Pricey 'swag' is driving kids' sports costs up

Kids want to look like pros when they're playing their favourite sports. But the trend of non-essential, customized gear is putting a big dent in parents' wallets.

Looking like a pro doesn't come cheap

Want your kids to dress like the pros? It's going to cost you. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

If you have a child who plays sports, it can seem like another season is always on the horizon. Right now for many parents, the hockey and basketball seasons will be soon be in the rearview mirror and soccer and baseball will be front and centre.

With the beginning of any new season come stories exploring how sport X is becoming more and more and expensive and less accessible for many Canadian families. And it's true — sports do get more costly every year. The registration fees increase, permit fees go up, and so do equipment costs.

But there's another set of expenses that is rarely accounted for but can end up costing parents hundreds of additional dollars. It's the extras — the so-called "swag" that has become pervasive in youth sports. 

This is the stuff the game could played perfectly fine without — the tracksuits, custom bags and toques, bat bags with numbers stitched into them, home and away jersey with names on the back.

And it's become big business.

Costs add up

Eagle Beaver Sports is a massive store housed in a strip mall in Toronto's east end. On a recent visit to the warehouse, I was surrounded by thousands of boxes of hats, pants and track suits. You have to believe that if a piece of sports apparel exists, it's somewhere on one of these shelves.

When I ask the owner when the "busy" season is, he laughs.

"There really is no time off," says Stephen Gregoire, citing the year-round nature of today's competitive youth sports like hockey, baseball, soccer and football. "The seasons are extended so we really don't have a quiet time anymore."

Gregoire says teams used to buy extra stuff because they actually needed it, whereas now it's become more about parents and kids showing off that they made the team.

It's hard to put a dollar figure on this industry. But consider that, in Toronto alone, there are thousands of kids playing a variety of rep sports. You can rest assured their parents are shelling out a few hundred dollars each for whatever extras their child's team demands.

My eight-year-old son played rep hockey this year and I learned quickly. Going into the season, he had a functional hockey bag and a brand-new helmet. His pants and gloves still fit. He didn't end up using any of that stuff this season. Every player on the team was required to have the same bag, helmet, pants and gloves. Throw in a track suit, toque and sweatshirt, and it adds up quickly.

Look like a pro

Why are we doing this? Why are we adding costs that aren't essential for participation?

It seems the idea of "looking the part" has taken hold.

"Kids want to look like [NHL players] so they wear their outfits and they look the part. It's the cool thing to do," hockey mom Tabitha Leonard says. "I've also heard that it looks intimidating… when a team will come in with the same outfits and bags."

Seated next to her, Leonard's oldest son, Karsten, nods in agreement.

"I'm proud to wear it because it's my team. And if I wear another jacket with another team on it I don't feel like I'm fitting in because that's not my team. But if you wear a jacket with a logo on it or a team, it looks like you are part of something."

Hundreds for swimsuits

The trend isn't limited to the most popular sports, like hockey, baseball or basketball. Swag plays a big role in the swimming pool as well.

"It starts with dry-land training. Are [kids] wearing the right lululemon shorts? Are they wearing the right workout gear? You start to see them all kind of look the same and dress the same and then they take that into the water," says swimming coach Dave Ling, who has worked with some of Canada's best, including Olympic champion Penny Oleksiak.

In the water is where things can really start getting expensive, Ling says. Top-end swimsuits can run into the hundreds of dollars.

"It gets very detail-oriented in terms of what they're trying to look like and feel like and prepare like," Ling says.

The trend show no sign of abating. Gregoire says it's an unstoppable marketing machine that will continue to grow as long as kids watch their heroes on TV.

"The kids want to look like the pros, they want to be a pro someday, so they want to have that same look," he says.

Take baseball as an example.

"The biggest television audience is for the World Series," Gregoire says. "At that point in time, every product you are going to be able to buy for the next season is being worn by all of the people in the dugout, all the people on the bench, all of the people on the base paths.

"We then get calls from the [youth] organizations saying, hey, the kids want that new sweatshirt or that new hat."


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