Have you ever heard of a sports entrepreneur?
If you haven’t heard that term before you may think of Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan or Lebron James all of whom have become synonymous with a multi-million dollar commercial brand, in their cases Nike. You may even think of “Super Agents” who shop their clients around to other teams while also developing elaborate marketing images designed to position their guy/gal as more than just an athlete. It could even evoke thoughts of team owners of organizations like the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys who like to project them as “America’s Team” or even as international brands.
Though the concept of the sports entrepreneur is most definitely fallout from the above practices I first heard of the term at a youth hockey conference.
The organization hosting the conference was USA Hockey and one of the presenters was Mike Boyle, strength and conditioning (S&C) coach based near Boston, Massachusetts and S&C coach for Boston University’s men’s hockey team.
“We have a developmental problem and it’s largely born out of apathy. Prior to the launch of the American Developmental Model (ADM is USA hockey’s response to dwindling number of elite American born hockey players), we saw what went on at the youth levels and as parents and coaches we did nothing. We need to be more vocal in our opposition to a ‘games’ model and to early specialization. We know it doesn’t work, we just don’t acknowledge it’s affect on college hockey.” Boyle gave an example that his 11 year-old will play more games than Boston University this season.
The solution according to Mr. Boyle…
“We need the most influential people in hockey screaming every chance they get that it is wrong. Hockey entrepreneurs market hard! They market ‘development,’ exposure and fear. Fear that your child will be left behind. The people telling you all this have a vested financial interest to do so.”
One of the examples given to demonstrate the use of fear by these hockey entrepreneurs:
“Public school kids can’t make it!”
Looking at some of the high schools in my community this concept is pretty well accepted in certain sports namely girls’ soccer and boys’ hockey. The “best” athletes in the community elect not to play for the school instead opting for the Select or Travel team that offers them the best developmental opportunity. Unfortunately once this concept takes hold in a community it becomes self-fulfilling prophecy. Boyle also cited some interesting data that debunks the idea that playing for the school is only for the “non-serious” athlete.
In the state of Minnesota nearly all hockey athletes play for their public school. Apparently it’s part of the culture there, kids take pride in representing their community and playing for the hometown team. Pride, character development, and loyalty often overlooked but tremendous attributes that can be obtained through scholastic sport participation. These qualities should be valued and celebrated above temporary achievements like wins, points/goals scored, or scholarships.
Interestingly if you look at a state-by-state breakdown of the top active point scorers in the NHL guess what state is disproportionately represented?  If you guessed Minnesota you are correct! So playing for the public school doesn’t seem to hurt kids in Minnesota in fact they stand above the other states. So if you are to believe the entrepreneurs your kid won’t make it if they play for the public school unless they live in Minnesota… That sounds like a sales pitch from either an uninformed or deceptive salesman, neither of which is worthy of your time and money.
Boyle went on to state; “as parents we endorse and validate the problem by coaching summer hockey and allowing kids to play. This problem gets worse every year.”
Jack Parker the head hockey coach at Boston University refers to many of the athletes on the recruiting landscape as self-centered mercenaries. “I won’t recruit kids that refer to themselves as we, “ as if they are part of some kind of package deal. This could be a by-product of the current sport landscape that values the highest bid for the services of sports entertainers. Long gone are the athletes that represented their city and played for one team their entire career. This has trickled down to youth sports where kids play on several different teams (often within the same sport) during one competitive season and jump from team to team in order to find the best developmental opportunity. Not earning enough playing time or maybe the coach’s system doesn’t fit your style of play, no problem just jump ship and take the best offer from another team. Is that the lesson we want kids to learn during their developmental years. Perseverance, hard work and resilience in the face of adversity these used to be the fuel that forged champions on the field of play and in the game of life, now they are methods that are never allowed to take root.
Youth sports has become big business…
Parents can fork over thousands over the course of the year for their children to be members of teams labeled Elite or Select or Travel or Tournament. The costs aren't just monetary: Players not even old enough to drive are encouraged to invest more time and commitment in a sport.
Coaches and sport entrepreneurs explain their No. 1 goal is player development.
The explosion of youth sports is based in logic: If an athlete plays more games (baseball as an example), earns more at-bats, fields more balls or throws more pitches, he should become a better baseball player. Travel and tournament teams offer players more games, thus more opportunities to improve. So summer youth baseball schedules -- which 20 years ago might have included only a six-week American Legion baseball or a recreation league schedule -- now bring the potential to play 75 tournament games depending on the team's success in the opening rounds of elimination tournaments.
Money can be spent in a lot of ways in the travel sports. Money isn't spent just on tournament registration fees or hitting lessons or a new glove. Just traveling to watch the games can add up.
Anecdotally, I hear from a lot of parents and when adding up hotel costs and dinners, they spend close to a grand a weekend.
Spending big money in youth baseball, for teams as young as 8-and-under has become commonplace, and not just in places like Florida or California. Teams composed of players from Oakland County routinely travel to play in tournaments at complexes in Aberdeen, Md.; Cooperstown, N.Y.; Flemington, N.J.; and Myrtle Beach, S.C., each summer. Florida is another destination.
The cost for one 12-and-under tournament that guarantees a team will play a minimum of three games at Ripken Baseball is $1,200. Ripken Baseball finds plenty of customers: The Aberdeen, Md., facility hosted 81 tournaments through June of last year.
Teenagers and tweens play games in uniforms with their names emblazoned across their backs. They wear spikes and batting gloves, many produced from the same name-brand companies’ major leaguers don in the big leagues. Oakley sunglasses sit propped up on several caps in the dugout. Parents hand sports drinks to their children through the fences between innings.
This is a major investment and it should be noted that these costs could quickly add up and exceed any savings you may derive from a child earning a college scholarship. So it just doesn’t add up, no one involved can possibly think they are going to come out ahead from a financial perspective; the odds aren’t in their favor. It’s a very high-risk investment with a grossly overestimated yield.
So it can’t be financial because if the money is there to invest in youth sports it stands to reason that most would have the means to pay for college anyway. It has to be more than that. Next week I will take a stab at the driving force behind the youth sports explosion.