Wanderings – Improving sports for all by ending pay-to-play

If there is one thing that could be done to improve how athletics development happens in Canada, it would be to end pay-to-play in sports.

This is something that European sports clubs – and depending on the sport, clubs across the world – have already figured out. Yet in Canada and the United States, we haven’t – and it is needlessly cutting out youth from sports opportunity.

I’ve been involved with youth soccer for 15 years at various levels and have seen first hand how many clubs have taken pay-to-play and run with it. If you’ve ever had your kids in organized sports, you know it isn’t just in one sport, but almost all them.

The worst offender in Canada is hockey, our “national” sport. To play at an elite level, you have to pay. A lot more than if you are playing in your home club in house or rep leagues. If a player has an exceptional talent, the only way to be seen or noticed by those who scout talent is to play in those elite levels. That visibility comes at a much higher price than at the grass roots level. Great for those who can afford it – opportunities lost for those who can’t. Soccer, baseball, basketball, football – all these sports have the same issues to varying degrees.

The European/Global system works differently. Entry to sport is kept reasonable. There are low or no registration fees for families. Sponsorships and grants make up the majority of funding. Sports clubs, whether it is soccer (football), rugby, hockey, or other sports – even cricket, have scouts who look at the grass roots level to identify talent. Those identified are given opportunities with those clubs – at low or no cost. Why?

Those clubs, and I will use soccer as the example, know that by investing in developing those talented players, they will grow the game, their club’s brand, and get eyeballs to watch games. Pro teams support amateur and youth teams. Governments do as well.

Many of the players in youth academies and soccer programs will never get to a professional level with the big transfer price tags you see. But they grow in the sport and have educational opportunities right through to post-secondary.

In Canada and the United States, there are some exceptions of course. Those are conscientious efforts by teams, and not the norm. At least six of the players on our local junior hockey team played entirely in local minor hockey before playing junior. That team just advanced past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in nearly 20 years. But that has been a concentrated effort by local ownership to support local minor hockey.

At the higher levels of junior hockey, pay-to-play rules the day. Instead of paying hundreds of dollars to play, families pay many thousands of dollars. For those families, it can pay off with a draft into elite leagues like the OHL, or collegiate-level opportunities. How many youth never have the opportunity because of the lack of money?

It is no different in soccer. Want to play at a super high competitive level? If you pass the tryouts, be ready to fork out the cash in fees. Soccer has taken a page out of the hockey pay-to-play book.

Many youth dream of going pro when they play. Many kids want to be the next Gretzky, McDavid, Ronaldo, Messi or Vlad Jr. Those dreams can fuel their drive to work harder at their sport and in life. When the talent and drive is there, money should not be what holds a person back. This is true for non-sports pursuits too.

As much as this is an issue in Canada, it is far worse in the U.S. A soccer coach I follow from there, Kyle Wilson, has been vocal about the need for change within the U.S. soccer system. There are others advocating for these changes in that country, less so in Canada.

Jumpstart, the charity funded through Canadian Tire, published as survey in 2023 that said that 44 per cent of families cannot afford to register their children in any sports. The benefits of having youth in organized activities are well documented.

Many organizations and governing bodies have made a large effort in recent years to provide more access, opportunity, and inclusion to all youth. But without tackling the Moneyball pay-to-play model that remains at the core of these organizations and limiting opportunities – these efforts will be for naught.

This column was originally published in the February 28, 2024 print edition of The Morrisburg Leader.