Recently, HBO’s stellar Real Sports ran a piece about the rise in popularity of elite travel sports. The whole segment can be viewed here. The piece follows the Coe family, whose two children are heavily involved in travel baseball and travel track and field. The family estimates it spends 30 weekends a year traveling to out-of-state tournaments where the kids face off against elite talent from all over the country. The parents estimate they spend about $15,000 a year on travel and team costs for their children.
The son, who plays baseball, will sometimes play nine games in six days. This is the world of elite travel sports or, as the piece refers to it, Sports Tourism or Tournication (going to a tournament is the new “family vacation”).
This so-called “Sports Tourism” is a HUGE business, generating an estimated $9 billion dollars a year. Many towns across America have realized the potential of travel sports and have invested in facilities to draw elite teams for tournaments.
The piece examines one such Indiana town that has built a HUGE facility of over 60 outdoor soccer/softball/baseball fields and an indoor facility to host volleyball and basketball games. The town estimates it draws 1.7 million “Tournacation” visitors each summer, which generates $145 million dollars for local businesses like restaurants, hotels, and gas stations.
It’s a no-brainer why hosting cities would want to get into the elite travel business, but what’s in it for these families? What does the Coe family hope to get out of spending $15,000 a year and 30 weekends a year on the road?
The Coe family hopes what any family hopes for kids in elite sports: that their kids will hone their skills with top-level coaching; that they will play against top-level competition; and that they will be seen by top-level recruits. The ultimate goal is for their kids to earn college scholarships, a hopeful return on the family’s estimated total $150,000 investment in elite sports. (I will address this topic later).
There are tens of thousands of families who have the same plan as the Coes. There must be, otherwise Sports Tourism wouldn’t be such a huge business. Overall participation in youth sports must be at an all time high, right? Wrong. The piece notes that participation is on the decline as many families are priced out of elite travel teams,and rec leagues are disappearing. The gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is quite stark in the world of youth sports.
There are so many take-aways from this great piece of journalism. (As a side note, HBO’s Real Sports is always on-point, and many of its pieces can be seen for free on YouTube).
Let me start by saying the Coe family spending $15k a year on sports with the hope of a full-ride scholarship is just plain delusional. According to CBS News, only 2% of high school athletes are offered “full-ride” scholarships. Of the non-“full-ride” scholarships, the average money gifted to college athletes is less than $11k a year. That $11k is already less than the family's yearly sports budget!
Scholarships aside, the chances of even playing in college are pretty low as well. Let’s take baseball for example. According to NCAA’s numbers, the percentage of high school baseball players going on to play in college is 5.6%.
The chances of the college player then going on to play pro-ball is 10.5% (remember that in baseball, this includes playing in the minors). So the overall chance of a high school athlete going pro are 0.5%. That is quite low, and baseball is the highest of the major sports again because there is a robust minor league system. The chance of actually playing in the MLB is 0.015%. (All of these numbers are compiled from stats on NCAA.org).
All in all, the odds are very stacked against the vast majority of high school kids getting scholarships and even playing in college. We can all conclude that the Coe family’s $15k a year could probably have been spent more wisely elsewhere if its ultimate goal was to get a “full-ride” scholarship.
Let’s take a closer look here. I am certain that the Coe family, as well as many other families who participate in elite travel sports, are well aware the odds are stacked against them, and that they will not see their desired “return on investment.” In fact, it should be common knowledge that full rides are few and far between. And if it’s not common knowledge, surely families can crunch the numbers, like you’d do for ANY OTHER investment, and see that it’s just not worth it. So what is really going on here?
Call me cynical, but this new trend of competitive sports is not really about getting a scholarship: families’ participation in “elite” travel has become a new way for families to display their status. The mom featured in this piece even said if you don’t keep up with travel sports, then your kids will be left behind. Being able to spend $15k a year on your kids’ sports (knowing full well you probably won’t get a return on your investment) is a luxury, and just another way to show that you have “made it.”
It is really sad to hear that participation in rec league sports is dwindling and families who can’t afford the new trend of travel ball are priced out of their kids experiencing sports. It’s even sadder to think about what this new trend is going to do to kids who CAN participate in elite sports.
Put yourself into the shoes of one of the Coe kids. First of all, the time commitment is crazy: 30 weekends a year is spent on the road, and I’m sure weekday nights are spent at practice, private training or physical therapy, etc. This leaves so little room for the kids to pursue anything other than that one sport. How very sad. These kids are never going to get their childhood back!
Beyond the time commitment, think about the pressure these Coe kids, and the thousands of other kids like them, must be under. They know how much time and money their parents are investing with the stated hope that they will receive a college scholarship in return.
Almost 95% of kids don’t even play in college, and 98% of athletes don’t receive full scholarships. Are these kids meant to feel like failures if they don’t achieve their parents’ goal of a full ride? Can you imagine the guilt??! These parents are setting their kids up for failure! How unfair.
On a larger scale, this rise in the elite travel sports mentality represents a dangerous shift in our thinking about the purpose of youth sports. If you put your kid in sports with the end goal of earning a scholarship, then you have missed the point. Playing sports is not about where you end up, but rather about the lessons you learn each day on the field/court/track, etc.
When parents put their kids in sports, their “return on investment” is their kid learning teamwork, hard work, fairness, and resilience. This all sounds very corny, but THESE are the traits that will build the foundation of happiness and success, and isn’t that what all parents should want for their kids?!
Unfortunately, our society puts value not on happiness, but on status, and families sometimes use their kids as a vehicle to achieve and display said status. Are travel sports really about getting your kid a scholarship or to the pros? For 99.9% of families, no it is not.
These elite sports have become a sick new way to “keep up with the Joneses,” and it’s the kids who will ultimately suffer. In this system, we teach kids that their value is tied to what team they are on, or how much money we spend on them, or what scholarships they can bring in. [Side note: I see this all the time in my line of work (education)--families tie their kids’ value to what letter grades they get, or what elite school they can get into.) This mentality is absolutely toxic.
As a society, we need to shift our focus and teach kids that true value lies in our empathy, our ability to “get back up” after we’ve fallen, to seek justice and fairness for all, and to put others before ourselves. THESE are the core lessons kids should be getting from sports. Our cultural obsession with clawing our way to the top is really just a race to the bottom. Sad.