Costs vs. gains: Taking youth sports to the next level
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For a parent wondering if their child should take the leap from their local park district recreational team to a travel team, the options can be overwhelming.
Brian Touro used a line from a baseball movie to let Mike Seberger know what he thought of the idea to start a girls basketball travel program.
"If you build it, they will come," Touro said.
Touro gave Seberger that advice back in 2000. Seberger had just finished coaching the oldest of his three daughters, Sarah, in a Geneva Park District league.
"I thought there's got to be something better than that," Seberger remembered.
And so Mike Seberger began the Lady Lightning travel basketball program. He fielded two teams that first year of like-minded parents looking for more of a challenge and better instruction for their daughters.
Thirteen years later Touro's initial impression could not be more accurate.
There's now three separate wings of the Lady Lightning — the same travel program, now with 27 teams, in addition to a Lady Lightning Youth League that had 115 teams the past year and a Lady Lightning Skills Academy for players to work on individual drills above and beyond AAU basketball.
"It has exceeded anything I thought it would become," Seberger said of the Lightning, based in Lombard with players from around the suburbs.
The Lightning is just one of countless examples of the way youth sports has exploded in the suburbs. The saying used to be if you wanted a chance at a college scholarship, you better be on a travel team. It has evolved into needing to play travel sports to make your high school team — and many now feel travel sports have become so watered down there's plenty playing travel who won't play high school.
"I have seen many, many kids playing travel sports who just do not have the physical tools to play even at the high school level," said Brian Coffey, the father of four sons who have played or are currently at Batavia High School. "They would be much better off playing 'in-house' leagues and having fun rather than spending $2,000-$5,000 a year in a travel program when they struggle to compete and often feel the pressure of performance or the fear of failure."
Travel sports aren't cheap. From $2,000 and more a year to play for an elite softball or basketball program to more than $100 an hour for lessons to the extra hundreds of dollars to travel to tournaments around the country, youth sports has become a big business. There's also speed camps, weight-training, showcase events, and children with their own personal trainers.
For a parent wondering if their child should take the leap from their local park district recreational team to a travel team, the options can be overwhelming. And it starts earlier every year — 6-year-olds playing travel soccer or travel baseball.
Perhaps no suburb is as sports crazy as Naperville, and Rick Cullen has certainly seen it all while watching — and coaching — his four kids.
Cullen has been coaching various basketball teams for 20 years, baseball for 10 and football the last five.
Like many parents who grew up playing sports when neighborhood kids would ride their bikes to a park and pick teams, Cullen can't believe how the times have changed.
"I grew up in a suburb of Green Bay, Wis., and I remember playing outside almost every day," Cullen said. "However, very little of it was organized. We just kind of went to the ballpark and played baseball. I could never imagine how crazy youth sports would become, particularly in the Naperville area. I still can't believe some of the things that go on — the lobbying, the politics, etc."
Cullen's four children have had a wide variety of experience in youth sports. His daughter Emma is 15 and spends 20 hours a week at Phenom Gymnastics in Oswego. Will is 12 and plays travel baseball with Blue Chip Academy in Naperville, and travel football with the Naperville Patriots.
Will gave up travel basketball last year with the conflicts between sports but still plays in a competitive basketball league through Wheatland, another Naperville-based sports organization that offers both recreation and travel sports programs. Eight-year-old Michael plays travel soccer with the Kickers while 6-year-old Jacob plays in recreational leagues.
Finding the right situation for your child isn't easy. People concerned about how much travel sports cost can keep their kids in recreational leagues. The St. Raphael football program in Naperville, for example, costs about $150 a year compared to the approximately $1,000 Cullen's family pays to play on the Naperville Patriots travel football team, an organization that's part of the United Youth Football League and competes for trips to season-ending national tournaments in Florida.
"We favor competitive play over recreational play," Cullen said. "Rec is a great avenue for a majority of kids, but quite honestly, it's very difficult to coach. Not all of the kids want to be there, but then you have the flip side on the same team — a more competitive, more athletic child that is simply not able to receive the level of coaching that they should be getting."
Ron and Sarah Scully's family from Elgin can certainly relate to wanting to find a more competitive environment for their children.
When no other parent stepped up, Ron Scully volunteered to coach his son Kyle's in-house soccer team. Ron bought a "Soccer for Dummies" book the night before practice.
Two years later, 9-year-old Kyle Scully decided to play travel soccer with the Elgin Kickers. The Kickers cost about $1,300 a year — a pretty standard base number for the myriad travel soccer programs in the suburbs.
"One of the main reasons was going from parent coaching to professional coaching," Ron Scully said of deciding to put their children in travel sports. "For us, when you look at the (in-house) coaches, we're all just parents. We all have jobs. That's (coaching) their job. That's what they do. I was just a volunteer."
Kyle decided to switch to travel basketball a few years later. The Scullys again started with parent coaching on a sixth-grade team.
"Three coaches, they are good people, but they wanted the best for their kids," Scully said. "Part of professional coaching, it's not just knowing the game, it's building up the psyche and confidence of players."
The Scullys found that at World Class out of Streamwood. A fall, winter and AAU season costs about $2,000. Kyle Scully has played 2½ years at World Class as he gets ready for his freshman season this winter at South Elgin High School.
The Scullys also have a daughter, Ryann, who is a junior three-sport athlete at St. Edward High School. Ryann Scully played in-house baseball from the time she was 5 until eighth grade.
Like all sports, in-house baseball is quite a bit cheaper than travel. For about 20 games in her Elgin National League, the Scullys paid between $100-$175.
"That's quite the deal," said Ron Scully, adding there's about 1,000 kids who play in one of the three in-house Elgin baseball programs.
That cost jumped to $1,400 when Ryann's parents decided to get her into the Northern Illinois Lightning travel softball program. She's been there three years now and the Scullys are happy with the decision.
"Money is not an issue for us. Money is not the hardship. The travel is not a stress to me, being a divided family is not a stress," said Scully, saying his biggest problem has been falling behind on house projects.
It's a schedule parents around the suburbs know well — mother Sarah taking Ryann to her softball game while father Ron drives Kyle to a basketball practice. For a lot of families with multiple children playing multiple travel sports, they can easily spend $5,000 to $10,000 a year starting at ages as young as 6 and 7.
That doesn't include the cost of traveling, hotels, even airfare for some of the elite travel teams. All the while these families are making sacrifices like no time to sit down for family dinners or finding time to take summer vacations.
Scully said they also spend several hundred more dollars on camps for their children and private lessons, and they don't second-guess any of it.
"I'm not complaining, it's just factual," Scully said. "At the end of the day my wife and I realize in four years Kyle is out of the house, all of this is gone. In my soul of souls, we're going to enjoy it now.
"We're glad they are in travel programs. It is more structured. We look at it as we want to give them every opportunity to get better at something they are passionate about."
With his children almost finished with their travel days, Coffey said he has learned a lot.
"I have at times asked my boys what they remember from their travel sports years," Coffey said. "They might remember a couple of specific games, maybe a championship tournament game, a home run, or a certain fun trip, but what they remember most is the fun they had with their friends and how they felt about their coach. As parents, I think it helps to start with that end in mind."
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