Mark Bayline is a member of the Maryland Cougars softball team, which spends a significant amount of money per season.
Written By David Greisman, Photos by: Gregory Blank
The ball isn’t the only thing being hit hard in amateur sports these days; bank accounts are, too.
Increasingly, there is a price to play, both for the parents of youth athletes and for adults who take to the field themselves. Sports are no longer just about the numbers of runs, goals, points, hits and assists. The competitiveness that takes place, even at the amateur level, comes with the rising costs of camps, equipment, travel, tournaments, uniforms and venues.
“The cost of everything has skyrocketed,” said Brent Merrill, president of the Carroll County Youth Soccer League and father to a teenage boy who plays lacrosse.
It’s not unusual for families to spend $10,000 a year or more on youth sports, and some even spend that amount on just one kid, said Mark Hyman, a Baltimore-based journalist who has authored a book on the rising cost of youth sports entitled “The Most Expensive Game in Town.”
“It’s a big business,” said Hyman. “Businesses understand that parents are vulnerable, have dreams and aspirations for their kids. They have figured that out, leveraged that and are capitalizing financially on it.”
There are several reasons for these astronomical costs, according to Hyman and adults involved with leagues and teams in Carroll County.
The improving quality of sports equipment has coincided with price increases — baseball and softball bats alone now can cost around $300. Kids are also starting to play sports at a younger age, with many specializing in one sport instead of participating in several. Those sports now are played for more than a single season and can include travel teams entering costly tournaments held several states away.
“Moms and dads realize around the time of middle school that Sally and Tommy will get athletic scholarships, so they need to be doing their sports year-round,” said Ed Beane, president of the Winfield Recreation Council. “It becomes not an in-season sport, but a year-round sport.”
Beane works with the Maryland Stars, a competitive softball team that plays as many as 10 tournaments from spring through July, tournaments that can bring them to Northern Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio or even west of the Mississippi River.
“The cost of the tournaments are considerable,” he said. “Most tournaments now probably run, per team, anywhere from $425 to $550 for a weekend’s worth of games.”
And that doesn’t even include the price of travel.
The base rates for the leagues themselves vary depending on the program: Winfield’s in-house softball program for those in kindergarten through eighth grade costs $85 per person, including uniforms; the Central Maryland program for 10- to 16-year-olds costs about $250; and the more competitive Maryland Stars was $550 as of last year, Beane said.
The cost of the in-house program is kept down, thanks to local sponsorships; Winfield’s youth softball website lists 10 local businesses that contributed. It also helps that the recreation council has its own locations at Mayeski Park, which is off Route 26, near South Carroll High School.
“We wouldn’t be able to accommodate all the requests for all our programs without it,” Beane said. “To go up there on a fall night, with almost 450 football kids and probably half as many cheerleaders all up at that park and practicing, it’s pretty compelling.”
A new softball field is being built at the park. Fundraising has brought in approximately $130,000 toward the estimated $200,000 project, according to the program’s website.
The cost of playing soccer in Carroll County also depends on the competitive level. The county Youth Soccer League costs just $100 a team, divided up between 16 to 20 players, for 10 regular season games and a tournament. Teams contribute an additional $50 per game for referee fees. Players pay about $100 to $120 each for the entire season, including jerseys, according to Merrill.
“We try to break even,” he said. “What we take in, we put out in trophies, and then we have some insurance we have to pay. We deliberately want to keep the costs low.”
Players for the local travel soccer team, meanwhile, pay $145 each — and then there are the tournaments, which range from about $450 to $600 per team.
It is not a direct comparison, but Merrill recalls coaching lacrosse for a program in Baltimore County from the mid-1980s into the 1990s, a program that was about $45 per player and provided everything but the lacrosse stick.
But the contemporary county soccer prices are low compared to what Merrill sees with his son’s summer club lacrosse team.
“That cost us $1,300 per player,” he said. “It covers the tournament costs — I know some of those tournaments are $1,400 to $1,600” per team.
It is worth it, Merrill said, because his son could be seen by college scouts.
“Parents won’t compromise no matter how tight their budget is,” he said. “They’ll still have their kids playing. They still manage to fork out $300, $400 for their kids to play sports. As a parent, you always want to do more for your kids than what you had.”
Hyman said parents devote so much money and time because they see others doing the same, creating what he describes as “kind of a global warming for youth sports.”
“Over a period of decades the temperature has crept up, and parents for the most part recognize that it’s not entirely healthy, and they’re not entirely satisfied with the status quo, but we can’t flip the switch and go back to the way it was,” he said.
And it is not just youth sports that have become so expensive.
Mark Bayline, a 53-year-old Westminster resident, said the budget for an adult slow-pitch softball team he plays for, the Maryland Cougars, was $10,429.19 for one season.
The Cougars, who play a higher level of competition than the local men’s league team, pay $1,500 for uniforms (two shirts, a pair of pants and hats for each of 15 players) and $6,400 for tournaments. The cost is covered by $100 from each player, $6,800 from sponsors, and $2,000 from donations from a few players on the team.
“And we’re not really a big team,” Bayline said. “There are major teams that go all over the place that are just a step below pro athletes. They have probably $60,000- to $70,000-a-year budgets. Their players travel for free. Our team, we have to pay for it.
“A lot of the guys that play the sport are really into it,” he said. “If not, you spend a lot of money for nothing.”