Do low-income kids have the equal athletic opportunities in Steamboat Springs?
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Steamboat Springs is special when it comes to athletic achievements. This small secluded mountain town has produced more Olympians than any other place in the U.S.
Steamboat is not special when it comes to the cost of earning these achievements.
Skiing and snowboarding are expensive. According to the 2019 National Youth Sports Parent Survey by the Aspen Institute and Utah State University, skiing and snowboarding are the second-most expensive sports, costing families an average of $2,249 per year. Ice hockey was the most expensive, costing an average of $2,583 per year. Those numbers were based on a survey of more than 1,000 youth sports parents who then estimated their annual costs of registration, equipment, travel, lessons and camps.
The survey showed that skiing and snowboarding equipment was the most expensive equipment, costing parents $1,174 annually. The second-costliest sport equipment was field hockey at $504, with the average among all 21 sports being $144.
Participating competitively in the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club costs more than the average found in the survey. For a competitive U14 athlete, competing in the cross country ski program costs $2,475, plus the cost of equipment, which includes classic and skate skis, a helmet, boots and goggles. In order to access the terrain used all season, athletes must have a U.S. Ski and Snowboard membership with the Rocky Mountain Nordic add-on, as well as a Youth Valley Pass to grant the skier access to all the area Nordic trails.
The junior snowboard team costs $3,575, but in addition to the U.S. Ski and Snowboard membership and equipment, athletes also need a pass to Steamboat Resort. For young adults, the Ikon Pass costs $819. The Alpine program, which also requires an Ikon pass as well as a pass to Howelsen Hill Ski Area, is the most expensive, with a annual price tag of $5,995.
Two of Colt Mortenson’s four kids skied with the SSWSC Nordic programs. It cost his family a lot of money, but the Mortensons decided it was important to give their kids all the opportunities possible.
“Was it a financial burden? Yeah, absolutely,” Mortnensen said. “But, everything is a financial burden. You just decide what you’re willing to spend your money on or not. We loved it.”
They were only able to afford it for so long, though.
Mortenson and his wife kept their boys in the Winter Sports Club as long as they could. Two of their four kids competed in the Nordic programs, and a family inheritance helped cover the costs, but that only lasted for so long. As his kids got older and more competitive, the costs went up.
“Financially, especially knowing I had two boys and the cost was going to go up if they raced, there was no way financially our family could do it,” Mortenson said. “So, we moved over to the high school.”
Mortenson wanted to be fair to his other two kids as well, who participated in basketball and volleyball.
“We had to be fair to all four kids,” Mortenson said. “The only somewhat equitable way of doing this was going to the high school team.”
Steamboat Springs High School offers Alpine and Nordic skiing as a varsity sport for a lower cost. Of course, athletes still need equipment, but that can be rented from the Nordic Center. Renting is a far more viable option at the high school level since the atmosphere isn’t as intense — athletes and their parents don’t feel the need to constantly get the best and newest equipment.
The Mortensons are not alone in altering their athletics due to finances. Cost of sports dictate a lot when it comes to participation, years spent playing a sport and reasons for quitting.
In the Aspen Institute/Utah State University National Youth Sports Parents Survey, responses regarding participation rates and reasons for quitting were broken up by low-income, middle-income and high-income families. Each made up about a third of the sample.
Increasing expenses wasn’t a major reason for any income bracket, but 6.1% of low-income families reported rising costs as a reason for discontinuing a sport, while only 2% of middle-income families and 1% of high-income families said the same.
Only 4.5% of high-income families said increasing time constraints was a reason for discontinuing a sport, while 10.7% of low-income families did. It’s up for interpretation, but the survey report said it could be linked to income, speaking to “lower-income kids’ family responsibilities, such as caring for siblings or earning money from a job, and transportation challenges to attend practices and games.”
Due to the initial costs of skiing and snowboarding, kids from low-income families participate at a far lower rate. Of the low-income respondents, 0.9% participated in skiing or snowboarding, while 2.7% of middle-income respondents ski or snowboard and 5.2% of high-income athletes participate in winter sports.
Parents also reported how often they spent $0 on aspects of their kids’ athletic endeavors. Ice hockey, skiing and snowboarding had the lowest percentage of people reporting zero spending on the sport. Only 4.4% of parents of a skier or snowboarder said they spent no money, while 4.8% of ice hockey parents spent zero dollars.
Thankfully, other sports are easier to spend less money on.
Skateboarding is widely accessible compared to other sports, and Steamboat Springs resident Trevor Mekelburg is hoping to grow the sport through both his involvement with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club and Go Skate Steamboat.
Skateboarding had a similar participation rate across all income groups, averaging 2.6%. Skateboarding also had the second-lowest overall costs at $380 annual spending on one child, beat only by flag football at $268. Additionally, skateboarding was the easiest sport for parents to spend no money on, with 37.6% spending $0.
“It could be $10, and some kids couldn’t afford it,” Mekelburg said. “My goal has always been to eliminate any obstacle or any speed bumps that might deter someone from getting involved. If you can take away all their excuses of why they couldn’t or wouldn’t want to, then they feel that immediate invite.”
Mekelburg has played a large role in the growth of the skateboard program at the Winter Sports Club, even earning youth coach of the year. Still, he knows not everyone can join the club, whether that’s for financial reasons or not. So, he started Go Skate Steamboat, a group that brings newbie and regular skateboarders together to learn, congregate and support each other.
Go Skate Steamboat is campaigning for lights at Howelsen Hill Skate Park and offering free lessons for youth and adults. Through a board drive, the group has collected skateboards and trucks and other equipment for the group to provide during lessons — or perhaps, give away to deserving and interested skateboarders.
Ultimately, Mekelburg wants to provide a community or a hobby for people who may not otherwise have one.
“Nobody wants to do life alone. You have to have something outside of work. You have to have something outside of your blood family,” he said. “Some people don’t even have that. If we can meet every Friday night, have that familiar face and that camaraderie, I think that’s what everybody needs. Whether they find it in active sports, hobbies or music, that’s just a human necessity like food or water — to have community and interaction with other people.”
The Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club doesn’t just want athletes from high-income families competing, though. Just because a child comes from a low-income household doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the same shot at being an Olympian, or just recreational skiing, as anyone else.
The club has need- and merit-based scholarships available to athletes, and information about the scholarships and the applications is available at sswsc.org/about-sswsc/scholarships. Not only is the club being more transparent about scholarship opportunities but also increasing the funding available.
“This summer alone, thanks to generous donations from donors and the community, we were able to increase our summer scholarship awards 350% through need-based scholarships and our Member Support Scholarship to help offset the challenges of COVID-19,” SSWSC Marketing Director Rory Clow said in an email compiled by SSWSC directors.
In 2019-20, 357 families were awarded $220,928 from the club, which is about 44% of the club’s 735 families. Of that money, $192,428 was given to 324 need-based families. Financial need is determined by previous year tax returns. Additionally, there is a work deposit through which parents can earn back funds through volunteer hours.
“We put a high priority on providing opportunities for all interested youth in our community to experience SSWSC programs,” Clow’s email said. “This was the reason we initiated the EZ Scholarship program, and it’s why we have worked so hard to enhance our free community programs.”
Due to the turnover of skiing and snowboarding equipment as athletes grow, each year, there are massive amounts of equipment donated or sold at a discounted price. The annual Ski Swap, hosted by the SSWSC, allows people to sell and buy consignment equipment, gear and clothing. The event attracts hundreds of people every year.
Boomerang Sports is an outdoors consignment shop open year round and offers equipment based on the season. Other thrift or consignment stores in the area are great places to get used clothing as well.
Shelby Reardon is the assistant editor at the Steamboat Pilot & Today. To reach her, call 970-871-4253, email sreardon@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @ByShelbyReardon.
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