But with the rewards also comes sacrifice. The Gross family has made tough choices to meet their budget while satisfying a demand for playtime that has skyrocketed in price in recent years.
Like thousands of others in West Michigan, their family has parceled a sizable chunk of income toward the staggering cost associated with giving their children a shot at excelling in sports.
Changing face of sports
Brendon, 11, a sixth-grader at White Pines Middle School, plays travel hockey on a Grand Rapids Amateur Hockey Association team that’s associated with the Grand Rapids Griffins. Daughter Mackenzie, 9, is also involved with travel soccer with the Tri-Cities Strikers.
“Sports, to me, didn’t cost much, if anything, when I was growing up,” said Melissa Gross, who ran track at the University of Michigan. “But with travel sports nowadays, the costs have definitely risen.”
Youth hockey, in particular, is notorious for the financial burden it places on families due to high equipment costs and league fees. Melissa said she'll spend $2,300 this year in league fees alone so Brendon can compete against the best of his peers.
“And that's just for his age group,” she said. “We expect the costs to go up as he gets older and they'll be on the ice longer for practice. That doesn't include travel costs, either.”
During Brendon's winter season, he'll practice with his Griffins youth team a few times each week and the family will pack up the car for weekend trips to games throughout the Midwest.
“If my children are passionate about a sport and they want to play it, I will support them, but within reason,” Melissa said, discussing the financial choices the family has made. “We don't go on big vacations. That time is spent with our kids in their sports. Our family enjoys that. It’s part of my family.”
While some families make their children's experiences in sports a pastime, one thing is certain: With the rising costs of equipment, travel, league fees and other expenses, youth sports is much more than fun and games. In a recent report by Forbes magazine, it's estimated that 40 million kids play organized sports in America, with their parents or guardians shelling out $5 billion annually to keep them outfitted and involved.
Grand Haven parents Randy Riksen and Kevin Gagnon — both of whom have had children play on travel soccer teams — said it’s not uncommon for families to spend $500 during a typical weekend to travel across the state to watch their son or daughter play.
It’s not only a drain on the pocketbook, the parents said, but a burden on a family’s time. When highest-level travel teams come calling for teen standouts, weekly schedules are often interrupted, families cancel vacations, re-structure their weekends or send their children alone on the road or in car pools so they can practice and play.
Worth the investment?
Grand Haven resident Jon Dault said there's been a drastic increase in the number of sporting opportunities for kids since his playing days at Grand Haven High School. He is not sure if that is necessarily a good thing.
He shudders at the rising costs he's endured with travel teams, specifically, soccer. He became so fed up with hearing families complain about the high costs of soccer camps, he started his own free camp in Grand Haven, the Mike Herman Memorial Soccer Camp. The camp, run with the help of donations and local sponsors, has been wildly popular and enjoys soaring participation.
Dault, who has six children with wife, Erin, has shelled out big money already for his three oldest children – 2010 graduate Connor, 2012 graduate Chloe and sophomore Christian — to play sports. While he values the opportunities to keep them active, he wonders, in the long run, if the price tag is worth the investment.
“My son (Connor) was on a travel team and it's a double season, each 12 weeks long,” Dault said. “And in those 12 weeks, you've got out-of-town travel, hotels. It's just crazy. But as parents, there's that pressure where you don't want to short-change your child.”
Dault estimates that a child playing high-level travel soccer from youth teams through high school can incur costs of $40,000 to $50,000.
“And that's a truly conservative number,” he said.
Dault's figures are backed by Grand Haven's Lisa Wagasky, whose daughter, Caryle, 9, plays travel soccer with the Tri-Cities Strikers U10 squad.
Wagasky will pay $405 per year for the Strikers' team fee, another $125 for uniform and equipment, and hundreds more in travel costs. With other expenses associated with indoor winter soccer sessions, summer clinics and beach tournaments, Wagasky said in a year's time, spending $1,600 or more is the norm. That figure will likely increase as her daughter gains more experience.
“I'm just frustrated with the whole system,” Dault said. “My daughter's in the fourth grade and she's already three years in (soccer). Club team coaches are going down to kids 5 years old and telling their parents that if they really want their kids to be good, they need to play travel soccer. And the parents, they buy into it. The pressure to have their kid be the best on the field is overwhelming.
“A lot of these parents, they get this vision that their kid is going to get a scholarship. What a lot of them don't realize is that just three out of 30 kids that play sports get any kind of scholarship.”
Dault said non-monetary factors should also be taken into account. Children can lose time with friends and family, and there’s the chance they could get burnt out with the sport as they get older.
“Financially, it's a huge gamble if you're banking on your kid getting a scholarship,” he said.
Success without travel
By the time her fifth child graduates from Fruitport High School, Laura Carmean said she'll have spent an arm and a leg on athletic shoes and other equipment.
Without adding any more expenses to their tab, Laura and husband, Bryan, determined that they wouldn't allow their children to play travel sports, despite the pressure they've received from coaches.
“We determined we just couldn't afford it, especially with how active our kids have been,” Laura said. “Even our youngest, Kailey, is hooked on three sports.”
Laura said their daughter Amber, who graduated in 2012, was encouraged to play club volleyball at Muskegon's Inside Out by Fruitport coaches, saying that it could have helped her earn a varsity spot as a sophomore.
Inside Out’s junior national teams for ages 14-18 range in price from $715 to $800, but guarantee at least eight tournament play dates throughout the summer.
“Club volleyball is something that is really pushed in high school, but I have played a few games last year with a team just as a sub, and I think that the level of competition is higher in high school than on club teams,” Amber said.
Amber earned all-state honors as a defensive specialist during her senior season at Fruitport, and is one of the rare West Michigan volleyball standouts who is now playing at college without ever committing to a full club season.
“It took a lot of hard work and dedication, but she was able to prove she could play at the next level without playing club volleyball,” Laura said.
For families with young children looking to get involved in sports, Dault encourages them to do just what the Carmeans did in Fruitport – play local.
“I would tell them to stay at the recreational and high school level,” he said. “There's no need at 9 years old to be on a travel team. There’s a lot of great coaches at the high school level that can develop your child’s skills just as much, if not more.”
Ferrysburg’s Tim Scarpino has coached the Tri-Cities Youth Soccer Organization and Strikers youth soccer teams for years and is also the president of Lakeshore Premier Soccer — boys and girls travel teams made up of the best of the best local players throughout West Michigan.
Scarpino is confident when he says that the cost of travel soccer has no ill effect on the bulk of families he’s worked with in the past. He also believes that playing travel sports — especially soccer — is in demand due to the competition for roster spots and playing time at the high school varsity level.
“There’s a competitive ladder in youth sports,” he said. “There’s the recreational component, where kids can participate in and there isn’t the competitive pressure. Then there’s the travel component …there’s more competition, and unfortunately, there’s more pressure on kids.”
Going forward, Scarpino believes there will be more of an athletic divide between children who chose to play travel sports versus those who don’t.
“From the soccer side of it, the higher level you can play at, the better you’ll be in the long run, and the better you’ll be with training with better players,” he said.
‘Don’t let it dictate your life’
Gross jokes that her family doesn’t have newer furniture nor does her husband drive a newer car because they’ve chosen instead to support their children’s passion for sports.
“The checkbook is not open, though,” she said. “We are on a budget.”
Dault understands that we live in an athletically-crazed society, but he urges families to set boundaries of how much sports consumes their children’s lives and how much it costs.
“I know families that are driving their kids across the state every weekend,” he said. “It all adds up pretty quickly. Don’t let it dictate your life. Sure, I’ve talked to families who say it’s the greatest period of their lives, but not everyone needs to spend that time or money. … It’s great that you love a sport, but there’s no way you should have to spend $50,000 to $60,000 for a kid to play a sport.”
Less expensive alternatives:
*Tri-Cities Kids League for baseball and softball ($50-$60)
*Young Bucs for football ($75-85 plus equipment)
*Tri-Cities Mariners for football ($60-65 plus equipment)
*Northwest Ottawa Recreation Authority for a wide-range of athletic programs and instruction
*Tri-Cities Youth Soccer Organization ($40)