"It's a business."

Anyone who is a fan of professional sports has heard that phrase ad nauseam in recent years.

Yes, we know -- professional sports organizations take one part love of a sports, one part civic pride and one part inter-city rivalry and turn these elements into huge piles of cash.

We also know there is going to be a struggle between team owners and players for the collective slice of those piles.

Never mind that lockouts/strikes always seem to hurt the customers -- excuse me, fans -- more than the negotiating parties.

It's obvious capitalism has intercepted pro sports and is running away with it like a defensive back towards the end zone.

Money and profits are every bit as important as winning championships, if not more so, to many professional organizations.

At least pro sports is honest about it.

Anyone who follows the NCAA knows calling college football or basketball "amateur athletics" anymore is almost laughable.

Top-level college football teams are bringing in the kind of revenue that many pro franchises (outside the NFL) would love.

Think the majority of that money is being re-invested to drive down the cost of tuition and books for students? Didn't think so.

Deadspin.com recently made an interesting point. A nationwide study revealed that, in all but 11 states, the state's highest paid public employee was a coach.

That list included 25 states which paid football coaches the most and 12 which paid basketball coaches the most, including one women's basketball coach -- Geno Auriemma at Conneticut. Minnesota tied with a football coach and basketball coach each earning the top salary.

By the way, Ohio is definitely on that 25-state list. Ohio State University football coach Urban Meyer's annual salary of just over $4 million dwarves that of Ohio Gov. John Kasich ($140,298), OSU president Gordon Gee ($823,00) and any other public official.

The amount of revenue generated by college players for the universities is enormous. It's little wonder why the NCAA is facing a lawsuit from former college players asking for players to be compensated.

At the same time, the NCAA argues paying athletes would be the end of amateur athletics? I've never heard of a lethal case of irony, but this case might flirt with it.

Meanwhile, things haven't gotten too outrageous at the local or high school level -- but I sense they're moving that way.

When I was a kid, $25 at my local recreation center was enough to get me a spring full of soccer games or summer full of baseball.

Now some travel teams have fees ranging upwards of $200 or more.

I realize travel costs have a lot to do with these numbers, but given the economic situation of many families, this turns sports into a luxury for young kids.

Then, of course, there are pay-to-participate fees at the high school and middle school levels.

It's getting to the point where finding schools who aren't asking parents to pay a per-sport/activity fee is rare. While fee levels vary greatly from school district to school district, the effect is the same: Fewer students will play sports and/or chose to play more than one sport.

It's a sad but simple economic equation: When parents have to shell out hundreds of dollars when a child asks "I'd like to try this," it become much harder to say "OK."

To top it all off, take a look at the cost of going to high school sporting events.

Last year, admission fees for all playoff football games were $9 at regionals and $10 at the state level.

By comparison, you could take in an Indians or Cavs game for $10.

Even game admission for local games has gone up in recent years.

I'm not saying any of these price increases are unjustified, just unfortunate.

Are sports and athletics still being viewed as vehicles for fun and recreation? Or is everything now calibrated to earn that elusive college scholarship or career at the professional level?

When I looked at my father at 5 years old and told him "I want to be the next Ozzie Newsome," he smiled and let me know how long the odds were for me to become a professional or even play in college.

He was right, of course, but I still played sports all the way through high school because I loved it -- and because Mom and Dad could afford it.

If prices for recreational and high school sports keep rising, the inevitable effect will be to drive out hundreds of thousands of kids who just want to play.

If that happens, I weep for the future of athletics.

Sports are one arena when kids from inner cities supposedly have a level playing field with the Hudsons and Strongsvilles of the world.

Will economic inequality take away that level field? Perish the thought, but it might already be happening.

Email: mleonard@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9442

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