuals regardless of the sport context. As we continued to discuss Emily’s research and a number of associated hypotheticals, our conversation helped me think differently about what I read and my own experience in sport.
Growing up, my Dad coached every team I played on. Soccer, basketball, and even a quick volunteering stint when I took up lacrosse. I appreciated the time we got to spend together and I loved that my childhood friends called him “coach” whenever they would come over, as if they were just as proud to be associated with him. My Dad never played soccer growing up so I think this significantly impacted his beliefs, attitudes and expectations of me in this setting. As a result, I always felt encouraged by my Dad and never embarrassed or like I was receiving some kind of special treatment. It was because of this approach I believe I learned the value of equity and I continued to form my own perception of ability and associative values. A number of explanations come to mind when I think about my continued involvement and motivation to play. Maybe it was the autonomy my Dad gave me in this environment. Maybe it was continued achievement related behaviors that improved my self-efficacy in sport. Whatever it was, my Dad would continue to coach me through high school and the cyclical nature of the framework emphasized how my previous behaviors informed his beliefs and attitudes. That’s me in the front with the 9 other seniors I grew up with. And yes, I am sporting a pink mohawk. It was all the rage in 2012.
Ultimately, the Eccles et al., (1983) framework is attempting to explain the achievement behaviors of youth in sport but maybe the emphasis has shifted given the changing context. Do families pay exorbitant amounts of money because the perceived benefits of sport involvement outweigh the costs? Do they believe that by paying more they can justify a higher expectation of skill development and an eventual pathway to professional sport? Or is it something else entirely? During our conversation, Emily left me with an invaluable reminder. As a researcher, I have to treat everyone as their own example. I am a huge fan of models and theories that help me understand the expected behaviors of groups and individuals. It’s simple. It’s clean. It makes sense. Continuing to take this approach will only lead to bias in my work and a failure to capture the nuance of the situations I’m studying. Whether it’s the hockey families that Emily is currently working with or it’s my own dissertation down the road. I am grateful to Emily for this reminder.
In essence, this is how we should treat every day. Each day is new and full of change. If we are intentional to keep an open mind and treat every day as something worth exploring instead of simply routine, this will only lead to opportunity and learning.
Eccles, J. S., & Harold, R. (1991). Gender differences in sport involvement: Applying the Eccles et al. model. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 3, 7–35.
Gregory, S. (2017, August 24). How Kids’ Sports Became a $15 Billion Industry. Time. https://time.com/4913687/how-kids-sports-became-15-billion-industry/
Marin, M. (2017, October 18). Data Shows Travel Teams Killing Youth Sports. Samford University. https://www.samford.edu/sports-analytics/fans/2017/Data-Shows-Travel-Teams-Killing-Youth-Sports
Waldron, S., DeFreese, J. D., Register-Mihalik, J., Pietrosimone, B., & Barczak, N. (2020). The Costs and Benefits of Early Sport Specialization: A Critical Review of Literature. Quest, 72(1), 1–18.