Wiedmer: Are there more pros than cons to travel ball?

Staff photo / The Washington Ladyhawks huddle during their game against the Tulsa Elite in the Amateur Softball Association's 14U girls national tournament in August 2017 at the Summit of Softball complex in Ooltewah.

When the magnificent Summit of Softball complex opened 13 years ago in Ooltewah, its first summer included a massive National Softball Association tournament filled with hundreds of travel ball teams and thousands of parents who hoped their young daughters might capture the recruiting interest of coaches at major college programs.

One such father was from Illinois, though his rising sophomore daughter was playing for a team from Florida. Asked how often they joined that Sunshine State-based squad from their Midwest home, he replied: "At least every two weeks."

And, if this wasn't too personal a question, about how much money did that add up to each summer?

He answered that it was in the range of $14,000 to $15,000.

"But if we can get her a college scholarship," he added, "it will be worth it."

This is the dream that fuels a nationwide youth sports industry that was estimated to be a $15.3 billion market five years ago, according to a Time Magazine study conducted in 2017 by WinterGreen Research, which tracks the industry.

Even then the youth sports industry, again according to WinterGreen, had grown by 55% since 2010.

But is all this money worth it? Are parents really going to be rewarded with four-year athletic scholarships that make such yearly five-figure financial outlays worth it by the time college rolls around? Moreover, does putting so much interest on a single sport for 10 or 12 months a year risk burnout before the child even graduates from high school?

To read my coworker Patrick MacCoon's excellent piece on former Sequatchie County High School softball stars Addy and Ella Edgmon - the sisters will play next season at Western Kentucky and Georgia Tech, respectively - is to believe it's more than worth it for some families.

Even as their mom, Kelly Moore Edgmon, told McCoon, "We honestly haven't added up the cost and don't want to; I am sure the money we have spent over the years we could have saved and stayed home with college paid for," she also added, "but they loved the game and we enjoy spending time with them."

In other words, you can't put a price on togetherness and happiness.

But there is also the sentiment expressed by a former Soddy-Daisy softball player after the Lady Trojans won a state championship when the Spring Fling still called Chattanooga home. Asked where she intended to play college ball, she said: "I don't. I have an academic scholarship. I've played softball since I was 5 years old, on school teams, all summer, every summer. Right now, I don't care if I ever play softball again."

photo Staff file photo by Robin Rudd / UTC softball coach Frank Reed, right, said he likes to see recruits play with their high school teams in addition to their travel teams because it gives him additional insight about what kind of teammates they are.

Perhaps because of that, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga softball coach Frank Reed - about to enter his 22nd year leading the Mocs after guiding them to a Southern Conference title and NCAA tournament berth this spring - said he prefers to recruit players who have "played two or three sports in high school. You get a better chance to see what kind of athlete they are. Also, what kind of teammate they are, which is hard to evaluate on the travel ball circuit."

Of course, Reed said this on Friday morning from Colorado, where he was watching a travel ball bonanza that brings in more than 18,000 players each Fourth of July weekend, the tournament filling 150 athletic fields at 40 ballparks from Colorado Springs to Denver to Aurora to Fort Collins and four other communities, according to a Friday story in the Denver Post.

"There are easily more than a thousand teams here," Reed said. "So many players, so much talent."

And for those hoping to earn a college softball scholarship with no travel ball exposure, Reed offers a note of caution.

"I may have had one or two girls at Chattanooga State who never played travel ball," he said, "but I haven't had a one at UTC who didn't."

Nor is the importance of that, perhaps to the point of becoming a negative, unappreciated by the players and their families.

"It's probably the biggest tournament for college scouts," parent Kacey Estrada told the Post of the Colorado event. "We've got to start being seen."

Added tournament director Stephanie Klaviter in the story: "They put so much pressure on themselves when they come here. The priority for them coming out here is a chance to make their dreams come true."

Yet as much as he dutifully attends such tourneys, Reed also wants to see his signees perform for their high school teams.

"A lot of these travel ball teams, it's every girl for herself," he said. "Win or lose, if they play well, they're happy. I like to see them interact with their high school teammates and coaches. Are they a good teammate? Can they sacrifice for the good of the team? Do they take coaching well? You see that a lot better with a high school team than travel ball team."

photo Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / UTC men's basketball coach Dan Earl said AAU competition offers an efficient way to recruit, but he also values observing the way players interact with their high school coaches and teammates.

New UTC men's basketball coach Dan Earl agrees.

"I like to see how kids react to their teammates and coaches, how coachable they are, how much they care about the team, which is harder in travel ball because they're playing three games a day a lot of times," said Earl, who previously coached at Virginia Military Institute. "But the reality is that the brand of basketball being played and coached in travel ball is up from five to 10 years ago. And it's a much more efficient way to grade players because they're up against so many more Division I prospects."

Every parent wants what's best for their kids. You never want to look back and say you should have done more to make their dreams come true. And the growing reality is that some level of travel - particularly in softball and baseball - is all but necessary to become noticed, however unfair that seems to the financially less fortunate.

But Earl said this much is also true of gifted young athletes, offering a big ray of hope to those parents with small pocketbooks: "If you're good enough, you'll be found."

photo Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.