The Big Lie: Travel Baseball

bigstockphoto_Baseball_2688855In the summer of 2011, my son, Penn, attended a Baseball Factory showcase in Lebanon, Tennessee.  It was attended by around 75 high school players, and their goal was to be chosen for a larger showcase event in Atlanta – one that would be attended by college coaches and professional scouts.

The cost was minimal – $99 – and only involved about 2 hours.  It was the usual stuff – ground balls, fly balls, arm strength, speed in the 60 yard dash, hitting, and so on.  It was more evaluation than anything, and since Penn would need to do these type events in the years ahead for college exposure, I wanted him to do it now, the summer after his freshman year in high school, to gain experience and knowledge of what these type events involved.

After the showcase ended, we went home and returned our focus to summer baseball.

On the following Tuesday, I received a phone from a Baseball Factory representative in Maryland.  He basically informed me that they were impressed with Penn’s skills in the Lebanon showcase, and they felt he would benefit from playing tournaments with their USA 16U team.  They would be playing in a tournament in Arizona the next month, and they wanted Penn to join them there.

I was intrigued.  “So, how much is involved financially?” I asked.  He responded with a list of benefits – multiple uniforms, several games, coaching by former professional players and coaches, hotel, food, and airfare.  They would meet him at the airport, take him to the hotel, and the week would begin with his team.

The cost?  $3500.

I politely refused his offer, and told him it was way too early and way too expensive for us to participate.


 

Baseball-PlayersBaseball is a game.

It’s best enjoyed on a sandlot with your friends, or at a big league ball park with your family.  Or, even the local ball fields, where the Bears play the Indians in the 10 year-old rec league.

It’s not meant to create a “straw man” of college and big league aspirations for any player willing to pay the fee.

There are things travel baseball can do.  First, it raises the level of competition significantly.  Take a team from Murfreesboro to Ft. Myers, Florida, and you’ll discover quickly that there are better players out there.  Secondly, it can increase exposure if you’re son is interested in playing college baseball.  College and professional scouts attend showcases in droves.  It’s a convenient one-stop-shopping for coaches that eliminates time and travel overall.

However, the culture of travel baseball has hijacked what was meant to be a simple, innocent game.  It’s a multi-million dollar business that preys on the desire of players – and parents – to be the next Mike Trout, or maybe sign with an SEC program.  It’s out of control, and it will continue as long as players believe the hype and parents pay the bucks.

The Birth of Travel Ball 

My oldest son, Griffin, started travel ball at 11 years-old.  I was a coach, along with a couple of other dads, and we were in search of high quality competition.  Our reasoning was that if our boys were to be better baseball players, they needed to play against better competition.

So, we bought a uniform, and paid the fees to play in tournaments – about $250/team – most of which were held in Jackson, MS, or Gulfport.  Both locations were about an 1 1/2 hour drive, so hotel stays were involved whenever we played.  At first, it was a tournament here, a tournament there.  But, it quickly evolved to playing every weekend, and that meant more tournament fees and hotel bills.

Since then, both of my boys have played on travel teams as they’ve gotten older.  At times, I would go with one, and Michelle would go with the other.  Hotel stays were common, but the tournament fees rose steadily.  Add to that multiple sets of uniforms and equipment, and the costs skyrocketed.

Team Finances

When I coached travel baseball in the early days, the dads would take it on and it was, well, just part of being a dad. baseball-crowd You spent time with your son as he played the game.  The cost to play on a team only involved your part of the tournament fees.  On a team of 11-12 players, that amounted to about $200 for the summer.

Now, teams will charge between $1200-2000 to play summer baseball.  Sound like a lot?  In comparison, elite teams will charge a lot more.  And, that doesn’t include the cost of travel and meals for the parents and family.

[I know of one program in Ohio that sports a yearly budget of over $1 Million.  Elite players from all over the country play on this team, and they play all summer long.]

Why the cost?  The coaches (who are not dads) get paid now.  The high-end uniforms are many.  And, the tournament fees have gone up.  What used to cost $250 now costs anywhere between $850 – 1200.  For one tournament.

The Tournament Directors

Tournament directors and owners have benefited.  Programs like Perfect Game and others will host and sponsor tournaments every week.  These tournaments will run from Tuesday to Sunday.  Clean the park on Monday, and start another one on Tuesday.

What’s the appeal?  Pristine fields, your own web page for recruiting, and playing in front of college coaches and professional scouts.

For example, the World Wood Bat Association holds tournaments every summer in Atlanta for every age group starting at 14U.  There are over 150 teams playing in the 16U tournament, and that number explodes to well over 200 teams in the 17U tournament.  That’s approximately $800/team.  You do the math.

The Sacrifice

The culture of travel baseball has taken over what once was simple and innocent.  Coaches and tournament directors and recruiting organizations know that parents will pay for the promise and guarantee of exposure to college coaches and scouts.  They know you’ll do whatever it takes for your player to get every opportunity he needs.

So, as a parent, you pay to play.  You make the sacrifice.  You do your part.

But, that’s where it ends.  Once the bill is paid, little else is done by anyone to guarantee exposure and recruiting.

Travel baseball has become the Big Lie.


 

Lest you think I’m a bitter dad whose sons didn’t get the opportunity to play, I’m not.

My oldest son has combined an academic scholarship with an athletic scholarship and has yet to pay a dime out of his pocket as he plays in a D1 program.

My younger son will continue playing college baseball at the JUCO level this fall.

My issue, though, with travel baseball is that there are people involved who take advantage of gullible parents who believe their player will go on to the next level.  They prey on your desire to want something for your child, as well as the guilt you’ll have when your player’s friends are playing and you chose not to do it.

And, the thing is, these people know it.  They know what they’re doing.

Have Fun

If your player throws 92 mph, or he’s 6’5 and 230 lb. with a “Ted Williams” swing, he’ll play at the next level.  If not, just enjoy the summer and the games and the popcorn.

Spend your money prepping for the ACT.

25 Comments

Filed under Baseball

25 responses to “The Big Lie: Travel Baseball

  1. Shad Holloman

    One of the many dads I see on a regular basis at Barfield recently told me that, with his older son, if he had saved all the money he spent for his son to play travel ball he could have paid for college a couple of times. His oldest child did manage to get a scholarship, but, like you mentioned, the ACT is a much cheaper way to go!

  2. The problem with travel ball now is that it is not exclusive to the best players taken out of the little league/babe ruth recreational leagues. Once upon a time when I was younger only the best would be asked to play and not be asked to pay some huge entry fee. Its not just for the serious players anymore. Parents that had children who were not selected just started their own teams and drastically diluted the talent. Travel ball means nothing now like it did 15-20 years ago. Once everyone started creating their own teams people realized how much money there can be made. Especially with the weekend tournaments. Its like alphabet soup these days ( AAU, CABA, xyz…etc etc) , just string some letters together and its an organization with a World Series.

    • Thanks for reading and discussing this with those reading along.

      I agree. Travel ball is now saturated with average to below average players. I think many will create an “elite” baseball program with a team at each age group and promote the lie that kids who play for them will almost be guaranteed scholarships. When parents hear that, they’re all in.

      Travel ball is not what it used to be years ago. Very watered down and the cost to play has skyrocketed. It’s simple supply and demand.

      My sons have a hard time comprehending that when I played years ago, everyone played in the same rec league. The talented players were on the same teams as the casual player. All Stars helped to challenge the better players.

  3. Testify! As your first responder wrote, take the money for travel ball for ages 5-14, put it in an investment account. That is the college fund. Then have fun playing high school ball knowing you have come college covered no matter what.

    If you can play, college coaches and scouts will find you. How many remember the score of their June 11 summer travel ball game from seven years ago?

  4. Dan Watson

    Sadly in softball you have the same thing.

  5. Pingback: Travel Baseball vs. Grades: the best scholarship option | Mark Moore

  6. Hi Mark,

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I’ll tweet your post today.

    If you don’t mind, I’m going to shamelessly plug my upcoming novel, “Saving Babe Ruth.” Based on a true life story, I have exposed the “big lie,” as you call it, in the book and also explored the negative impact travel baseball can have on communities.

    Hopefully, this book will serve as a common frame of reference for future discussions about the youth sports culture we have created with particular reference to youth baseball.

    The novel goes on sale on June 27th. You can read the advance reviews, download the first chapter, and read more about the book at this link:

    http://www.tomswyers.com/saving-babe-ruth/

    Thank you,

    Tom Swyers

  7. Sadly, same for travel soccer. We just forked out $2200 for our 8yo son to play next year. So yeah, 2200×10 years = a year of college tuition. I agree, travel has changed. When I played travel softball in high school, I was invited to join the team and I think my parents maybe paid $200 for the season.

  8. Chip

    Rec Ball has become so bad lately in our area that the games are fairly non-competitive baseball. However, I have seen almost every player that may have been a decent rec ballplayer that has moved to travel ball improve their skills measurably and learn the game from a mental standpoint. I don’t think many rec players will make the high school team if they keep playing rec ball as they other kids are passing them by.

    To that point, I agree that travel ball has proliferated to the point that it is big business. Our team which is a regionally recognized program has done well and teaches the game is not an end all. They provide opportunities beyond baseball for community involvement and stress academics. There are many programs that are popping up that state that if you play with us we will get you the exposure you need and that means paying several thousand in fees just to belong to their organization beyond the tournaments. This is where the hope occurs for the parents in the future..

    With regards to my son who is a very small player at the 13u level (75 lbs), he has worked extra hard because he loves baseball and developed great technique and baseball knowledge playing on his elite team. Defensively his skills are phenomenal and the only thing holding him back is that he can only hit the ball so far right now. Travel ball has made him recognize what he needed to do and we put in the hard work together to get him there.

    Finally, at the HS level I have talked to our coaches and they have stated that almost every kid that makes the team now is a travel player with a few exceptions. The primary reason is the baseball IQ is just so much greater. This is relatively new to our HS programs in the north but the coaches are adapting.

    If I put all the money we spend into baseball into a college fund then my son would be missing the opportunity to learn teamwork, work ethic, bonding and other traits that successful leaders require to succeed and he would also most likely have no shot at playing the game he loves the most at a higher level. I am fortunate that he is also a very intelligent child who excels in school in the highest level classes and that has always come first to us as well. Thus, I am glad we are paying the money for my son to try and achieve his goals even though realistically he knows that his academic work will lead to his success and most likely not sports.

    • Chip:

      Thanks for reading my post and commenting. I appreciate and look forward to the discussion from everyone, hoping that it can help us understand and appreciate some of the issues with travel ball.

      I think you’re spot on with regard to travel ball, in that it will raise the baseball IQ of younger players as well as show them where they are deficient. I’ve always said that taking a team to East Cobb or Ft. Myers will let your players know in a hurry how they stack up against players their age.

      I think this is where travel baseball is successful. The bar is raised in expectations for the players on a team, and the competition, as a whole, will force your player to step up the quality of his game.

      Rec ball, which is certainly an option for all of our sons, has suffered at the expense of travel ball. Years ago, every player participated in rec ball, and those who played well experienced the higher level of competition in all stars. Rec ball could regain its status with elite players, but that’s not going to happen as long as coaches and programs make the promises they do. Parents are drawn to opportunities for their player, and I can’t find fault there.

      My biggest problem with travel ball – as one who has experienced it for over 10 years now – is that 1) the cost has risen to ridiculous heights, 2) coaches make promises – quality of coaching & practices, exposure, contacting college programs on behalf of the player, and so on – that they can’t/don’t keep, 3) recruiting services and tournament sponsors make claims they don’t keep, and 4) travel to “elite” tournaments that promise exposure is costly and unnecessary (most players will sign with a college within a limited radius of their hometown).

      Travel ball can be kept affordable while still playing quality baseball. And, it can be done so that the expectations regarding exposure and college scholarships are kept at a minimum. In essence, the parent can find ways to get their player in contact with a college program if the potential is there. So, travel ball CAN be a good thing if managed correctly. The problem comes when a coach or program director makes claims that are never intended to be kept while pocketing significant amounts of money because they prey on the fears and lack of knowledge of parents.

      I do have to disagree with you on a few points, though. Your player can learn every aspect of “teamwork, work ethic, bonding and other traits” on a rec team. The dynamics of team work are the same. Also, if your son acquires the ability and tools to play the game, regardless of whether or not he plays travel ball, he’ll get the opportunity to play in high school. If he’s not good enough to play in a high school program, he most definitely cannot play at the next level.

      I applaud the fact that you have emphasized academics with your player, and that his expectations of playing in high school and college are realistic. Many times, that’s the most difficult part to obtain.

      Again, thanks for reading and sharing your comments. I know that your input helps us all as we try to sort this issue out.

  9. Justin

    Travel ball is a wonderful tool if used properly. I see kid every year being told that they are good enough to play “elite” level ball then when the parent asks me I turn into the bad guy for being honest. I want my kid (5 years old) to love baseball because we can enjoy the game together. If never plays more than rec league ball I will be happy as long as he is happy. Love your kids & be objective before you spend money & more importantly time lost with your child on a lie. Trust the people you have always trusted not a fast talking salesman looking to get a check.

  10. Tyler

    Mr. Moore, This comment is not so much for this particular post as it is just saying thank you for your blog. I just found it today when Coach Wyant tweeted the link. I coach baseball at Siegel, so I am familiar with you son Penn, so I decided to check out the rest of the blog after reading this post. It was absolutely the best choice I have made all day. As a baseball coach and the son of a Church of Christ preacher who has done some preaching myself, I relate to all the content, from what parents should and shouldn’t say to “we worship the same God”. I very much appreciate your insight. God Bless.

  11. Patrick Stoecker

    Mark,

    I think travel ball is necessary for your kid to play at the next level. I do think people are enticed to play at too early of an age. My son, Collin didn’t play travel until he was in 7th grade and that was local travel. All of the events he played in as a 7th grader and 8th grader were within 30 miles of my house. When he got to be 15 we chose to tryout for a team that played a few out of town tournaments but also played in a local travel league. He is 17 now and plays for a team at east Cobb. The team fees are less expensive than the team he played for locally and they are really good!

    My point is we took a different road than most. I chose not to drink the koolaide a lot of parents were drinking. I didn’t think there were many scouts looking at 14 year olds but when he was between his freshman and sophomore year we got pretty serious. We went to Ft. Myers and in 3 2/3 innings my son was rewarded with 3 D1 offers. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time and being on the right team. I give all the glory to God!

    When Collin was 10 we were led to believe we were not doing enough and we would be passed by. “Real” Travel ball is necessary but not until high school. Too many parents are trying to win the world on every weekend, when their time would be much better spent working with their boy on individual skills.

    I started reading your blog a few weeks ago and I love it!

    Patrick

    • Patrick:

      Thanks for reading and for giving such a good commentary. I appreciate it!

      Travel ball can be a great experience if done within reason. Your approach sounds like you did it right and with good logic.

      Both my boys played in a similar way that you and Collin approached it. Everything was reasonable and it was, for the most part, a great experience.

      I think college coaches follow the tournaments, but I think most coaches will follow specific players that they see here and there. Of course, you always hope to get noticed as coaches walk up to a game, or maybe they come to watch a specific player and notice another one. Either way, the results are the same.

      All that said, I agree with your statement and say that travel can be a positive experience if done within reason.

      Thanks for following and please continue to give your commentary as you feel led. Discussion is always good and helps us all to think through these issues.

  12. Jolene

    You think baseball is expensive? Try travel volleyball. As one poster sited “best when used properly.” My question always was – do we really need to travel cross country to find level best competition? The answer, of course, is NO. My volleyball daughter is now working for a Fortune 500 company and drawing on all of her team sports to be successful. At the end of the day, I would do it all again. Hands down. yEs

  13. Pingback: 6-String Salvo, June 13, 2014 | Mike Lee

  14. Shane Gardner

    I am a college coach and we seldom go to any events where the player needs to pay a fee. We host several workouts on campus and do not use it as a fund raiser like so many other programs. I tell recruits to study hard in the classroom and contact coaches directly for workouts.

  15. CB

    Softball umpire here. You have hit the nail on the head with your post and the watered down talent. Example, did a tourney this year. Umped 10 games, out of those ten games, 2 of them were not ended by run rule. Closest game was a 2-1, next closest was a 11-5. Makes for long days behind the plate when your telling batters to take your base when the pitchers cant throw strikes no matter how big your zone is.

  16. Reblogged this on The Unsilent Majority and commented:
    Very interesting insight!

  17. T781

    Another problem is the amount of time parents have to take off of work. It no longer is just on weekends but some tournaments start during the week. People have lost their minds with this travel baseball stuff!

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