Gainesville, Florida – where Thunder Struck Athletics is based – is the largest city in North Central Florida.

The city itself boasts a population of over 127,000; outlying areas surrounding the metropolitan area are comprised of another 123,000 persons. Nearly 14% of the population of this area are under the age of 18, and of the 47,000 households in the city alone the poverty rate is a staggering 35% according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Yet Gainesville and its surrounding metropolitan areas are also dotted with very affluent neighborhoods. The university town – featuring the University of Florida’s Gator Athletics – possesses many gentrified neighborhoods with historic districts, a revitalized downtown area, and renovated houses and cottages in suburban areas.

Travel sports teams in this area face many challenges. Foremost is the economic divide between some of their most gifted players. According to NBC News, the expense of playing some travel sports, such as soccer, can cost a family up to $20,000 a year. Parents who have the resources to make such opportunities a reality for their children are fortunate, but harder for low-income youth to participate.

A recent study by the C.S. Mott Foundation found that almost 20% of families with incomes less than $60,000 led their children to participate less in school and community sports activities. Costly tournaments, travel, equipment, and even uniform expenses mean that many lower-income children and adolescents find themselves shut out of team sports in our area. In the long run, the community as a whole is hurt by families cutting back on youth participation in sports because the rising financial barriers do have side effects other than impeding play.

Youth who do not play sports are not just at a greater risk for obesity and teen pregnancy, but also to become high school drop outs and for earlier involvement in crime. The have-have not element of team sports is also not beneficial to local travel teams in the long run either. When only a portion of the talent out there is playing on the court, the competitive curve is thrown off balance. When facing off against economically-poised teams from other communities, where income does not stand in the way of gameplay, the game-changing effects of economic disparity becomes all too evident.

We must boost access to youth sports in our area. For the good of the players and the community as a whole, Thunder Struck Athletics needs the support of local foundations, businesses and individuals to support travel sports so that we can truly provide a competitive yet level playing field, where the best players, regardless of their socioeconomic status, are given the opportunity to play.