Saturday, March 1, 2014

Early Sport Specialization: Wise Investment or Risky Business...

Youth sports have become a big business and have even generated what is becoming known as the youth sports entrepreneur. People are sold on the fact that there kids have to pick one sport at a young age and they must play in Elite or Travel leagues in order to make it to the next level because if they play for the local rec. league or public school they won’t make it (NOT TRUE!).

For the sake of argument let’s assume these sport entrepreneurs are on to something. Do the means justify the ends or more simply are the early sport specialization investments likely to pay off with a significant scholarship offer?

Excluding the glamour sports of football and basketball, the average N.C.A.A. athletic scholarship is nowhere near a full ride, amounting to $8,707. In sports like baseball or track and field, the number is routinely as low as $2,000. Even when football and basketball are included, the average is $10,409. Tuition, room and board for N.C.A.A. institutions often costs between $20,000 and $50,000 a year.

Despite common references in the media, there is no such thing as a four-year scholarship. All N.C.A.A. athletic scholarships must be renewed and are not guaranteed year to year, something stated in bold letters on the organization’s web site for student-athletes. Nearly every scholarship can be canceled for almost any reason in any year, although it is unclear how often that happens.

In 2003-2004, N.C.A.A. institutions gave athletic scholarships amounting to about 2 percent of the 6.4 million athletes playing those sports in high school four years earlier. In other words by the time athletes that played a particular sport as a senior in high school reached their fourth season in college athletics only 2% were still getting any scholarship money.

Scholarships are typically split and distributed to a handful, or even, 20, athletes because most institutions do not fully finance the so-called non-revenue sports like soccer, baseball, golf, lacrosse, volleyball, softball, swimming, and track and field. Colleges offering these sports often pay for only five or six full scholarships, which are often sliced up to cover an entire team. Some sports have one or two full scholarships, or none at all.

A fully financed men’s Division I soccer team is restricted to 9.9 full scholarships, for freshmen to seniors. These are typically divvied up among as many as 25 or 30 players. A majority of N.C.A.A. members do not reach those limits and are not fully financed in most of their sports.

Joanie Milhous, whose Villanova field hockey team plays in the competitive Big East Conference, must make tough choices in recruiting. The N.C.A.A. permits Division I field hockey teams to have 12 full scholarships, but her team has fewer.

“I tell parents of recruits I have eight scholarships, and they say: ‘Wow, eight a year? That’s great,’ ” she said. “And I say: ‘No, eight over four or five years of recruits. And I’ve got 22 girls on our team.’ ” [1]

That can mean a $2,000 scholarship, which surprises parents.

Let’s take a look at another sport that is heavily influenced by the sport entrepreneur. Division 1 baseball programs are allotted 11.7 full scholarships to be distributed amongst up to 27 players, full rides are extremely rare in the sport. At many institutions those 11.7 scholarships aren’t fully funded which means the program lacks the funding to reward its full allowance of scholarship money.

For top players scholarships of 40-60% are more realistic. Assuming an $18,000 yearly tuition bill for an in state student a 40% scholarship would still leave you responsible for $10,8000. [2]

On the surface betting on youth sports appears to be a high-risk investment especially when you consider all of the costs associated with participation in Travel and Select teams. So I don’t believe that chasing scholarship dollars is the driving force behind the explosion in the youth sports industry. Many students and their parents think of playing a sport not because of scholarship money, but because it is stimulating and might even give them a leg up in the increasingly competitive process of applying to college.

Chris Taylor the father of two young soccer players said he once calculated what he spent on the boys’ soccer careers.

“Ten thousand per kid per year is not an unreasonable estimate,” he said. “But we never looked at it as a financial transaction. You are misguided if you do it for that reason. You cannot recoup what you put in if you think of it that way. It was their passion — still is — and we wanted to indulge that.

“So what if we didn’t take vacations for a few years.”

Which leads us to the costs that lie outside the financial considerations.

The chase for a scholarship or athletic glory has another side that is rarely discussed. Although those athletes who receive athletic aid are viewed as the ultimate winners, they typically find the demands on their time, minds and bodies in college even more taxing than the long journey to get there.

There are 6 a.m. weight-lifting sessions, exhausting practices, team meetings, study halls and long trips to games. Their varsity commitments often limit the courses they can take. Athletes also share a frustrating feeling of estrangement from the rest of the student body, which views them as the privileged ones. In this setting, it is not uncommon for first- and second-year athletes to relinquish their scholarships.

“Kids who have worked their whole life trying to get a scholarship think the hard part is over when they get the college money,” said Tim Poydenis, a senior at Villanova receiving $3,000 a year to play baseball. “They don’t know that it’s a whole new monster when you get here. Yes, all the hard work paid off. And now you have to work harder.” [1]

Pat Taylor, who started playing soccer at 4, said it took him about a month to accept that his dream of playing varsity soccer on scholarship in college would not happen. He looks back fondly on his youth career but also wishes he knew at the start what he knows now about the process.

“The whole thing really is a crapshoot, but no one ever says that out loud,” he said. “On every team I played on, every single person there thought for sure that they would play in college. I thought so, too. Just by the numbers, it’s completely unrealistic.

“And if I had it to do over, I would have skipped a practice every now and then to go to a concert or a movie with my friends. I missed out on a lot of things for soccer. I wish I could have some of that time back.” [1]

Margaret Barry remembers how her daughter Cortney rose at 4 a.m. for years so she could attend a private swim practice before school. A second practice followed in the afternoon. Weekends were for competitions. Cortney is now a standout freshman at Delaware after receiving a $10,000 annual athletic scholarship.

“I’m very proud of her and it was worth it on many levels, but not necessarily the ones everybody talks about,” Mrs. Barry said. “It can take over your life. Getting up at 4 a.m. was like having another baby again. And the expenses are significant; I know I didn’t buy new clothes for a while.

“But the hardest part is that nobody educates the parents on what’s really going on or what’s going to happen.”

When they received the letter from Delaware informing them of Cortney’s scholarship, she and her husband, Bob, were thrilled. Later, they shared a quiet laugh, noting that the scholarship might just defray the cost of the last couple of years of Cortney’s youth sports swim career.

The paradox has caught the attention of Myles Brand, the former president of the N.C.A.A.

“The youth sports culture is overly aggressive, and while the opportunity for an athletic scholarship is not trivial, it’s easy for the opportunity to be over exaggerated by parents and advisers. That can skew behavior and, based on the numbers, lead to unrealistic expectations.”

Instead, Mr. Brand said, families should focus on academics.

“The real opportunity is taking advantage of how eager institutions are to reward good students,” he said. “In America’s colleges, there is a system of discounting for academic achievement. Most people with good academic records aren’t paying full sticker price. We don’t want people to stop playing sports; it’s good for them. But the best opportunity available is to try to improve one’s academic qualifications.”

Keep in mind that academic scholarships can be added to athletic scholarships.  So doing well in the classroom can greatly increase your chances of funding your college education and in many cases increase your chances of playing sports at a higher level.

So we have analyzed the financial and time commitment costs associated with youth sports next week I will tackle a few on-field costs that are directly attributable to the explosion of the youth sports industry.

Additional Resources:

2014 MSU football recruits discover that when they accept scholarships the real work begins:


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