Joey Erace knocks pitch after pitch into the netting of his $15,000 backyard batting cage, the pings from his metal bat filling the air in the south New Jersey cul-de-sac. His private hitting coach, who’s charging $100 for this hour-long session, tells Joey to shorten his stride. He’s accustomed to such focused instruction: the evening batting practice followed a one-on-one fielding lesson in Philadelphia earlier in the day, which cost another $100.
Relentless training is essential for a top player who suits up for nationally ranked teams based in Texas and California, thousands of miles from home. But Joey has talents that scouts covet, including lightning quickness with a rare knack for making slight adjustments at the plate–lowering a shoulder angle, turning a hip–to drive the ball. “He has a real swagger,” says Joey’s hitting coach, Dan Hennigan, a former minor leaguer. “As long as he keeps putting in this work, he’s going to be a really, really solid baseball player at a really, really high level.”
Already, Joey has a neon-ready nickname–Joey Baseball–and more than 24,000 followers on Instagram. Jewelry and apparel companies have asked him to hawk their stuff. On a rare family vacation in Florida, a boy approached Joey in a restaurant and asked for his autograph. But Joey Baseball has yet to learn cursive. He is, after all, only 10 years old. They snapped a picture instead.
Joey Erace is an extreme example of what has become a new reality for America’s aspiring young athletes and their families. Across the nation, kids of all skill levels, in virtually every team sport, are getting swept up by a youth-sports economy that increasingly resembles the pros at increasingly early ages. Neighborhood Little Leagues, town soccer associations and church basketball squads that bonded kids in a community–and didn’t cost as much as a rent check–have largely lost their luster. Little League participation, for example, is down 20% from its turn-of-the-century peak. These local leagues have been nudged aside by private club teams, a loosely governed constellation that includes everything from development academies affiliated with professional sports franchises to regional squads run by moonlighting coaches with little experience. The most competitive teams vie for talent and travel to national tournaments. Others are elite in name only, siphoning expensive participation fees from parents of kids with little hope of making the high school varsity, let alone the pros.
The cost for parents is steep. At the high end, families can spend more than 10% of their income on registration fees, travel, camps and equipment. Joe Erace, who owns a salon and spas in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, says Joey’s budding baseball career has cost north of $30,000. A volleyball dad from upstate New York spent $20,000 one year on his daughter’s club team, including plenty on gas: up to four nights a week she commuted 2½ hours round-trip for practice, not getting home until 11:30 p.m. That pales beside one Springfield, Mo., mom, who this summer regularly made a seven-hour round-trip journey to ferry her 10- and 11-year-old sons to travel basketball practice. Others hand their children over entirely. A family from Ottawa sent their 13-year-old to New Jersey for a year, to increase his ice time on the travel hockey circuit. A sponsor paid the teen’s $25,000 private-school tuition. This summer, 10 boys from across the U.S. stayed with host families in order to play for a St. Louis–based travel baseball club.
“It’s definitely taken over everything,” says Magali Sanchez, a legal records clerk from San Diego whose daughter Melanie Barcenas, 9, and son Xzavier Barcenas, 8, play travel soccer. To help pay for their fees, Sanchez’s husband Carlos, a gas-station attendant, will spend 12 hours on a Saturday carting supplies at tournaments. Practice and tournaments overtake nights and weekends like kudzu–Sanchez says they often have to skip family weddings and kids’ birthday parties. “This sports lifestyle is crazy,” she says. “But they’re your kids. You do anything for them.”
A range of private businesses are mining this deep, do-anything parental love. The U.S. youth-sports economy–which includes everything from travel to private coaching to apps that organize leagues and livestream games–is now a $15.3 billion market, according to WinterGreen Research, a private firm that tracks the industry. And the pot is rapidly getting bigger. According to figures that WinterGreen provided exclusively to TIME, the nation’s youth-sports industry has grown by 55% since 2010.
The numbers have been catnip for investors. A top NBA star and the billionaire owner of the NFL’s most valuable team own equity in youth-sports startups. Major media and retail companies are investing in technology that manages peewee schedules. And municipalities that once vied for minor-league teams are now banking on youth sports to boost local economies, issuing bonds for lavish complexes that they hope will lure glove-toting tykes and their families.
There are upsides to the frenzy. Some kids thrive off intense competition, and the best players receive an unprecedented level of coaching and training. The travel circuit can also bring people of different backgrounds together in a way that local leagues by definition do not.
But as community-based teams give way to a more mercenary approach, it’s worth asking what’s lost in the process. Already, there are worrying signs. A growing body of research shows that intense early specialization in a single sport increases the risk of injury, burnout and depression. Fees and travel costs are pricing out lower-income families. Some kids who don’t show talent at a young age are discouraged from ever participating in organized sports. Those who do often chase scholarships they have a minuscule chance of earning.
“For better or worse, youth sports is being privatized,” says Jordan Fliegel, an entrepreneur who has capitalized on the shift. Whatever the answer is, the transition has been seismic, with implications for small towns, big businesses and millions of families.
The United States
Specialty Sports Association, or USSSA, is a nonprofit with 501(c)(4) status, a designation for organizations that promote social welfare. According to its most recent available IRS filings, it generated $13.7 million in revenue in 2015, and the CEO received $831,200 in compensation. The group holds tournaments across the nation, and it ranks youth teams in basketball, baseball and softball. The softball rankings begin with teams age 6 and under. Baseball starts at age 4.
Entering June, Joey Erace’s Dallas-area team, the Texas Bombers, was third in the USSSA’s 10-and-under baseball power ranking. The Alamo (Texas) Drillers were No. 1. This summer, Luke Martinez, 10, played second base for the Drillers. His family lives in a well-appointed mobile home in south San Antonio. Luke’s mom Nalone cooks for a food truck. Luke’s dad Jerry is a logistics coordinator at a printer and copier company. He works overtime whenever possible to save for Luke’s frequent overnight trips across Texas and to Louisiana, North Carolina and Florida. The family has skipped car payments and put off home repairs to help.
Like millions of sports parents, the Martinezes hope that Luke’s quick bat will lead to a college scholarship. There may be no single factor driving the professionalization of youth sports more than the dream of free college. With the cost of higher education skyrocketing–and athletic-department budgets swelling–NCAA schools now hand out $3 billion in scholarships a year. “That’s a lot of chum to throw into youth sports,” says Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society program. “It makes the fish a little bit crazy.”
The odds are not in anyone’s favor. Only 2% of high school athletes go on to play at the top level of college sports, the NCAA’s Division I. For most, a savings account makes more sense than private coaching. “I’ve seen parents spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars pursuing a college scholarship,” says Travis Dorsch, founding director of the Families in Sport Lab at Utah State University. “They could have set it aside for the damn college.”
Still, the scholarship chase trickles down to every level. College coaches are now courting middle-schoolers, and competitive high school teams scout the club ranks. In some places, travel teams have supplanted high school squads as the priority for top players. Kids learn early that it’s imperative to attend travel tournaments–and impress. Katherine Sinclair, 12, has played basketball games in Philadelphia and New York City on the same day, but she embraces the grind. “I don’t have that long until I’m in eighth grade,” she says. “That’s when college scouts start looking at me. It’s when I have to work my butt off.”
Tennis Star Garbiñe Muguruza, on Whether She’s the U.S. Open Favorite
Sat, 26 Aug 2017 12:40:45 +0000
You’re 23 and have won two Grand Slam titles in two seasons. Serena Williams is taking a break for her pregnancy and nearing the end of her career. Is this your moment? That’s what everybody’s thinking. But it’s not easy. The more you win, the more expectations people have–they see you as a possible champion everywhere …]]>
You’re 23 and have won two Grand Slam titles in two seasons. Serena Williams is taking a break for her pregnancy and nearing the end of her career. Is this your moment?
That’s what everybody’s thinking. But it’s not easy. The more you win, the more expectations people have–they see you as a possible champion everywhere you go. You realize everyone’s watching you and expecting you to win. It’s hard.
You beat Venus Williams in the Wimbledon final in July and Serena in last year’s French Open final. So what’s the secret to taking down the Williams sisters?
[Laughs.] There’s no secret. Just go out there without fear. Yeah, you’re playing one of the greatest tennis players. But don’t feel like you’re not free. You have to focus on the game and forget about the crowd, the match, the opponent. It’s a lot of work to prepare. Once you go out on the court, you have to feel that you did everything you could to be ready.
Has life changed since you won Wimbledon?
The more you’re holding big trophies, the more people recognize you. The good thing is, I play with a visor. When I’m on the street wearing jeans, people are looking at me, doubting. They stare at me and they don’t know. It’s funny. Sometimes I look at them and I’m like, “Why are you staring at me?”
You were born in Venezuela and moved to Spain when you were 6. But people have said you play like you’re Russian. What does that mean?
Women from Eastern Europe and Russia, they’re taller and they hit hard and they’re very aggressive. Spain is completely different. I’m tall [6 ft.] and have long arms and hit the ball hard. So they were calling me the Spanish Russian because they didn’t understand why I was playing like that.
This opinion is hard, because I feel like no matter what people say, it’s going to be misunderstood. I understand when they say the men’s final is going to attract more people, and maybe a women’s match is not as full. But I think that more and more, it’s getting equal.
Serena Williams won the Australian Open this year while almost eight weeks pregnant. Do you picture yourself playing a tournament while carrying a child?
No. That was very impressive. I think the day I want to become a mom and have a family, I will stop tennis. I don’t think I will handle both things at the same time.
The U.S. Open begins in late August. What’s the most difficult aspect of the tournament?
I never really do well in the U.S. Open. There is something that is not clicking. I don’t know what it is. And every time I go there, I’m excited. I love the city. With New York, I feel two things: I’m very happy when I get there, and I’m very happy when I leave.
So are you the favorite?
Oh my goodness. No, not really. People say the last champion’s going to win the next tournament. It’s the classic way to see it. And it never happens.