A few months ago, there was an editorial cartoon in the Arizona Daily Star in which a dad and mom were explaining to their teenage son, “We’re middle class. We’re just not club sports middle class.” That’s a brutal insight into a phenomenon that began a couple decades ago as a rather unwelcome intrusion into the natural order of athletic experimentation and discovery for young people. Today, in Tucson and around the entire country, intrusion has given way to imposition, experimentation has been supplanted by enforced structure, and public dissent can only come from someone who doesn’t have any skin in the game…in the incredibly expensive game. 

Nationally, the numbers are staggering. According to WinterGreen Research, youth sports is at least a $15 billion a year industry, eclipsing the NFL’s $14 billion figure and growing at an incredible rate. (WinterGreen says that spending on youth sports has increased by more than 50 percent in just the last eight years.) Estimates vary, for a variety of reasons. Some of the individualized training is on an under-the-table, cash basis. There is some disagreement as to what constitutes expenses for youth sports; club fees and travel costs are easy to track, but money is also spent on such things as phone apps that allow for the live streaming of club tournament games. And there is the fact that many parents don’t want to admit—even to themselves—exactly how much money they’re pouring down that hole in pursuit of what can’t even generously be called an elusive dream. 

According to statistics from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, only about two percent of high-school athletes will ever play Division I sports in college—and not even all of them will have earned a scholarship. A number of them will be walk-ons, attending school on their own dime and hoping (against long odds) of grabbing some playing time. Another small percent might play junior-college ball or catch on at a D-II or D-III school, but the simple fact remains that nine out of every 10 kids whose parents shelled out thousands (or even tens of thousands) of dollars will have little to nothing to show for it. Many parents will be left to wonder why they didn’t just open a savings account, have the kid play some street ball with the local kids and maybe spring for a couple SAT training classes.

The tales of parental lament are legendary and seem to be growing exponentially. Consider:

The mother in Southern California who kept meticulous financial records of how much she spent to have her two daughters play ASA (club) softball. While this was over a decade ago, her total still ran to over $140,000 for everything from equipment to club fees to extensive travel. When it was all over, the elder daughter suffered from burnout and simply stopped playing while the younger girl ended up walking on at a junior college.

A New York state dad who regularly posted on Facebook, spent $20,000 in one year, with a sizable portion going for gasoline as he completed a two-and-a-half-hour round trip to club practice four times a week, often getting his daughter home just before midnight on school nights.

Not to be outdone, there was recently a mention in a national magazine of a Springfield, Missouri mother who boasted about how she would do a seven-hour round trip to get her two sons, ages 10 and 11, to club basketball practice.

Twenty years ago, club sports weren’t exactly in their infancy, but they were still relatively innocent. There was no such thing as travel baseball teams and while some ASA softball teams traveled, it wasn’t the year-round grind that it is now. Perhaps most telling was the length of the club volleyball season. In the late 1990s, the vast majority of girls who played high-school volleyball would, upon the completion of the volleyball season, make the seamless transition to basketball, with the conventional wisdom being that playing one sport helped in the proficiency of playing the other (and helped cut down on burnout and injuries, as well).

Accordingly, club volleyball tryouts and placement on various age-level and travel teams would take place well into the new year as high-school basketball season was winding down. These days, club tryouts are held within hours of the end of the high-school volleyball season. The state tournament championships are held the first Saturday of November and early Sunday morning, the clubs are open for business.

The not-so-subtle message used to be “If you want to enhance your kid’s chances of getting an athletic scholarship, practicing and playing with a club team gives him/her more of an opportunity to hone skills toward that end.”

Today, the sledgehammer-to-the-forehead message is “The only way that your kid has any chance of playing in college—or making the varsity team in high school, for that matter—is to get him/her in a club as early as possible and see to it that they play one sport to the exclusion of all else, cost be damned.”

The ripple effects are easy to spot. Where 20 years ago, virtually every big school in Arizona had varsity, JV and freshman girls basketball teams—often with the max of 15 kids per squad—many schools now combine freshman and JV squads due to low turnout. And in the varsity games, there will be three or four kids on each bench instead of the possible 10.

Some might argue that basketball is simply too tough a sport to master and that the decline in numbers may just be a natural phenomenon as some sports gain in popularity while others fade. But that doesn’t explain why other traditional youth-sports traditions are suffering, as well. Participation in Little League Baseball, an American tradition for more than a century, is down 20 percent since its peak in 2000. Bobby Sox softball, the long-time neighborhood equivalent of Little League, is down as well, as parents are deciding early on that they want their daughters in the ultra-competitive and ultra–expensive ASA, instead.

The long-term consequences of this trend toward the privatization and monetizing of youth sports have yet to be completely clear, but there are disturbing signs. A study by University of Wisconsin researchers that was published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine shows that young athletes who participate in one sport more than eight months out of the year are far more likely to develop overuse injuries (shoulders and arms for baseball/softball players, hips and knees for soccer players). One doctor says that he sees soccer players barely in their teens who have degenerative hip and knee problems that are usually seen in people who are in their 40s or 50s.

And the American Academy of Pediatrics chimes in with “…burnout, anxiety, depression and attrition are increased in (kids who specialize in one sport at an early age).” The Academy recommends putting off specialization until at least late adolescence, stating that doing so can lower the possibility that the young athlete will suffer from any or all of the aforementioned conditions while, at the same time, increasing the likelihood of actual athletic success.

The punchline to all this is that the NCAA insists that a study of D-1 men and women athletes shows that a stunning 88 percent say that they played multiple sports as children. This would suggest that better athletes are simply more likely to experience success in sports and are also more likely to be good enough to play at the collegiate level. That, of course, is not a message that is universally embraced by the club-sports industry nor by many of the parents who are helping to turn that industry into a monster.

Local sports fans who don’t have athletic kids in the club sport age range might simply sniff at the mess that is youth sports and casually dismiss it as the confluence of over-indulgent parents and conniving capitalists all too willing to create for gullible consumers a supply for a demand that really shouldn’t exist. 

If parents want to throw away thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars in a quixotic (no, vicarious) quest to buck 50-1 odds against their kid getting an athletic scholarship, who really cares? But, if it touches close to home, attention must be paid.

This is a relatively dark period for University of Arizona athletics. The football team is playing in front of maybe 50 percent capacity at Arizona Stadium. The once-mighty women’s softball team hasn’t been to the College World Series in half-a-generation. And the men’s basketball team is stumbling around with an NCAA cloud hanging over its head. On top of having become the team that every other school wants to play in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Arizona is looking at some serious trouble from the capricious and lumbering NCAA. The risk of sanctions is scaring away recruits, making Coach Sean Miller even more sour than before and leaving a stain (thus far, mostly contained) on the legacy of a program that, for better or worse, is that which gives Arizona its most prominent national profile.

All last fall (and then into the winter and spring), the UA’s name was splashed across the tabloid headlines along with ugly phrases like “bribery,” “illegal cash inducements” and “coach suspended, then fired.” Ultimately at the root of all that evil is AAU basketball, which is nothing more than club sports writ large…on steroids…with an exclamation point!

From the time that kids are halfway through elementary school, they are aware of the allure of playing on club teams, many of which have in their names “Elite” or “Stars,” words that do wonders for the emotional stability of nine-year-olds. Their parents fork over the money and the kids participate in these two- or three-day extravaganzas, highlighted by sketchy coaching, non-fundamental play, and boorish fan behavior. 

By the time they’re in middle school, those who have been identified as having a chance of becoming truly elite have been grabbed up by AAU teams. The big difference here is that these players get a lavish free ride. All of their club expenses are covered by athletic shoe companies (mostly Nike and Adidas, although lately Under Armour and Puma have begun dumping large bundles of cash in the swamp). 

With a hysteria fueled by social media and cable sports outlets with a ravenous hunger for content (last month, ESPN had a cornhole competition), AAU has gone from being a suspicious growth on the underbelly of amateur basketball to being this Thing. In a couple weeks, Las Vegas will host the summer season-ending AAU Showcase, with college coaches descending on the place, perchance to pick out their recruiting targets for the next couple years. (If you ever want to send Sean Miller—or most any other D-I coach—into a paroxysm, just suggest that one way to cut down on the corruption in college basketball would be to ban coaches from the AAU tournaments, causing the tournaments and the shoe money to dry up almost immediately.)

What, then, can be done? Ask 100 people who are coaching club teams and 105 of them will say that they do it to counterbalance all of those who are in it for the wrong reasons and/or do things the wrong way. Certainly the stories of the coach who absconds with the team’s money (as happened in Marana just a few months ago) or the one that exhibits inappropriate behavior in practice or in a game (as happens everywhere, all the time) are far more likely to get the attention of the media. But there are those who put in their work, give of their time, and reap their rewards in other ways.

Ismael “Izzy” Galindo has been at both ends of the won-loss spectrum. He likes where he is now, but he appreciates the time he spent at the other end. At the beginning of this decade, Galindo took over the dismal girls basketball program at Pueblo High School. It had been years since the Warriors had had a winning record and even longer since they had gone to state. “I knew we had a lot of work to do, so that’s what we did. Work.”

He gathered a few kids who were willing to put in the time and effort and even reached down into Pueblo’s feeder schools on the southwest side of town. They did fundraisers and got donations and eventually built up a hybrid program that serves the community and feeds into the school. Last season, Pueblo’s girls made it to the Class 4A State Championship game. 

“We spent the first couple summers playing against big-school varsity teams and we were using seventh, eighth and ninth-graders. We took a whole lot of beatings, but we knew we were heading in the right direction. But I had to make it clear that we couldn’t compete with those club teams on a financial basis; it just wasn’t realistic.”

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