Big Money in College Sports
Can travel ball pay off?
Zoe came home for summer. She has spent two years far away at a college where she played for the softball team.
One of our talks, about her plans for next year, has led me to share some of what I learned while hanging out for the better part of a dozen years in a subculture that's largely about college sports.
Beginning at age ten, our friends began deserting the recreation softball league in which Zoe was playing for what are commonly known as travel ball teams. The primary purpose of travel teams in any sport is to give the players a higher level of competition and in some cases more experienced coaches, to prepare for their future in the sport. Of course, only major sports allow kids and their parents and fans to dream of professional careers and big money, but most every travel ball sport helps prepare for a more attainable goal, which is college.
I don't think I ever met a softball parent who wasn't hoping their kid would go to college. So, given that in our times college can easily cost a fortune, a reason why parents are willing to pay hundreds of dollars each month to the team and also for travel costs, is the promise of a good college education ideally assisted by a scholarship. The older and more successful the kid, the more parents may share with each other about ways -- such as a more prestigious travel team, a more effective pitching or batting coach, or a weekend or summer camp devoted to college recruiting -- to boost the chance of getting into a good school for a bargain price.
Travel ball is mighty competitive. Softball, during our travel ball years, offered three levels of tournament competition. Announcements for each tournament featured a list of colleges that planned to send recruiters. Tournaments at lower levels featured recruiters from less renowned universities and from community colleges. Higher level tournaments drew recruiters from colleges with prestigious athletic programs.
Here's a briefing on college sports: the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) is divided into categories, Divisions 1, 2 and 3. Aside from the NCAA there are NIAA (National Independent Athletic Association) for smaller colleges and trade schools, and JUCO for junior and community colleges.
Sports powerhouse colleges play in D-! and many of them offer generous sports scholarships. Players who aim for D-1 colleges should be aware that a major part of their college life will be about athletics (training, practice, a full schedule of games and lots of team travel) and that if they for any reason leave the team, they probably lose their scholarship.
D-2 schools can offer scholarships that are in part athletic, but their sports scholarships are in general not as generous as those D-1 schools can offer. On the other hand, tuition may be more reasonable.
D-3 colleges don't grant sports scholarships, though when applying to a school that accepts fewer than 10% of applicants, a successful sports background may help to gain admission. At a D-3 college, players should not be required to give up as much time to the team as they would in D-1. And, perhaps even more importantly, an injury or rigorous academic schedule won't put the student in risk of losing the scholarship.
Travel team parents commonly hope the expense will prove a sound investment by helping with their kid's admission to a more selective school, by softening the financial burden with a scholarship, and/or by allowing the student and parent or both to avoid the insidious trap of student loans.
Some of those hopes pay off. Some don't. Still, whatever encourages people to think about college is, from my angle, worth the money.
An ad on ESPN featured football great Jerry Rice, who mentioned that only one or two percent of college athletes ever make a living with their sport. Then he adds, "The rest get something even better." Meaning a college education. That ad touched my heart.
Because of some football players I knew during my undergraduate years, I used to have a low opinion of the value of college sports. But that opinion has radically changed, as I have since encountered so many bright people who would not have attended college at all if not for the opportunities sports provide.
I deeply believe in education, including higher education, and not just for material reasons. My hope is that wisdom can help save humanity from a dreadful future. And at colleges, wisdom is respected, taught, and encouraged.
The bottom line: I calculate that during Zoe's travel ball years, the annual cost of lessons, team dues, and tournament travel came to as much as $3000 during her six recreation league years, and nearly $!0,000 for each of six travel ball years. So, I will estimate that we spent around $75,000 on Zoe's softball. Now, as her scholarship to a major university with a high price tag pays for most of her costs, we are saving well over $50,000 each year.
Zoe is an excellent student, and neither of her parents are (being teachers) by any means wealthy (which factors into financial aid). Every student (and every family) is different. But, if your student is either athletically or academically gifted and motivated, travel ball may be a great investment. Besides, it can be lots of fun.
And travel ball can help kids learn what sort of coaches are the best match for them. Some coaches believe that the harder they work players, or the more they push or even scare them into performing, the better the team; others believe in building confidence by encouraging; some coaches are fiercely competitive; others are more concerned with having fun. If a travel ball coach isn't the right fit, the player can look for another team. What a girl learns by playing for different coaches may later help her find the best employer or decide what sort of partner she can best work or live with.
When Zoe started softball, I promised to make sure she would have good coaches. But then high school came along, snd so did college. Schools don't allow any choice of coach. So, I strongly suggest, before opting for a certain school, if sports are part of the plan, have a long talk with the coach and feel free to ask difficult questions. Playing for the wrong coach can be a mighty dismal experience.