While our boys were aging up through little league we began to notice a movement that was altering the fabric of little league baseball: Travel ball. For many families this is an attractive option to enhance the sporting experience for your young athlete. In this article, I unpack the “travel baseball” dilemma. Please also know that the same phenomena exists in lacrosse, football, softball, soccer, swimming, basketball, volleyball, and other team sports. Most importantly, it is crucial that you understand the financial implication of travel sports, and that you understand the less expensive alternatives so that you can make an informed decision when your son or daughter asks you to allow him/her to join the “Diamond Jacks Select Baseball Team” that his/her best friend is joining.
For those who are unfamiliar, travel ball, also called “Select” ball….is a team comprised of “serious” players, sometimes using a paid coach. These teams hold tryouts, and compete in leagues with other similarly constructed teams. The teams usually travel to out-of-town locations and play in tournaments over a weekend, or even for an entire week in the summers. Obviously, it costs money to play on these travel teams, and when you factor in the hotel rooms, meals, fancy uniforms, custom helmets (the team has to match … right?) rolling equipment bags with team logo, and tournament fees, each family is paying anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 per season to play on these teams. In other words, this is serious baseball for serious money. By the way this starts at age 7 and hits full throttle by age 10.
At first, we noticed that just a handful of the really serious baseball kids were opting for travel ball. They reasoned that this is the best opportunity to help their kid get better, and land that coveted baseball college scholarship. It also does provide some valuable “window time” to be alone with your son or daughter as you travel to the tournaments. But then we noticed that many more kids were signing up for these leagues, and the panache that comes with it. Essentially, over time, it became the norm. Families with money bypassed the city league to play on these “select” teams.
The result is a dramatic decline in the culture and community of little league baseball. Little league baseball used to be the forum where a kid who has never picked up a baseball could learn alongside the kid who grew up playing baseball. I taught dozens of kids how to swing a bat, throw a baseball, field a ground ball, and catch a fly ball, alongside my sons who already had those skills. The teams were well balanced with experienced kids, novice kids, fast kids, and slow kids. We NOW notice that our local little league only has enough players for 3-5 teams each season…when 10 years ago each age division had 10-12 teams.
Our philosophy regarding travel ball was simple: We were not going to drag our entire family of 6 to an out-of-town baseball tournament, incur the hotel and meal expense, miss Sunday church, and basically lose an entire weekend just so that one of our 4 kids could play in a baseball tournament….and then do it again in two weeks. We had one exception to this family philosophy: if the kid was practicing baseball on his own free time, outside of the organized practices, we would consider investing in the time and expense of travel baseball. All of our boys lobbied to play on these select travel teams, but only our youngest was “eaten up” by baseball, and relentlessly practiced on his own free time. I think that philosophy served him and our family well. I also believe that philosophy would serve our communities well.
The financial commitment of travel ball is something that cannot be ignored. Some families can afford the $5,000 seasonal expense, which can amount to $10,000 annually. But it should be pointed out that this approximates the cost of tuition for one semester of college at your typical public university. I cannot recommend that you pin your son or daughter’s college hopes on the success of their athletic prowess. I orbit in the world of statistical probabilities, and I make financial recommendations based upon likely probabilities of success. The statistics tell me that $10,000 is better saved in a college fund, and let the kid play in the city league.
So here is my pitch: With rare exception….say NO to the expense and time commitment of travel sports… unless your kid is totally “all in” on the sport.
If your family can afford this luxury without harming the efficacy of your long-term college and retirement plans, go for it, just like you might purchase a European luxury car versus a domestic sedan. However, if travel sports is a purchase that jeopardizes or crimps your family finances, I just simply have not seen the value that these “select” programs purport to provide. In the meantime, this will preserve our community sports leagues, preserve your weekend, and most importantly preserve your net worth.
If you would like to dig deeper into this subject, feel free to give me a holler.