Paying to play – new norm for youth athletes
Posted by Dean Holden at October 18th, 2013
by Ann Killion, 16 October 2013
Daniel Argueta, a senior, and his brother Alex, a sophomore, arrived with their mother and brother from Guatemala six years ago to join their father in Novato.
The e-mail was harsh, a potential grenade thrown into a young athlete’s dreams. Alex Argueta was getting ready to head to a showcase soccer tournament with his club team, where he hoped to gain the notice of college coaches.
But two days before he was to leave for the big event, he was informed that his parents’ check had bounced. He wasn’t up to date on club fees. If he didn’t pay up immediately, he couldn’t go on the trip.
“I totally get that you need the money, but what if my father hadn’t been able to raise the money?” said his older brother Daniel. “It just isn’t fair to drop that on a kid.”
An increase in specialization in youth sports, where athletes play one sport year-round, has also increased the popularity of private athletic clubs that charge parents thousands of dollars each year so their kids can play and travel around the country. This trend has altered the landscape of youth sports, turning many into playgrounds for the privileged. As a result, sports like soccer, baseball and volleyball are becoming upper-class sports in America.
“Without a doubt, soccer has become a rich kid’s sport,” said longtime coach Shane Kennedy of Mill Valley.
The Arguetas, who live in Novato, aren’t rich kids. They receive partial scholarships from Marin FC. And their father was able to come up with the money to cover the misunderstanding. His check for registration fees had been written two months earlier, but the club hung onto it before cashing. That kind of cavalier decision can derail families who live paycheck to paycheck. But the Arguetas are fortunate. Most children living in stressful financial conditions are shut out of sports altogether.
Thousands of dollars
Games that in other places in the world are the people’s game – soccer and baseball – have become stratified by economic class.
“It cuts out a lot of minorities and people who don’t have money,” said Mark Merriwether, a Castro Valley resident who runs his own window-cleaning business and whose two sons play baseball. “It’s kind of like tennis and gymnastics were years ago. If you don’t have money, you can’t play. Baseball is looking that way, too.”
The costs of paying to play are staggering. Many parents report spending up to $3,500 a year to play summer and fall travel baseball; additional showcase tournaments can cost $500 for a weekend slate of three games. Dues at elite volleyball clubs can run $3,500, with another $3,000 required for travel. At soccer clubs around the Bay Area, the costs are high: Some dues exceed $4,000 a year. Uniforms, equipment and travel to distant tournaments are usually not included.
Those prices begin kicking in when children are still in grade school. Budding athletes whose families don’t make that kind of financial commitment at a young age increasingly find themselves shut out of opportunities, even at the high school level, unable to compete against players whose parents have been paying for coaching and travel teams for years.
Some estimates put the costs associated with youth sports at $5 billion and rising. Mark Hyman, author of “The Most Expensive Game in Town: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today’s Families,” calls it “the global warming of youth sports.”
Chasing a fantasy
Why do parents pay so much for their kids to play games? One reason is to give them specialized coaching in a highly competitive environment, one that may not be available in recreation leagues or schools. Another is to get them noticed by college coaches, who almost exclusively recruit at showcase tournaments.
That latter goal is too often a pipe dream. Though some private club websites boast of their percentage rates of sending athletes into college programs, parents who spend thousands of dollars chasing a college scholarship are often in for a rude awakening. In college baseball there are only 11.7 scholarships to divide among a team. In soccer there are 9.9 scholarships for men and 14 for women, meaning few if any full rides. Athletes basically divide a full scholarship among themselves. And many athletes wind up going to Division III schools that offer no athletic scholarships at all. Playing sports to chase a scholarship can’t be the endgame, experts agree.
“We make it very clear that if your expectation is for a college scholarship, take all your money and invest it in a college fund,” said John Doyle, general manager of the MLS’ San Jose Earthquakes and director of coaching for the Danville-based Mustangs soccer club, which has 4,600 players enrolled in three different levels of teams.
‘Shouldn’t have to be rich’
There are many reasons it costs so much to play youth sports: renting fields and facilities, hiring licensed coaches, paying insurance. Merriwether, who grew up playing baseball in Oakland, started his own travel baseball team eight years ago when his son Cameron was 13 so he could give him and his friends a higher level of competition than they could otherwise afford. Cameron will play at Sonoma State. But now Merriwether can’t afford to have his younger son, Christian, who is 16, play this year.
“Now there’s so much money out there, people are starting teams to make a profit,” Merriwether said. “It’s gotten out of control.”
Merriwether isn’t the only one who finds pricing children out of sports to be a deplorable development.
“It’s sinister,” said former A’s outfielder Dave Henderson, a supporter of Coaching Corps, an organization headquartered in Oakland that brings sports to underprivileged youth. “You shouldn’t have to be rich to play baseball.”
The upper echelons of sports are reaping what is being sown at the youth level, struggling for diversity. Organizations like Coaching Corps are trying to address the imbalance. Major League Baseball has outreach programs in RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities) and Urban Youth Academies, hoping to reverse the trend of American baseball becoming the domain of well-to-do suburban children. Mill Valley resident Noah Jackson runs the First Base Foundation, a nonprofit that subsidizes the cost of his Warriors travel baseball team, which Cameron Merriwether plays on. U.S. Soccer, finding that its development program that culled from elite clubs wasn’t improving the sport, has started developmental academies, some of which cover all players’ costs. One such club is associated with the Earthquakes.
Simon Ireland, a Bay Area coach who grew up in Liverpool, England, and played professionally around the globe, is frustrated by the situation.
“It can only breed exclusivity,” he said. “There’s an enormous amount of talent that gets missed. I see kids with potential who can’t afford to play on teams or don’t even want to attempt to make the transition. It’s an alien environment, and a lot are intimidated by that.”
When he coached in San Mateo, Ireland spotted a young, talented player named Veronica Perez. She managed to play with a club, thanks in part to the help of Ireland and his brother, along with her mother’s sacrifice and the help of other parents. She also played in the Olympic development program, another huge cost.
Perez earned a scholarship to Washington State and now plays for the Mexican women’s national team. She knows she’s an exception.
“It’s really hard for young Hispanics and Latinos to participate in club and (Olympic development program) teams,” Perez said. “Financially, it’s just a lot of money. Parents might not be that educated as to how the system works.”
‘So much money’
Many clubs do offer full or partial scholarships. But not many families know that, and too many underprivileged kids view sports as an exclusive club that shuts them out.
“Kids just can’t afford it or think they can’t afford it,” said Daniel Argueta, who also plays for Ireland.
He said that over the years, many of the players on his San Rafael High School varsity team were talented enough to play for a club but were intimidated or uninformed about the process. Argueta believed they were good enough to play in college, but no one noticed them.
Now 17, Argueta, his mother and two brothers arrived from Guatemala when he was 11, joining his father in Novato. He said he benefited from having two parents with jobs, as well as an older brother who played soccer. He and his younger brother knew to apply for financial aid through Marin FC.
“But the transition was very harsh financially,” Argueta said. “Simon and the other parents helped me through it.”
When dues went up, it weighed heavily on Argueta. He was playing poorly and Ireland told him not to worry, that he would help him out. But many players can’t count on a benefactor.
“It costs so much money,” Argueta said, shaking his head. “I think the system is shutting out diversity.”
Estimated cost of the youth sports industry in the United States.
Annual estimated cost of equipment for a travel team baseball player
Annual estimated cost of equipment for a travel team soccer player
$1,500 to $5,000 Average annual costs to play club sports
$500 to $700
Typical cost per player to attend a weekend showcase baseball tournament
Less than 1%
Chance of an athlete getting a Division I college scholarship in most sports
Source: Chronicle research, Columbus Post-Dispatch, Houston Chronicle