Parents with a son or daughter interested in playing competitive sports will quickly learn there's no shortage of options -- from travel teams to personal trainers to showcase events -- that will be glad to take your money.
How do you make the most of those dollars?
Be cautious with training, events
Brian Coffey is a pastor at First Baptist Church of Geneva. He's also the father of four sons -- two who have graduated from Batavia High School and gone on to play college athletics at Taylor University in Indiana, another who is a senior at Batavia and recently committed to play baseball at the University of Minnesota, and the youngest a sophomore three-sport athlete at Batavia.
Coffey said there have been summers when the family has been to upward of 260 travel baseball games between their four boys. From bats that cost $300 or more to private lessons to showcase events to the team costs themselves, the travel sports world can be as expensive for families as it is time-consuming.
"I would say that most of these are a waste of money," Coffey said. "Most of what a child can become as an athlete was there at birth -- that is, the biggest part of it is natural talent. The second most important thing is passion -- love for the game. All the coaching and training and anything else you might pay for makes up about 5 percent of an athlete's development -- that's just my opinion.
"The vast majority of the camps, clinics and showcases out there are simply moneymakers for someone. While most of them dangle the carrot of 'college exposure' very, very few of them actually can deliver on that promise. Parents should be careful to do their research before signing a child up for a $495 'exposure' camp or showcase."
Do expectations match reality?
Parents also need to realize just how hard it is to get a college scholarship. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only about 1 percent of eighth-grade athletes will end up receiving even a partial scholarship to play Division I athletics.
Furthermore, the NCAA estimates that only 3/100ths of 1 percent of male high school basketball players and 9/100ths of 1 percent of high school football players will play their sport professionally. For girls, the percentages are similar in various sports.
"Parents need to understand that the vast majority of young athletes will never play past high school," Coffey said. "Perhaps the hardest thing for us as parents to accept is that our child may not be as talented as we wish they were; that is, each child will bump up against performance limits simply based on physical ability.
"If I were going to spend money -- other than on a decent travel program -- it might be finding a skills coach that I could trust to teach solid fundamentals in the sport. I would want to make sure my son or daughter had proper instruction in skills and mechanics -- so that then he or she could practice and refine the skills on his or her own."
Look for the right fit
Rick Cullen, a coach and parent of four children in Naperville, said it is important to find the right fit. You can join travel teams that are a step up in competition from in-house and be a positive experience without overdoing it with a program that might play 80 baseball games.
"There is no way that a kid that is playing 80 baseball games a year at age 12 is going to enjoy the game very much by the time he's in high school. I think that is crazy," Cullen said.
"From our perspective, we are very much looking to raise well-rounded children. In this area, I believe it is simply too difficult for a child to play three travel sports, have a 'normal' childhood and not get burned out at an early age. I don't know of any parent that would be too ecstatic that their son is going to play that many baseball games in a calendar year. However, it still happens, so I'm clearly missing something."
To Cullen's point, recent studies have shown that nearly 80 percent of all children who play adult-organized youth sports drop out by the time they're 12. The reason most often cited is that it's no longer fun.
"We have also learned that travel sports can have a way of dominating your life," Coffey said. "We have had to struggle to retain balance in summers. We have had to learn to say no to some tournament opportunities and to some travel opportunities. We have had to tell coaches that our boys would miss games occasionally to be involved in church or family events.
"There are plenty of other great things for kids to be involved with as they grow up; church events, mission trips, music, art, robotics -- and kids who have multiple interests should be allowed to pursue those right along with sports. Balance is the key."
Research the money trail
Cullen said it is important to remember that most organizations are for profit and that parents need to do their research.
"The one thing that I would stress to parents is to find out the ownership behind the organizations, the percentage of costs that go directly to your child's team, and the percentage that goes toward supporting the entire organization," Cullen said. "I think it's fair for an organization to take a percentage to maintain the 'name,' so to speak. I'd just be concerned if that percentage gets too high."
Travel may not equal better
When signing up for a travel program, you need to know all the possible hidden costs. Does the fee include uniforms? How often and how far will the team travel? Are there fundraisers your family will be responsible for? Any of those can easily add on hundreds of dollars.
Coffey said by the time one of his sons was 13 years old he had played baseball in eight different states.
"The travel expectations for even 8- and 9-year-old teams have grown dramatically," Coffey said. "What I learned through all that was that while all the trips were fun, only a couple of them involved competition that couldn't be found in the greater Chicago area. I would encourage parents and travel programs to cut down the travel because playing kids in other states often isn't all that different from playing kids around here."