NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Playing sports in school, it turns out, can more than level out the playing field when it comes to landing leadership positions in the workforce.  So, with more schools moving to pay-to-play sports as a way to stick to their budgets, will some kids get bench warming positions rather than ones in leadership when it’s their turn at bat for a job?

While there are waivers for the poor, some middle class and parents are finding it hard to foot the bill for pay-to-play sports, which can run just shy of $500 when travel expenses and equipment costs are included, according to a recent poll by University of Michigan Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health. In fact, one in seven parents whose children didn’t play middle school or high school sports said cost was the reason. Household income appeared to play a key role. Only 30% of families earning below $60,000 per year had a child playing school sports compared with 51% of families with annual incomes exceeding $60,000.

Girls may be hit harder by the money crunch. Parents with strong traditional beliefs about gender roles were more likely to view pay-to-play sports fees as too high for their daughters compared with their sons.

Participating in school sports has benefits, including lower dropout rates, improved health and reduced obesity, says Sarah Clark, M.P.H., associate research scientist at the Child Health Evaluation and Research Unit at the University of Michigan and associate director of the National Poll on Children's Health.

What may be most important is missed opportunities down the road once these children enter the workforce. As noted here, researchers at Cornell University found that workers who had played on high school varsity sports teams appeared to have higher-status jobs compared with non-athletes. Results of an earlier study by the researchers showed that people expected former student athletes to be better leaders compared with people who were active in other school activities.

Claudia Hiatt, a soccer mom in Parker, Colo., understands this. She says she is “willing to pay for sports, because there are so many life lessons that are learned through sports…teamwork, recovery from mistakes, winning and losing, commitment, work ethic, friendship… It was always important to me that my kids have the opportunity to learn these skills at a young age -- I didn’t care what level.”

Hiatt is such a strong believer in what sports can do for kids, she became a life coach and created a program, Head in the Game Sports, for kids “to help them be more focused and effective on the field now and later in life,” she says.

“We all want to teach our kids the skills and drive for success, but many kids don’t have a life passion yet, and for now, they just want to be a success in sports,” Hiatt says. “My program meets them where they are by teaching them how to use their mind, the key to any success, to be more focused and intentional about what they are doing.”

And just like many of the working families polled by the University of Michigan Mott Children's Hospital, Hiatt finds the pay-to-play costs taxing and, like others, has found a partial solution. She works at the Club Bingo fundraising sessions to help defray the cost, she says.

-Written by S.Z. Berg for MainStreet