Inside the High-Stakes, Zero-Sum Game of Youth Club Sports

nikholas

Longform Traveling club teams have transformed what it means to be a student athlete. Are the 6 a.m. practices, out-of-state games, sky-high bills, and toll on kids’ bodies and souls (and families’ sanity) still worth the improbable chance that sports will get your kid into college? Get a compelling long […]

Longform

Traveling club teams have transformed what it means to be a student athlete. Are the 6 a.m. practices, out-of-state games, sky-high bills, and toll on kids’ bodies and souls (and families’ sanity) still worth the improbable chance that sports will get your kid into college?


Photo illustration by Benjamin Purvis. Master1305/Getty Images (boy), CGinspiration/Getty Images (cap)

It’s a wintry weekend in the suburbs. Sleet and snow sheet the frozen streets. Route 9 is barren, a winter weather advisory in effect. Yet the massive parking lot at the 220,000-square-foot New England Sports Center in Marlborough is overflowing. Land Rovers and BMW SUVs—many with Connecticut license plates, most with hockey decals—disgorge tiny kids, struggling with their giant bags, into the slippery mess.

Inside the complex, frazzled parents consult an airport-style video monitor, searching for which of the eight rinks (the most of any facility in New England) their kid’s club team is playing on. Between the tables of for-sale swag and the full-service restaurant, the pro shop, and the function rooms, it’s easy to get lost.

Down at rink number six, parents line the freezing-cold benches. Hats pulled low, North Face puffers zipped tight, their breath is visible as they yell out—“You gotta be shitting me!” “Get off the ice!” “Play the body!”—trying to be heard over the blaring ’80s Van Halen music meant to psych up the nine-year-old, so-called “squirts” battling it out on the ice. “Am I a bad mom because I didn’t notice who scored?” one woman says. “Other parents really care. In a scary way. In a dangerous way.”

You can’t blame her; she’s had her fleece-lined butt frozen to these seats for some seven years already—since her other son, an 11-year-old, was four—and surely will for at least eight more. “It’s such a world,” she says. “Thanksgiving morning, I’m in some crappy hotel room in Buffalo for a tournament thinking, like, What am I doing?

Club ice hockey: This is her family’s life. Her husband, a former Division I college hockey player himself, is a coach on both of their boys’ winter club teams. September through March, her kids practice during the week, play four games each weekend, and—every few months—hit a tournament to play 12 games over three days. April through August, the boys play on a second club team—the Junior Bruins, “the best kids from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire,” the father says—for tournament season. “They’ll play the top teams across North America, competing at the highest level against the top kids from other regions and countries,” he adds, including Chicago, Toronto, and Vancouver.

“It’s crazy,” he admits. He’s moved his kids from one club team to another multiple times, making sure they are on the best of the best. He puts up with the other parents, the ones he calls “the crazies” with “an inferiority complex,” and pays out all the fees, starting at $3,700 per kid, just for the winter season, and at least doubling that number, he says, once he adds in all the year-round “extras.”

What’s the prize? The return on investment for the massive expenditures of time and money and stress? For eating Thanksgiving dinner in a conference room in Buffalo year after year after year?

College.

Whether it’s hockey, soccer, lacrosse, field hockey, baseball, or any other club sport, the shiny promise is the same. Parents pay exorbitant amounts of money so their kids can play on a club team in return for a shot at the elusive golden jackpot: a scholarship to a Division I school, or at least a leg up toward securing an acceptance letter from a more elite Division III school than their kids could have gotten into on mere grades alone. “We’ll probably end up paying as much or more than the college tuition in terms of the investment we’re making in the kids’ sports over time,” the hockey dad admits, but he says it’s worth it because he wants his children to be successful in life. It is a way, he says, for kids “to get into really strong schools with less than perfect academics.” In other words, he adds, they use sports to create opportunities. Hitting slap shots, after all, is way more fun than Russian Math.

As parents from Hingham to Hopkinton and Concord to Cohasset pour ever-increasing amounts of money into an exploding multibillion-dollar industry, youth sports have become a frantic arms race with no end in sight. As more kids buy into club teams, countless other parents feel compelled to do the same with their children, lest they be left behind. Still, the more kids who participate in club sports, the more elusive the big returns (that college scholarship!) become. It’s mutually assured destruction.

Recently, though, it seems that the sports mania may have finally reached the tipping point. Club-sport athletes are feeling increasingly overwhelmed, burned out, and disappointed with the full-time job that sports have become. On Beacon Hill, for the very first time, a commission may soon be looking into the phenomenon with an eye toward more oversight of the industry. Meanwhile, parents and kids are increasingly questioning whether all the time, money, and stress is worth it. One Metro-West dad whose life and schedule is dictated by going to games, practices, and personal training for his three club-sport-playing kids is among them. “Some days,” he says, sighing, “I’m like, What the fuck are we doing?

There was a time when kids played whatever sport was in season with their neighborhood pals and a “dad coach,” who may or may not have been drinking a Budweiser and smoking a cigarette on the sidelines. They hopped on their bikes and pedaled over to the goose-poop-covered town fields for practice and played one game a week, decked out in a crappy Hanes T-shirt screen-printed with “Sal’s Pizza,” the local sponsor.

Those kids are now adults, and today their own kids are—in the club-sport parlance—in development. And not in lots of sports, just one sport, which they play year-round at a shiny complex an hour away from home with other children from all over the state and a coach employed by the for-profit business that owns the team. Oh, and they are paying tens of thousands for the privilege.

This is today’s youth sports industry, where—step aside Parks and Rec Department!—Little League and town soccer have gone pro. And while privatized, mercenary club sports have been around for a while—several decades for hockey, more recently for lacrosse—parents currently ensnared in the pay-to-play system say it’s getting progressively more out of hand. “Every year, it just ratchets up and ratchets up and ratchets up,” says one exasperated MetroWest mother of a 17-year-old boy. Like nearly every other parent I spoke to for this story, she asked not to be named because clubs are such a competitive world that she didn’t want to run the risk of upsetting anyone. Her son has played club soccer since he was in first grade. What started off as an innocent, fun extracurricular with a few of his town buddies has now, incrementally and stealthily, taken over his life. A required spring season of practices and games—not to mention international tournaments—forced him to quit lacrosse, a sport he loved. “And his club coach just called him an idiot for playing on his high school basketball team,” she says.

A father of three sons from a suburb west of the city who is likewise immersed in the club lacrosse world agrees. “Six years in now and it’s all on steroids,” he says. “It was once three tournaments during the summer, and now it’s year-round tournaments. We had seven in June and July. It’s a fucking grind. Specialized clinics and add-ons everywhere. Now they are charging more money and offering more product; everything is at a higher level.” Five players on his freshman son’s club team have personal trainers who charge around $80 an hour. “You need to do extra because everyone’s doing it,” the father says. “It’s all about keeping up with the Joneses.”

Other parents, equally wracked with fear, agree.“It’s a little bit crazy for sure,” says a suburban high school football and lacrosse coach, frustrated that kids are being forced to specialize in a single sport before they even have acne. “And it’s overwhelming for parents. They feel like they’re missing the boat if they’re not doing club sports in third grade, and that’s ridiculous and it shouldn’t be that way. I hear it. I see it. It’s just exploding. It’s really gotten progressively more demanding for kids in every sport.”

Youth sports in the U.S. is a $19.2 billion market, according to a 2019 report from WinterGreen Research, a private firm that tracks the industry. To put that in perspective, in 2019 the NFL was at $15 billion. WinterGreen Research also projected that the market, which at the time had grown some 55 percent in just under 10 years, will hit $77.6 billion worldwide by 2026. Here in Massachusetts, private equity firm Juggernaut Capital Partners invested in Wilmington-based 3Step Sports, which bills itself as “the largest youth sport event and club operator in the nation,” and owns dozens of club programs—from basketball’s Boston Warriors to baseball’s Nor’Easters—in eight different sports. And, says the firm’s website, “We’re just getting started.”

The stated goal of these clubs is to act as a pipeline to deliver little Johnny or Joan from the club’s pitcher’s mound straight to the one on the college field. And even pay for their college education. Their websites list which schools their players were accepted into for prospective parents to see, while the legions of kids who follow them on social media get pinged every time another stud junior lacrosse player commits to Johns Hopkins University. Already, the commits—those first offers to play sports for colleges—are rolling in for 11th graders and getting blasted out to their club teammates and their parents, feeding the urgency for swarms of younger players to stay the course no matter how tough it gets.

The sideline chatter parents hear over the whistles and shouts as they watch their kids playing baseball and basketball and volleyball is: If you don’t play club, you’re not going to get the eyeballs and you’re not going to get recruited, says Rick Eckstein, who studies this phenomenon as a professor of sociology at Villanova University, and is the author of How College Athletics Are Hurting Girls’ Sports. Parents who understandably want to give their child every advantage for college admissions often dip a toe in, only to find they are soon swept away by the current.

Photo illustration by Benjamin Purvis. Portland Press Herald/Getty images (girls); Maria Botina/EyeEm/Getty Images (book)

It’s a Sunday night during the winter holiday lull in a suburb west of Boston. A Christmas tree twinkles, a golden retriever snoozes, and a 14-year-old boy I’ll call Jimmy is (finally) relaxing on the couch. It is technically vacation, but Jimmy had a hockey game in the morning, lacrosse practice in the evening, and will soon be jetting to a three-day national lacrosse tournament in Florida. “My goal is to play D1 lacrosse. But I still have high goals for hockey as well. Could be either one,” he says. “I think I can do it. I like to set my goals really high, and I feel like hopefully, eventually, I will get there if I keep working at it.”

Make no mistake, this is work: club hockey since second grade, club lacrosse since third. Jimmy re-classed at private school last year—because all the good lax players in town were in those schools—so he’s in eighth grade now, about 40 minutes from his house. He has club lacrosse skills-development practice three times a week at two different locations, both more than 30 minutes away. His club hockey team plays in Foxborough, so that’s an hour drive to home games. And that keeping-up-with-the-Joneses personal trainer, whom he meets with three times a week, including on Monday mornings before school at 6 a.m., is at a facility that requires an hour round-trip commute. “We have friends in town who are like, You guys are fucking insane,” says his dad, himself a former college lacrosse player and whose two other children also play club sports. “It’s a huge time suck. It’s not easy. But it’s our normal. It definitely wears on you over time. As the years go by, I care just as much about where the end of the road is, but it’s like, what are we chasing?” That road does end, of course, at college. “I’m hoping,” he says, “that the sport will help them get into a better school than they normally would get into.”

The dad’s life is managed by the Cozi scheduling app—which his wife updates religiously—and assisted by a hired driver, who ferries the kids where they need to be when that’s three different practices or games at once. It is, as every club-sport parent knows, a lifestyle. Instead of hot dogs by the lake, summer is spent at tourneys all across the country. “My friends and I talk each other off the cliff,” the dad says. “Like, God dude, I can’t believe it’s only freaking mid-July, we’ve got another three weeks of lacrosse.” For his family, it’s eight tournaments, one for every weekend of June and July, and, since his daughter’s games are someplace else, he and his wife divide and conquer. Is that hard on the family? “I don’t even think about it, it’s just what we do,” he says with a shrug. “We just react to the schedule we’re given, I guess.”

That schedule had him and his nine-year-old at a hockey tournament in Toronto over Thanksgiving, while the rest of the fam was eating turkey with Grandma. The trip cost him a couple grand, adding to a tab that runs about $10K per kid for lacrosse and $6K per kid for hockey each year after factoring in tournaments (and not counting private schools, personal trainers, and hired drivers). “It’s real money,” he says. “Real money.”

While he can afford it, not everyone can. A single Black mother in Brockton said she had to get a second job at one point to pay for lacrosse. There were times when she couldn’t afford to get her daughter’s stick restrung or to buy her a new pair of cleats. While other team parents were talking about taking a private plane to a tournament, she says, “I could not relate to the other parents on any level whatsoever. They just really had a lot of white privilege.” It was also difficult for her to know that her daughter, who is Latinx and Black, was one of the only players of color on the field. “When you talk about club lacrosse,” she says, “ethnicity and diversity do not exist.” The mother eventually switched her kid to a different club team that was half the price and a little more diverse, and says all the sacrifices over all these years are worth it, especially with her daughter potentially committing to a D1 school this month.

The cost of club sports isn’t only paid for in dollars and cents and time, though. Kids pay the price with their bodies. Research shows that intense, early specialization in a single sport increases the risk of injuries, which, not surprisingly, are on the rise among student athletes. “Over the past 10 years, ACL injures among female athletes have exploded, mostly from overuse and lack of rest and recovery,” Eckstein says. Not to mention, Tommy John surgery, once common only for pro baseball pitchers, has become rampant among high schoolers who play ball year-round.

The stress isn’t just physical. Research also shows that rates of burnout and depression among young athletes are also increasing. A junior from a town south of Boston, whom I’ll call Amy, has dreams of playing D1 field hockey. That dream, in her calculation, required her to join the “best” club, which practices an hour and a half from her home. She leaves at 6:30 p.m., practices from 8 to 10 p.m., and gets back home at 11:30. “It’s a very, very taxing schedule, on your body and mentally, too,” she says. “There is a ton of pressure to perform at your best, both from my parents and from myself.”

On practice nights, she tries to do homework in the car but sometimes ends up staying awake until the early morning hours. “My lack of sleep probably made me less focused in class and affected my ability to score as high as possible on tests,” she admits. (There is a certain irony to using club sports to get into college, when doing so means your study time and grades often take a hit.)

It isn’t just the many hours dedicated to club sports that causes stress, however. It is the competition—and not with other teams, but among teammates. In the high-stakes, zero-sum game of club sports, a scholarship awarded to Lisa therefore does not go to Karen. “All 30 of us on my team wanted to go to all the same schools, so that was really intense,” says a female senior club lacrosse player, whom I’ll call Sarah. Meanwhile, Amy describes the team dynamic on her club field hockey team as some crazy Dance Moms/Mean Girls mash-up. “It’s very competitive, because you’re constantly eyeing colleges and recruiting. It definitely takes a toll, this competition among friends,” she says. “Someone will turn on you eventually. It’s a very toxic environment.”

That environment couldn’t be more different from her high school field hockey team, where she says “everyone is working together to win the states or the conference. You’re just all on one common united team, and you’re all pushing each other to be the best you can be.” And having fun. The way youth sports used to be.

Playing club sports and dedicating your life to a team, of course, doesn’t mean everything will work out exactly to plan. Just ask Amy. “My dad would say, ‘All the money we put in now will balance out in scholarship money when you get exposed to these coaches,’” she says. But it turns out that the D1 school to which Amy is most likely to commit ties scholarship money to financial need. “So it’s probably going to equate to us getting pretty much nothing,” in terms of the ROI her parents had hoped for, she says.

That is certainly how it played out for Sarah, who played club starting in fourth grade and won the holy grail of a scholarship to play D1 at a big school out west next year. “People ask me if she got a full scholarship. No, it’s women’s lacrosse, so there just aren’t a lot of full scholarships,” her mom says. “Let’s be clear, this is not a windfall for us. We invested many, many, many years in club sports—tournaments, equipment, coaching, private coaching, all this stuff. We aren’t making out on the deal. But lacrosse opened a door for her that likely wouldn’t have been open if she didn’t get recruited, and she wouldn’t have gotten recruited if she didn’t play club. There’s no way.” Sarah, who couldn’t be more thrilled to be going to what she calls her “dream school,” agrees. “I would say that I’m a smart kid, but I work really hard in school,” she says. “I always had to study a lot because I’m not naturally gifted in calculus or anything. I don’t think I could have gotten into this college without lacrosse.”

Scholarship bucks aside, the other promise of privatized youth sports is, as Sarah says, an admissions advantage. Yet, it turns out, these promises are also exaggerated. In fact, Eckstein says, they are “marginal at best and probably ridiculously low.” According to Melissa McViney, an independent educational consultant in Hingham, unless you’re the top football recruit at Alabama, “the most important thing is still going to be grades and rigor of curriculum. Even if you’re a recruited athlete, you always have to get through the academic gateway. But I’ve had a few kids get into the very selective D3 schools—the Little Ivies—that they wouldn’t have gotten into without coach support.”

Still, it’s a crapshoot. It depends on the college and the sport and what that team needs in any given year—a behind-the-curtain process invisible to parents. “The goal for most people around here is the D3 NESCAC schools, the most prestigious athletic conference,” which includes colleges such as Williams, Amherst, Tufts, and Middlebury, says Betsy Veidenheimer, an independent educational consultant at Lantern College Counseling in Wellesley. Coaches there, she says, are generally given a few recruiting spots, and “if they have a program-changing athlete, and their academic profile is soft, the coach can say, I want this player. Can we make this work? ” she explains. But that applies to very few athletes. Most are so-called soft recruits, where the coach knows about the player but the prospective student isn’t getting special treatment. “Is it a tiebreaker between applicants? Maybe,” Veidenheimer says. “But not more than a kid who was on the debate team.” And since it is illegal for any D3 school to give athletic scholarships, and most NESCAC schools don’t even give merit money, most student athletes are paying close to full tuition.

Even when that sought-after payback looks to be in reach, things can go south, and not because of the colleges but because of the kids themselves. “One D3 school offered my son $48,000 a year to play fucking lacrosse, [and since they can’t give athletic money], they called it academic merit,” a Hingham player’s dad says, laughing. “The kid had a freakin’ 2.8 GPA!” It sounds amazing, but in the end his son chose a college he actually wanted to go to—for more than just lacrosse reasons—and Dad is paying a hefty bill.

That happens all the time. Parents who put their kids in the system at an age when they’re happily playing for Popsicles can’t predict what their 18-year-olds might want. Sometimes, it is the call of the frat house or the grind of the club lifestyle itself that sours kids on the sport that was supposed to be their ticket to college. McViney sees it often: “A lot of these kids are like, I’m done, I’ve done that, I just want to go to college and do other things.”

The nine-year-old hockey squirts head into tryouts this month—jockeying for their position on next season’s club teams—while stressed-out senior athletes pore over acceptances and rejections, finding out if they made the cut and gaming their next move. Many find themselves at the end of a path of broken promises. “We’re all traumatized,” one mother of a non-recruited senior club lacrosse player says. “The last thing I want to think or talk about right now is club. My younger daughter quit and I am thrilled. So glad to leave it behind.”

Even some parents for whom the system “worked” are feeling unsettled. As Sarah’s mom prepares to send her daughter off to D1 this fall on a partial scholarship, she’s not pleased about continuing on with her freshman son, a die-hard club baseball athlete. If it wasn’t his absolute and unshakeable dream to play D1 in college, she says, she would never put another child through the club and recruiting process again. “It is a business, and it is brutal on these kids,” she says. “The schools treat them like meat. It’s brutal to watch how they get ghosted, with no explanation, how they get de-committed, for no reason. They’re just treated like a commodity. These are kids.”

If parents are questioning the whole youth sports industry, it may very well signal that the ground underneath the club sports/college athletics industrial complex is shifting. After all, let’s face it, the buy-in for the club craziness is all about the parents—whether they’re simply trying to provide the best opportunities money can buy, or they’re relying on their trophy kid as a marker of their own success. “Parents feel better about themselves the better their kids do. And they all want to brag, ‘Oh, my kid’s going here, they are all-conference this or that,’” says the Hingham dad. It’s this competition by proxy that Eckstein heard about during interview after interview for his book. “Parents are deriving enormous amounts of prestige from the athletic success of their kids,” he says. “‘If my kid has a scholarship, that’s a good reflection on me.’ I was really blown away by how common that was among the parents. While colleges are driving the system, I think parents are really driving the show here.”

There are some other signs of a changing landscape. Take the case of Brian Vona, the longtime coach of boys lacrosse powerhouse Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School. He started one of the state’s most elite club lacrosse teams, only to walk away from it a few years later. Since then, Vona has become a big and, yes, controversial voice, standing up to and pushing back against the system. He has proven that he can beat clubs at their own game, without all the expense and insanity. He has made accessible to parents what they say they want from expensive clubs: off-season training (local, low-key, and inexpensive) and a few recruiting tournaments in the summer, which his players attend as the L-S high school team, playing against other top high school teams. (“That tournament has had more college coaches than any tournament I have ever seen,” says the Hingham dad, whose son’s high school team also attends. “Like every Division I head coach, the guys you see on TV.”) And it’s working. Vona says very few of his players play on clubs, the kids are happy, and they are still getting recruited to play at college. Right now, there are nearly 40 Lincoln-Sudbury grads playing college lacrosse. Other top high school sports programs in the state, Vona explains, are starting to follow suit. “There’s a huge shift happening now, huge. It’s awesome.” In other words, when the so-called Joneses aren’t playing club, there is no one to keep up with.

Some people think it will take more than high school coaches and some parents to buck the multibillion-dollar industry. That’s why state Senator Barry Finegold of Andover thinks it’s time for the government to step in. “It’s like an arms race with sports right now,” he says. He’s currently trying to get a bill passed that would allow a commission to look into privatized club sports. “I do think that there has to be some type of oversight,” he says. “It’s like a hamster wheel, and I don’t know when it stops.”

Still, even as many people in the area are taking a hard look at club sports, they are also taking a hard look at people like Ian Moore. From Concord, he played club hockey for the Minuteman Flames starting at age six and today is living the dream. Last year, he had many potential options to play hockey on a full ride. In the end, he chose Harvard, where he is now a freshman. Harvard doesn’t offer scholarships for sports. But it is, well, Harvard.

And that is all it takes for many parents to keep enrolling, paying for, and driving kids to club-sport practices. They may know the odds aren’t good, but that doesn’t seem to really matter in the end. After all, everyone knows how unlikely it is to win the lottery, but then you see some guy grinning with a giant check in his clutches, and the next thing you know you’re standing in line at a convenience store picking your numbers, thinking, Why not me?

The kids playing hockey across the state know exactly who Moore is. And so do their parents. “I have parents ask me how we did it,” says his dad Michael. “I tell them we got lucky.”

Next Post

Sports world reacts to Lou Holtz's Trump comments

Former football coach and ESPN analyst Lou Holtz hasn’t been shy about making controversial or eye-popping comments in recent years. He got in hot water in 2008 for saying “Hitler was a good leader” for which he later apologized and said he had misspoken. He’s made various controversial comments over […]