A couple years ago, I found myself worried about the encroachment of business into amateur sports into the high school level.

That trepidation continues. At virtually every high school I covered last season with a public address system, the announcers spent a large amount of time talking about team sponsors. These announcements were mandatory for Ohio High School Athletic Association games.

Every venue I went to seemed to be plastered with billboards or ads for national and local brands.

While writing a recent story on youth bat prices, however, one thing struck me: Capitalism has entrenched itself at the youth level as well — and that’s not a good thing.

No, professional agents aren’t signing Little League players to endorsement deals — yet — but even a cursory glance at equipment prices for youth baseball makes could cause one’s jaw to drop.

Baseball bats prices below $100 seem only to be for used or lower-end bats. The majority of youth mitts ran about $40 to $70 and there were some listed for $150. This doesn’t includes the cost of cleats, helmets and uniforms — or the fees for playing, especially with travel teams.

Matt Trayer, manager at Play it Again Sports in Cuyahoga Falls, said it best.

"It’s big business," Trayer said.

My rule of thumb: When big business gets involved in sports, look out. To business interests, "fans" and "players" become "customers" — often to the detriment of enjoying the game.  

George Ridings, Stow Youth Baseball’s vice president of baseball operations, spoke to the cost of travel baseball in vivid terms.

"There’s programs out there that charge anything from $1,000 to $1,500 for travel baseball," Ridings said. "Sometimes I wonder why it costs so much to play baseball."

Four figures for a season of travel baseball? While such numbers are on the extreme high end, for many families, that’s worth a couple of month’s rent or mortgage payments. 

Little wonder why youth sports numbers have been on the decline over the last decade. 

Project Play, an initiative by the Aspen Institute, lays out the numbers. Since 2008, the numbers of children playing team youth sports has been declining — and one of the biggest reason for the decline is economic.

According to Project Play, between 2008 and 2016, the number of children playing youth sports dropped by about eight percent.

What’s more, there’s a big disparity between rich and poor households playing youth sports. In households with incomes of $100,000 or more, 68.4 percent of kids are playing team sports. In households earning $25,000 or less per year, it dropped from 48.6 percent in 2012 to 34.6 percent in 2016.

Such statistics make sense when you look at equipment prices. When families have to choose between youth sports or other household expenses, there’s usually not much debate.

It also makes sense that, when faced with such economic issues, even wealthier players and families often choose one sport to concentrate on.

There’s growing evidence that playing multiple sports makes for better athletes. Playing multiple sports prevents burnout in one sport and helps those athletes who advance to the collegiate and pro levels. However, the numbers of one-sport athletes continues to grow at the high school level.

Could it be that prices are affecting these decisions, too? There might be room to play baseball in the family budget, but playing baseball in summer, soccer in fall and basketball in winter might be too much.

Ridings notes he’s seen a trend of parents moving their kids onto more competitive travel ball teams, which are more expensive and require larger time commitments from families due to travel.

It’s said that sports holds a mirror up to society. The price of youth sports feels like another reminder of the gulf between the haves and have-nots in American society.

Sports are supposed to be a place where the playing field is level. Given the price disparities between high-end and basic (or used) baseball equipment, however, can we really say that when a youth team from Hudson or Richfield faces one from East Cleveland or rural Portage County?

On the scale of societal problems, high youth sports costs might now seem like a crisis. However, The Aspen Institute reinforces that playing youth sports helps children develop physically and emotionally and sets them up for healthier lives.

Thanks in large part to video games, there’s already enough pressure on youth sports participation in this country.

It would be nice if America’s omipresent socio-economic struggles didn’t exacerbate the situation.

Reporter Michael Leonard can be reached at 330-541-9442, mleonard@recordpub.com or @MLeonard_RPC