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Brooks Wilson's Economics Blog: Wheelan and the Little League Arms Race

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Wheelan and the Little League Arms Race

(HT Mankiw) I have a son who has come up through the modern Little League making Charles Wheelan's remarks in "Stop the Little League Arms Race," posted by Yahoo Finance on July 23, 2009 of personal as well as professional interest.   He begins by explaining how economists define an arms race and how it applies to youth athletics.
Economists use "arms race" to describe any situation in which some competition leads to a bad outcome for all the parties involved...

I'm convinced that young athletes (or, more accurately, their parents) are locked in an arms race...In any case, the youth sports competition could leave all our kids worse off, [Wheelan later mentions injuries that were uncommon in youth players not long ago.] not entirely unlike bankrupt airlines or countries struggling to manage huge defense budgets.

I have heard the same complaint over and over again since becoming a parent:  kids' sports are becoming ridiculously competitive.  There are 8-year-olds with private hitting coaches, and 9-year-olds being told that they have no future in a sport if they are not playing in competitive leagues during the off-season...

If everyone practices three times as much, the same folks will probably end up with the scholarships, prize money and Nike endorsements.  And if we assume that the extra practice, coaching and spending on equipment comes at the expense of other things (like riding a bike for fun, playing other sports or doing something really crazy like playing "kick the can" in the backyard for a few hours), then our kids' lives are worse for it.

But no one alone can stop what is going on in youth sports.  That's the insidious part of an arms race or a price war.  If you are the only family who pulls your kid out of winter Little League, then he is going to do poorly relative to other kids who play year-round.
One of my sons is very competitive and loves baseball.  He is a bright child, and realizes just how unique professional players are, and harbors little hope of a professional career.  He does hope to play high school baseball, and that even being a competitive player at this level will be difficult.  He is dropping out of football to concentrate on baseball.  To aid him in his goals, I have become a minor participant in the arms race, I can attest to its high cost.  I have purchased good equipment but generally not the best: two bats, a thin barrel for Little League, and a big barrel for select, a fielder's glove, first basemen's glove, and catchers mitt as well as other catcher's gear, shoes, well over 100 balls, team dues, uniforms, and from time to time I have paid for hitting, fielding and pitching lessons.  For those who have not priced equipment, and good bat cost about $200 and needs to be replaced about every 18 months as a child grows.  He has played in the Little League for 6 years and on a select team for two.  Finding a select team for him to play on was difficult because we place church activities above sports and select teams play in tournaments that begin on Saturday and end on Sunday.  Few teams want a Saturday only player.  It has hurt him competitively. 

Wheelan identifies a potential problem.
If all of this makes kids and young families happier than they were 20 years ago, terrific.  But I don't think that's what is going on.  As far as I can tell, sports have three purposes: To get exercise, to have fun or to get your kid into college, earn a scholarship, turn professional and become rich and famous.

The evolution in youth sports appears to be mostly about the third one.  Here's the problem with that:  The number of scholarships (and college athletes) is more or less fixed.  So is the number of professional athletes and the total amount of money to be won on the PGA Tour.
I believe that Wheelan has correctly identified the three purposes of youth sports, but I do not agree that most parents involve their kids in athletics for scholarships and big money alone.  I know dozens of young baseball players and their parents and although many parents and players hope for fame and fortune, all the players enjoy high levels of competition.  These players are not just competitive in baseball, they are competitive in everything they believe is important.

Wheelan is certainly correct when he states that the number is scholarships and positions in professional athletics is more or less fixed and if parents are engaged in a battle to win those positions they are truly participating in a zero sum game with escalating costs.  He correctly points out that education is more likely to benefit our youth.
It's crucial to recognize the difference between intensive athletic practices and something like studying.  Competitive athletic success is a zero sum game.  There will be the same number of major league players making the same salaries if everyone in the world became twice as good at playing baseball.  A-Rod would still be on the Yankees, not you.  He'd just be twice as good as he is now.

Studying, on the other hand, makes people smarter, more educated and more productive.  And that makes your life better, regardless of what everyone else is doing.  Economic productivity is not a zero sum game.  If we all became twice as smart, we would all be richer, healthier, safer and so on.  As the United States became steadily more educated and richer over the past 200 years, no one on the planet had to get poorer.
From my small sample, youth baseball players are in the top half of their classes academically.  Parents certainly value education even if they underestimate its value in comparison to baseball or overestimate its value in earning an education.  In the end, Wheelan's question must be answered empirically.  Why do parents pay so much for their kids to play baseball?

The arms race in baseball may also say something about the future typical player.  Major League Baseball players may come from average to above average income homes because parents on the lower end of the income distribution cannot compete in the arms race.


  1. Judging by my experience in baseball, money definately has a role however i dont know if it makes a big enough difference on improving the skill of the play. After leaving my career as a little league player for 6 years, i played 4 years of select baseball. During my time playing select, i noticed that where the player came from, wealthy or poor, didn't say a whole lot about their skill. We would play teams with private instructures and always found a way to put up a fight. Baseball is a game of hard work and patience. Those are things money can't buy.

    Aaron Rogers - J. Hoeffner

  2. Money doesn't make a big impact when it comes to how well a child plays baseball. How well a child plays baseball is all due to the talent the child is blessed to have and how coachable they are. No matter what kind of bat a kid has if he or she can hit the ball they will hit it a more expensive bat isn't going to help them become an excellent batter, however it may make the ball go a little further but that is about it. The market for professional and collegiate athletes is at a max so no matter how hard parents try to make their children world class athletes only the few with extraordinary talent will excel, and only if they work hard.

    Kaydi Perry

  3. To me most of the time the richer you are, the more "burnt out" you are. When you put a kid through lessons and year around teams then most likely (unless he's truely commited) the kid will get tired of it because it'll become something the parents want, not the kid. The people who do great and wind up in the Bigs are the ones that care and work the hardest (or they take steroids) ,and sometimes they come from wealthy families and also lower class families. Money can provide all of the resources you need, however the ones who have the most heart and the ones who work the hardest are the ones that go further because in baseball (or in anything you do) you have to care and put forth effort yourself! Money doesn't get you there (although it helps). The only thing that will get you to the top is YOU!

    Zach Johnigan

  4. Andy Salinas22/11/10 12:11 AM

    Money helps largely in sports such as tennis and golf when more technique is involved. In baseball, money helps with private lessons and such to improve batting stance, pitching, etc.., but to get great at baseball you have just got to hit the practice fields every single day. A good work ethic, an ability to listen to what elders say who have gone through the game before, along with a great attitude goes a long way. Sure a high income is nice to have to learn the game, but it is definitely not necessary.

  5. Part 1
    To me, I believe that the income of a family makes a difference, but rarely is an advantage. Of course having a lot of money will be able to help one afford the necessities of becoming a big time athlete. For instance, if one was to play tennis, the parents would have to pay for lessons (group of private depending on which is more affordable), equipment(rackets, strings, grips, shoes, bags), tournament fees, the expense of travel,and constantly buying new balls. But families that happen to have all this money makes me wonder how far that will truly get you. A family with a high income will most likely buy their child the most recent equipment or clothing to encourage their child to continue pursuing a higher level in their sport. This brings up the question: Whose dream is it really? The child or the parent? At many sporting events for children you often see parents yelling, complaining, and even heckling. The intensity in the atmosphere created by parents turns a suppose to be fun sporting event teaching teamwork, leadership, and sportsmanship into a hostile environment. The parents then have ridiculously high expectations for their child and force them to constantly practice and become better every day until the point the child can't take it anymore and eventually quits. Now if the dream really belongs to the child, that is fantastic. He or she happens to be incredibly blessed that his or her parent(s) have the ability to support the child reach their dream with money. Unfortunately not every child with money makes it. Why is that? They have everything they need right? I think that the child then becomes too spoiled and takes everything for granted. He or she will always assume mom and dad will be there to help them get what they want. And sadly it can get to the point where mom and dad have to pay the college to get you there. You probably won't get much playing time, but I guess you get the "experience" of being on the team as the bench warmer.

  6. Part 2
    On the flip side, there are children in the world that may live in the projects. They dream just as big, but when it comes to reality, the sport really is the only way out of poverty. Back to the tennis example, why is it that there are very few Americans in the top 100 of the pros? Why is it that it is so hard to get a good scholarship and play DI tennis in America? And that at the collegiate and professional level is filled with Europeans? It's simple. Americans are spoiled. Although there are few Americans that do succeed, Europeans have more to fight for it seems. Not just to be the best at tennis, but to live. They need to support a family, get an education, make money to get out of poverty. It is that kind of determination and will that will get one to succeed. Although they have no money, their playing ability, work ethic, and talent begins grab attention of coaches, sponsors, and recruits. Jalen Rose and Chris Webber of Michigan's "Fab 5" didn't come from rich families. They constantly played basketball in the streets of Detroit. They worked hard to become great players in that competitive area.They never gave up. What sets them apart from others is they didn't stop at good. They tried being better than great. They spent even more of their time to do things like aau basketball. Jalen Rose, who played at a competitive public high school with 9 players that had DI scholarships. He worked hard not only to play, but he led the team to win a state championship (maybe more than one, not exactly sure). That hard work resulted in getting an education and a scholarship to attend The University of Michigan. In baseball, Joba Chamberlain of the New York Yankees didn't have the easy life. His mother left him when he was a child, they were not financially stable, and his dad had polio. Luckily for him, his dad still supported him. Chamberlain practiced by helping his dad sit on a bucket on the street and gave him a glove. Chamberlain would repeatedly pitch to him for hours until he felt he accomplished something. For the balls that were badly thrown, he would have to run town the street to retrieve the ball before pitching again. But it was the never being satisfied with good that led him to become great.
    So yes, there are the advantages to being rich and having everything you need to help you. As a father you sure as heck better be 110% positive that your child wants to make it big time as much, if not more than you. And with your money, continue being a dad and giving moral support. Let the professional know-it-all coaches push your child harder than you do. You never know, there are many children out there that are practicing 24\7 365 not only because they genuinely love the sport, but because they need it to survive.