If you have a child participating in travel sports in Western North Carolina, you’ve likely spent more than a few weekends and vacation days driving to Charlotte or Atlanta or Columbia or dozens of other destinations throughout the Southeast.
You’ve slept in countless motels, spent hundreds of hours at well-manicured baseball diamonds or soccer complexes and developed social bonds with fellow parents who also have committed themselves to the road life.
And you’ve likely spent thousands of dollars a year on registration fees, travel, camps, equipment and private lessons.
Parents and coaches say travel sports can be an excellent experience for young athletes. In addition to providing a higher level of competition than can be found in local recreation leagues, they say, travel can help kids develop social skills, become leaders and take in cultural resources in other cities.
At the same time, they admit the whole thing can be a grind.
“The kids are having fun, but also when you’re playing somewhere and it’s South Carolina and it’s 90 degrees and you play five games over two days, the kids are just baked after it’s done,” says Asheville’s Sid Border, who’s been involved with travel baseball as a father and a coach.
Travel teams are selective youth teams that play at an elite level in a variety of sports, including baseball, soccer, softball and lacrosse. Typically, they are run as part of a private or club sports program rather than a recreational league. Players travel long distances to participate in games, tournaments and showcase events.
The youth sports market in the U.S. topped $19 billion annually before the pandemic, according to a study by Wintergreen Research. A big part of that is the rise in travel sports operations and associated tournaments and showcase events over the last two decades.
“The travel sports, I think, have grown so much in popularity because those kids that are interested in playing for their high school team, interested in playing in college, they really have to work out through that system to train with kids of a similar level to reach those aspirations,” says Adam Payne, a parent who coaches a girls soccer travel team through Carolina Football Club Hendersonville.
Taking a toll
But some observers bemoan the proliferation of for-profit travel sports, which they say tend to hurt family cohesiveness, put physical and psychological strain on kids and devastate community-based recreation programs.
“A lot of people are traveling long distances just to participate in these games and tournaments, which in itself takes a huge toll on these kids,” says Joshua Vadeboncoeur, an adjunct instructor of sports management at UNC Asheville. “At that point, it’s not just a matter of going to the ballpark after school a few times a week. Now it’s basically a full-time job for them, especially over the summer months when a lot of these tournaments take place.”
Additionally, he says, the huge costs associated with travel sports mean the system tends to favor families that have financial means and flexible work schedules.
Parents and coaches are aware of such concerns, and they help out folks who can’t travel on weekends due to their jobs or other commitments by giving their kids rides to tournaments. Coaches try to schedule events so that time in the car is minimized.
And some travel organizations have scholarships available for athletes whose parents can’t afford the high costs — at least in theory. But not many take advantage of them.
“It’s intimidating for a kid to not have a ride all the time and always be with somebody else and be away,” says Asheville’s Michael James, whose son plays travel baseball.
All the coaches interviewed encourage young athletes to participate in multiple sports rather than specializing at too young an age.
“It’s very important to not only play other sports, but to go to the pool and swim and fish and camp and do things with your family,” Border says. “You want to see your grandparents and all these other things that can get put on the back burner behind travel sports.”
Border thinks the benefits of travel ball can be overblown, especially for kids under age 12. “They’re starting at 6 now and spending all summer going to tournaments,” he says. “And I don’t think that’s good for the development and the kids.”
So what motivates kids — and parents — to dedicate their lives and weekends to travel sports?
While some parents have visions of their child becoming the next Alex Morgan or Mike Trout, most have more realistic goals.
“The parents want the kids to be successful, the kids want to be successful, everybody wants to be good at something,” James says. “I think that people, at least the people that I know in our peer group, don’t see the grand illusion of making it in the major leagues. I think they know that with baseball, it’s really tough.”
Payne says simply making the middle school or high school team is enough motivation for most.
The Hendersonville-based girls soccer team he coaches has played roughly 130 games together over the last four years. A player competing only in a rec league, on the other hand, may have played something like 30 games in that stretch.
When it comes time for school tryouts, the difference readily becomes apparent.
Border says many families choose to participate in travel sports out of a fear of missing out.
“They’re told if they’re not specializing, they’re going to get left behind, they’re just not going to keep up with the other kids that are playing all the time,” he says.
For all the challenges travel presents, many say it provides a positive social experience for the athletes and their parents, who form friendships with the other adults.
“We’ve all been doing this together for so long that we don’t consider it a burden,” says Bob Clausen, who’s been involved with the Asheville Inline Hockey League for about 20 years. “We’re so tightknit and we’re so small that we consider it more of a vacation ourselves to get out of town and run off for the weekend and hang out with our buddies.”
He says his teams often will take over the dining area of a hotel in the evenings, order several pizzas and have a pizza party. “The kids all hang out and the parents all hang out. It’s actually great camaraderie.”
James agrees that many young people enjoy the travel experience.
“It’s a focused scenario where your family and friends are together, it’s all baseball, and then you have an opportunity to win, essentially right to the end,” he says. “It has been nice that they can continue to play together year after year and get to know each other and know the families. They get to have these longer-term relationships.”
Payne says players who participate in travel teams learn skills that will put them in a good position to be successful on their school teams and be leaders on those teams. “Not just in terms of ability, but understanding the game, being able to help the other players,” he says.
Rec leagues hurting
For James, nothing beats the scene at North Asheville Little League’s Weaver Park on a Friday night.
“With the lights and the neighbors coming down to watch the game and the kids running around the path, it’s amazing,” he says. “That community part, that’s what travel doesn’t quite have because you’re in some big manufactured complex.”
But the long-term viability of such community-based programs is in question, in part because travel teams take away the best players.
“This is hurting the everyday average child who just wants to have fun and participate in sport,” says UNCA’s Vadeboncoeur.
Border’s son plays in North Asheville Little League, which he says has stayed fairly strong even as many other Little League programs have suffered dwindling numbers. But for many of the more talented kids, the league is an afterthought.
“They show up when they don’t have the travel, but some of them don’t ever pitch or do certain positions because it’s just not the priority,” he says. Some travel coaches actively discourage their players from participating, he says.
“The fact that it [travel] hurts a lot of these Little League or local rec leagues is something that I really wish wasn’t happening,” he says.
Rec leagues react
Wayne Simmons, program and operations manager for Asheville Parks and Recreation, agrees the rise of travel teams has created challenges for rec leagues. For instance, scheduling games can be difficult in sports like baseball because some of the better players aren’t available on Saturdays.
And, he says, many travel players simply choose not to participate at all. In some cases, that’s because parents think travel coaches are better equipped to help players improve than volunteer coaches.
As a result, Simmons says, many rec leagues are running clinics and short-term programs designed to help players get better. Asheville Parks and Rec did weekly clinics for basketball players this past season and may do the same for other sports.
“The idea is to allow them to continue to get some additional development time outside of that traditional league format of one practice and a game a week,” Simmons says. “Kids really get to work on their fundamentals and not always be in that competitive venue.”
Players who were able to participate in the clinics regularly showed improvement, he says.
Also, the department is committed to giving volunteer coaches support, education and resources so they can run effective practices.
Simmons thinks travel sports have a place in the community, especially for young athletes who develop quickly and show great promise.
But he cautions parents to be aware of the effects travel commitments can have. “Let the kids drive that interest and that desire rather than having it forced on them.”
James agrees the best thing about travel teams is that they give families of talented athletes options if they want to develop their skills against elite competition.
“How healthy it is and everything I think is obviously up to each family,” he says.