Pay-To-Play Becomes Paid-To-Play

For every young athlete, the beginning of their athletic career involves paying to play. Parents pay for equipment and team fees, coaches and travel, insurance and entry fees. For some it’s as simple as a pair of sneaker and some shorts, for others its thousands of dollars for professional coaches to teach their children to play games at extreme proficiency. I make no judgment.

I merely want to shine a light on the transition from PAID-to-play to PAID-to-play. When you pay to play, or your parents pay for you to play, there is the expectation that the young athlete’s participation in the activity is part of their education, something that is being pursued for health, well-being, and fun. Perhaps you see the young athlete's participation as a facet of their training to ready them for life. They are playing on a team sport to teach them to lead and be led, to work with others, to accomplish a shared goal.

When you transition from pay to play to being paid to play, however, the expectation changes. No longer is the primary reason for participating in the sport to become a healthier, more well-educated, or more complete human. When you’re being paid to play, you are being compensated for performance. The athlete is now a paid performer so that others can make money from their performance. The NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks organization charges $100 for a ticket so that you can walk into the building and watch Patrick Kane play ice hockey. The Blackhawks pay Patrick Kane his multi-million salary because so that they can reap profits through many different revenue streams.

Of course, this is quite obvious at the level of professional sport. However, it’s less obvious in amateur sports. The transition from pay to play to paid to play and the underlying shifts in perspective are worth thinking about.

When your young athlete is offered a free spot on the travel team that other families are paying to have their child on, they are becoming paid performers. The organization is subsidizing your eight-year-old’s team fees because they think he or she will help the team win, which will draw more paying customers to their program. They also expect him or her to move on to other high-performance programs and provide testimonial benefit (after playing on the Double A Golden Ice Dogs, Young Johnny was able to attend Holy Grail Academy and now plays in the NHL). This kind of proof of product output will bring hundreds of paying customers to the program for years to come. The same rationale is true with scholarships to schools, sponsorships from corporations. They are paying your athlete in return for the kinds of performance which will bring in money in other ways.

Just beware that when an athlete transitions from pay-to-play to paid-to-play the primary emphasis is not to learn, grow, or simply have fun playing a game. The young athlete is now paid to perform and achieve results that will propel the business.

In the end, everyone who works for a living is a paid performer. The question is, do you want your child’s participation in sports to be about becoming a paid performer? And if you do, if your child has the emotional maturity to handle this, at what age do you support it?