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Families spend freely to gain edge in travel sports

July 22, 2019

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — For Dale and Amy Uttecht, guiding two sons through the competitive world of youth travel sports meant sacrificing a few things along the way.

Football, basketball or baseball trips with various teams to Minneapolis, Omaha or Kansas City became a way of life, with the extra costs that came along with it.

“A lot of times that was our vacation,” said Dale, who works as a financial advisor in Sioux Falls. “Instead of going here or there, we said, ’Well, we’re doing this many weekends of (out-of-state) tournaments this year. It was something we had to budget for.”

Logan Uttecht, 20, is soon to enter his sophomore year as a wide receiver for the Augustana University football team after redshirting last season. Joe, 15, will be a sophomore at Washington High School in the fall, playing football and basketball for the Warriors.

Dale and Amy Uttecht estimate that they spent between $8,000 to $10,000 annually for the 10 years Logan and Joe played summer travel sports — most recently, baseball for the Sioux Falls Cyclones and basketball for the Pentagon Schoolers.

Their story is not unique. In an era of increasingly competitive youth travel sports, families in South Dakota and across the country are committing larger chunks of time and money to try to help their kids get a leg up on their athletic future.

Twenty percent of parents whose children compete in “highly competitive or elite teams run by a non-school organization” spend $1,000 per month per child on sports, according to a 2017 study by TD Ameritrade, while 63% spent an average of $100-$500.

These figures vary based on the price of equipment, organizational fees, additional camps and fundraising opportunities. But there is no guarantee that the investment will pay off in the form of future opportunities, the Argus Leader reported.

Forty percent of parents who responded to the 2017 study said they were banking on athletic scholarships to cover more than half of their child’s college costs.

“I know there are a lot of people that are sacrificing maybe even their own retirement to make sure this stuff happens,” said Darmey Hage of Sioux Falls, who has a son and daughter heavily involved in club athletics.

But recent data from the NCAA reveals that fewer than 2% of all high school student-athletes (1 in 54) will compete for an NCAA Division I school. The study adds that the average Division I athletic scholarship is worth only $10,400.

Still, many families assume that registering their children in travel sports at an early age increases their chance at success at the high school, college and maybe even pro levels.

Virtually every sport in Sioux Falls has its own travel team, some of which involve a year-round commitment. But these sports come with a price — a vast inflation from the days where you could simply show up to the field, lace up and play.

Frank Gurnick, director of operations for the Dakota Alliance Soccer Club, calls it an “evolution.”

Parents today are urging their children to prioritize sports at an earlier age and more vigorous rate, he said. They’re willing to dedicate more of their pocketbook to their children’s sports in hopes of eventual athletic scholarships.

This prompted growth in travel teams: private organizations that provide games, coaching, facilities and lessons to kids who want to train beyond the offerings of school or recreational teams.

Before the 1980s, youth sports operated differently, Gurnick said. In his hometown of Cleveland, schools and parks oversaw sports from T-ball and flag football to the high school level. Teams around town played each other, and if they traveled beyond the outskirts of town, it was for the state tournament.

The shift to privatized sports, travel teams and pay-to-plays began in the 1990s. He largely blames soccer, an “immigrant sport” to the U.S., for sparking the movement.

“I’m convinced soccer is the culprit. But I’m going to say that in a good sense,” Gurnick said. “There became a need to have coaches get educated because too many times we were letting anyone who wanted to coach, coach.”

A growing number of American kids took to the pitch, increasing the demand for experienced coaches from soccer-dominated countries, particularly in Europe. James Oppenheimer, a native of England who coaches for Dakota Alliance and Augustana, is one of them.

Other sports followed suit, Oppenheimer said. He watched youth sports culture drift from a motivator to get kids out of the house to a full-time, year-round commitment.

“The way the culture is now, everyone wants the best of everything,” said Oppenheimer. “They want the professional coaches, they want to travel to Omaha, Des Moines, Minneapolis and play in state championships. People are paying because they want the best, so we have the pressure of providing the best.”

The trend toward travel teams has helped spark a new industry: sports tourism. Cities that host tournaments and camps collect money from visiting families through their athletic venues, hotels, restaurants and shopping centers.

According to a 2017 study from WinterGreen Research, sports tourism is a $15 billion industry and has grown 55% since 2010.

Trecia Gulseth of Brandon can attest to this. Her family spends more than $13,000 annually for her daughter Torrie, 14, and son Tripp, 10, to split time between soccer, basketball and track. Nearly $10,000 of that is devoted to travel.

Each team travels one of two times per month (the Gulseths plan for 14 weekends total), but not always to the same location or on the same weekend.

“Sometimes you’re splitting one parent with one child and one parent with another child,” said Gulseth, who works as a nurse in Sioux Falls. “That doubles hotel costs, gas and everything else.”

For South Dakota-based organizations, finding teams on the same competition level often requires travel to regional cities such as Minneapolis, Omaha, Kansas City or Des Moines.

Oppenheimer said a family that recently moved from Sioux Falls to Kansas City now pays $3,500 a year in fees for competitive soccer, compared with $825. But they don’t pay as much for out-of-state travel because Kansas City boasts multiple soccer clubs.

In England, Oppenheimer’s annual game schedule consisted of 20 teams. The farthest game was 15 miles away from their home field.

“It’s expensive to play at the club level in America. ” he said. “The real cost comes in traveling.”

Hage and his family have traveled to Disney World three times to watch his 13-year-old daughter, Addisyn, compete for the Dakota Spirit cheer team. He said that trip alone costs a third of what he spends annually — $12,000 to $15,000 — on her cheer and 14-year-old son Peyton’s football, basketball and baseball.

But most families, like the Uttechts — who used to spend $5,000 on baseball every summer — turn ventures like these into vacations. What follows a game in Sioux Falls is a possible meal and a trip home. Those plans tend to expand away from home.

“I love going out of town,” said Hage, who works in sales in Sioux Falls. “When you go out of town, everybody is in the same boat. It’s team-building. It’s fun.”

But he realizes not all families can do this. He’s never seen a family stay home from a trip for financial reasons, but some are forced to sacrifice certain parts to “make ends meet,” such as opting for Subway rather than a sit-down restaurant or a day at the hotel pool instead of a Twins game.

In the TD Ameritrade study, 23% of families said they cut back on money set aside for retirement to fund their kids’ sports. Additionally, 55% of families cut back on entertainment and 40% take fewer vacations.

Torrie Gulseth’s soccer team, for the second year in a row, traveled to Tennessee this month for a national soccer tournament, a $27,000 endeavor for the team after entry fees and travel expenses. Asking 20 families to furnish that total is unrealistic, so the team asks members to do fundraising through local businesses or individuals.

That’s a common method of funding in all youth sports, whether it’s selling coupon books, ads in programs or performing community service projects. It doesn’t cover everything, but it helps reduce the financial burden for families.

More importantly, it makes young athletes aware of the commitment it takes to make their athletic pursuits possible.

“Once we get to these higher costs, it’s very important to us to involve the girls, so they’re aware of what this can do to a family,” Gulseth said.

How does Hage know that an athletic scholarship might not offset years of club fees and travel? Because he did the math.

His family spends between $8,000 and $10,000 each year for Addisyn to travel and compete with Dakota Spirit. If she continues until high school graduation, the total could exceed $80,000.

Four years of in-state tuition at South Dakota’s two NCAA Division I schools falls between $70,000 and $75,000, according to South Dakota State University and the University of South Dakota.

“You paid for it one way or another,” Hage said.

Logan Uttecht is one of a small percentage of high school football players to enter the NCAA ranks, signing with Division II Augustana after a successful prep career at Washington.

But it was never about that, says Dale Uttecht, his father. Logan likely could have played football, basketball or baseball at the collegiate level, or he could have played none of them. Either way, the Uttechts wouldn’t change a thing.

Dale remembers a recent trip to Omaha. Years before, Logan’s under-12 baseball team was in the midst of a “successful year as far as wins and losses” when they traveled to Omaha for a tournament. Dale doesn’t recall the score of the games and whether Logan’s team won or lost them, he said, and he doubts Logan does, either.

“When we drive to Omaha now, we’ll drive by a hotel where we stayed, and (Logan) will be like, ‘Oh, Alex and I sat outside of that gas station watching cars go by and having Slurpies,‘” Uttecht said, recalling what he recalls most from his kids’ time in youth sports.

“I’d do it all over again and I think Logan and Joe would too. Certainly, we would have a lot more money in our bank account, but I wouldn’t trade those memories for that.”

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Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com

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