Are travel teams pricing some kids out of opportunity?

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Local youth sports leaders divided on issue

By John Herndon


(Editor's note: This is the second installment of a three-part series, "Have Game, Will Travel." A complete report, including a look at the issue of burnout in travel team sports, can be found in the print edition of The Anderson News.)

If an Anderson County Little League baseball team ever makes it all the way to Williamsport, Pa., you won't have to worry about getting in to see the World Series.

ESPN will be there, putting 11- and 12-year-olds on live TV around the world. The crowd? Standing room, of course,

Overkill? Perhaps, but at least you don't worry about scalpers. There are none. Just show up without a ticket and you should be fine, since the Little League does not charge admission for the biggest showcase of youth sports in the world.

And when Valley Sports of Louisville became the only Kentucky team to win the whole shebang in 2002, there was a city-wide celebration of community pride generated by a group of little boys who lived on the southwest side of Jefferson County.

The scene was quite different at Hoops last weekend. Located on the eastern side of Louisville, the basketball showplace was home to the Kentucky HoopFest. The place was reportedly packed with college coaches, most of whom had paid a generous fee to watch four days of non-stop fast breaking, dunking and shooting the three. Team Takeover-Canada, a travel team based out of Toronto won three of the four divisions, including the 14-and-under division.

The players' eventual reward might be a college scholarship in the United States, but that is not a given.

The cost to a fan? Eight bucks a day but a ticket was good for all day.

Such is the changing face of youth sports for all ages.

Money talks, even to the Little League, which has a lucrative contract with ESPN.

But have traveling teams, consisting of a sport's best athletes, created a climate that excludes those of limited financial means? Anderson County youth sports leaders have mixed feelings.

Bart Lewis, the president of the local Little League baseball organization, said he knows of some traveling teams that charge over $1,000 for the privilege to play on the team. “One charges $200 just to try out. That's non-refundable,” he said, shaking his head at the thought.

And the fees to play are often just the beginning.

“We bear a lot of cost,” says Julia Gustafson, whose daughter, Katie, plays on the Bluegrass Soccer club, based in Versailles. “It is $400 to play and then you buy the uniform for about $200.” Gustafson said that players also have to provide their own equipment, a practice that is usually standard no matter what sport.

Gustafson added that with select soccer, the word “travel” is a given with the team. “But I kind of like that part,” she said with a smile.

But Gustafson, the president of the Anderson Independent Youth Soccer Association, fears that travel teams do not allow all youth the same opportunity.

When asked if there is a chance that travel teams, no matter what sport, can price some youth out of the game, Gustafson said, without hesitation, “Yes. That is a concern of mine.”

Lewis agrees.

“One great thing about Little League is that you have more kids involved and kids are from a diverse background,” he said. Lewis noted that the Little League participation fee is $55 to $65, but no child is turned away because of lack of funds.

Gustafson says the same is true in recreational soccer, where the league offers need-based scholarships. She added that while the local organization does not have financial aid available for travel teams, the Kentucky Select Soccer League does have some scholarship money.

Lewis acknowledges the level of instruction and play can be greater in travel teams, and that the Little League All-Star teams become de facto travel teams when the district and state playoffs are completed, but has seen a disturbing socio-economic trend in that sport.

“In baseball, if you have a travel team, you usually have 12 kids on the team from the same kind of background,” he said. “You can go on eteamz.com and get in tournaments up to the end of September. You can go to just about any tournament and it's pretty much the same.

“You can't tell me that doesn't turn kids away.”

Locally, however, those in charge of two of the most prominent travel teams say they have taken steps to ensure that all kids have an opportunity.

“We are non-profit,” says Central Kentucky Mudcat baseball coach Chris Copenhaver. “We charge $500, but at the end of the season, if there is anything left over, we divide it up and give it back.”

The Mudcats have traditionally focused on high school baseball players. There are no local traveling baseball team organizations that compete with Little League for players ages 9-12, but local players have suited up for teams in Versailles, Frankfort and Georgetown.

Copenhaver also said he knew of organizations that charge $1,200 or more but has taken that into consideration when organizing a team. He said the summer squad is usually known the previous fall, giving players an opportunity to work for the necessary funds or seek financial help in other ways. “The kids can ask for sponsors and we do have them,” Copenhaver said.

The Central Kentucky Batcats' softball organization charges between $250 and $300 per year, according to Keith Currens, who helps coach the group's 10-and-under state championship team.

Clay Birdwhistell, who handles finances for the Anderson Elite girls' basketball AAU program, said the same is true for his organization. “We have never had a kid who could not play because of finances,” he said, “and we won't have that happen as long as I am around.”

The Elite, which has focused on middle school aged girls and down charges $150. “That includes everything,” Birdwhistell says. “They get a jersey and they get to keep the jersey. It has their names on the back.”

But Birdwhistell says he knows the danger of excluding kids because of lack of money is real. “I do know of one AAU team that charges over $1,000, but we don't want to have kids left behind here. This is about the kids, as far as I am concerned and there is no more danger of that in AAU than there is in middle school.”

Like the Mudcats, the Elite has some local sponsors that help defray the cost. And like all other sports, Birdwhistell has heard the criticism that travel teams are pricing kids out of an opportunity. “It has been said, but never left that way,” he said. “It comes back to what is the motivation of your program? An all-star team is expensive, but our motivation is to maximize our kids' ability.”

Travel can also be expensive but Copenhaver explained that the Mudcats play in tournaments that have agreements with local hotels to provide substantial discounts on lodging, which players and their families pay on their own. The team also raises funds throughout the year. “The biggest fund-raiser is our tournament, which we hold one weekend a year. That is one weekend a summer,” he said. “We have no raffle, no candy bars. We just have seven or eight teams in our tournament and that will bring about 150 to 200 people to town.”

The 2009 tournament is scheduled for next weekend on the Anderson County High School field.

Yet some remain wary of a system that has the danger of creating an athletic caste system based not on a lofty batting average but on a hefty bank account.

“I know that in rec league basketball, you might have eight kids on a team and two that were a lot better than the rest of them, they have to play on a travel team to get better,” Lewis says, “but I want everyone to have the opportunity.”

The question is if all really do get the opportunity with traveling teams.