This article is from a series done by the Cincinnati Enquirer.
No guarantees come with pressure to spend
Janet and Dave Drachman recently counted up all the money they've spent since last fall for daughter Jaclyn to play basketball - outside of her Wyoming High School team.
There was one club team that didn't work out, another that required practices 90 minutes away. There were out-of-state tournaments and individual instruction with an ex-college star. Workouts at a rec center. Equipment and Gatorade.
It added up to $3,850.
"Sports are so competitive today," Jaclyn says, "that you have to have something that no one else has."
Welcome to a high school sports world where more is better, better costs money, and money is no object. The cost of competing in high school athletics has reached stunning heights, according to most of the 175 parents, athletes, coaches, administrators and experts interviewed for this series of stories.
No one keeps an official count, so the Enquirer asked 30 local families to calculate every fee they paid last year for club teams, personalized training, camps, clinics, tours and other year-round athletic services for their kids.
The average bill: $6,100 per child.
Most parents in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky say they're thankful they can give their children every advantage that money can buy. But as costs mount, so do concerns.
Parents also feel pressured to spend more and more, even though there are no guarantees of athletic success now or college scholarships or financial aid later.
More kids are specializing in one sport to stand out or keep up, leading to burnout and injuries from too much of one thing.
Some parents and coaches warn that money is creating an elite sports society for the rich that shuts out the poor.
And many wonder: Is all this costly training helping or hurting high school athletes?
The National Federation of State High School Associations reports that a record 7 million kids played prep sports last school year. Consequently, many athletes are searching for ways to stand out.
Take Fairfield junior Shaun Alexander. He spent $2,200 last year playing on a basketball team of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), one of the country's largest youth sports organizations. Shaun received individual instruction and hired a recruiting service to sell him to college coaches. He practiced six hours on most summer days. He says it wasn't enough.
"To get to the top, you've got to be committed," he says. "If not, the game will pass you by."
But what does "commitment" mean?
Kings coach Steve Contardi says tennis is now a 12-month sport that can cost an average player $12,000 a year for private lessons, clinics, tournaments, travel, equipment and a tennis club membership.Beechwood swing coach Wayne Kelley says prep golfers are buying $2,000 top-of-the-line clubs that, as novices, many don't need.
Most athletes feel pressure to do something - however big or small - to keep up in their sport.
"I don't like to go one day without touching the ball," Hamilton sophomore basketball player Danielle Lewis says. "I almost feel bad, because I know someone is working harder than me."
Practice isn't always enough, kids say. Ludlow junior baseball player Kyle York says he would be an "average or less than average" athlete if his parents hadn't spent $4,800 last year for summer and fall baseball, private instruction and batting cage fees.
"I wouldn't be as skilled," says Matt Koewler, a Glen Este senior goalie whose parents paid $5,000 last year for his soccer training. "I wouldn't have as much knowledge of the game."
Sometimes, there are once-in-a-lifetime sports opportunities that parents can't pass up, even if they're costly.
Elizabeth Midkiff, mother of Fairfield senior soccer player Drew, helped organize a two-week trip to England so 19 Ohio Elite Soccer Academy players could visit the Manchester United professional soccer franchise. For $3,200, Drew met and trained with Manchester United's coaching staff, toured the team's facilities and played a match on its training field.
CLUB SPORTS BOOM
Young athletes say supplemental training has sharpened their skills and given them confidence to excel in high school sports. But most say the training is most crucial outside high school - in club sports.
The cost to compete is largely affected by a phenomenon that pits club teams against each other and against high schools for athletes' time and skills. In exchange for money, these organizations give athletes what high school sports can't: National competition, extensive travel and exposure to more college coaches.
Some say club sports could undermine the role of high school athletics. Ohio High School Athletic Association Assistant Commissioner Bob Goldring says there's still a special school and community camaraderie associated with state championships. Kentucky High School Athletic Association Commissioner Brigid DeVries says the caliber of play at state finals has "dramatically increased" in the past 15 years.
Yet students such as Sycamore volleyball player Brittani Gray say club sports give her rare venues to test her skills. Her family spent $6,400 last year on her volleyball efforts, including play on a Mizuno Cincy Classics Junior Olympic team. As a team member, the senior received instruction from an Olympic coach and went to 11 tournaments from Baltimore to Las Vegas. Because of her volleyball achievements, Northwestern University coaches gave her an athletic scholarship.
Brittani's father, Michael Gray, wouldn't be surprised if some day club sports constituted the "main" season and high school sports were the "off season."
"If high school sports aren't careful," he says, "they're going to disappear."
Does all the extra expense, and all the extra training, make a difference?
Some coaches and parents say kids are improving at all sports - whether it's from more training or smarter instruction. But since most athletes are improving, the expensive extras have become a requirement for competition, they say.
Still, coaches say no amount of costly training can substitute for talent - and hours and hours of practice.
"It's not how tall you are or how high you can jump. It comes down to time spent on a sport," Xavier golf coach Doug Steiner says.
Northern Kentucky University women's basketball coach Nancy Winstel says as long as a kid is playing, and playing right, it'll show. She says playing on an AAU team might help make a player better, and she has seen a big improvement in basketball skill over the past decade. But spending big bucks won't make stars out of everyone, she says.
"If they can't dribble without losing the ball or if they can't get in a defensive stance to save their lives, it's probably not going to happen for them," Winstel says.
Carrie Taylor isn't so sure all the playing is a good idea. The Mount Saint Joseph men's and women's soccer coach credits the growth of soccer clubs for improving players' skills, but she also is seeing more parental pressure on kids to excel. She says that results in overuse injuries and burnout.
Thomas More College athletic director and men's basketball coach Terry Connor rarely sees high school kids playing pick-up basketball at parks and playgrounds anymore. He suspects they're stuck in gyms being overcoached and overworked in their overscheduled lives.
"Kids are getting quicker and they're more athletic, but I don't know if they're better basketball players," Connor says. "Are they better shooters? I couldn't say that they are."
Jeffrey Davis, father of Winton Woods senior three-sport athlete Jason, says an athlete is limited without talent, and talent is one thing in sports that's not for sale.
"Some kids aren't blessed with natural ability," Jeffrey Davis says. "And some parents are trying to buy it."
AN ATHLETE'S REALITY
This, the kids say, is the reality of their lives:
At some point every year they're emotionally exhausted and physically spent because of sports, academic demands and an attempt to maintain social lives.
Nobody wants to quit his or her sport. They keep playing because they love the game, they want to be with friends, they want to improve, they want to win state, they're aiming for a scholarship. They're afraid to disappoint their parents. And besides, nobody's imposing limits on their volume of play.
Fairfield three-sport athlete CJ Link says someday she would love enough free time to "just take a nap." She's a rare athlete who plays club ball or pursues extra training in soccer, basketball and softball. Last year she played 148 games; her family spent $7,000 in the process.
When she thinks about college, she imagines an existence devoid of sports.
"I've done all this stuff my whole life," CJ says. "It seems like I never have enough time to try other things."
Seton volleyball player Chelsea Graman says club and school sacrifices were worth the end result - a scholarship to Villanova - even though she missed a family reunion, a family vacation, her cousin's wedding and the school father-daughter dance (twice) throughout the years.
Kings tennis player Matt Allare literally missed home. He was gone nine of 12 weeks during the summer and competed in eight tournaments from West Virginia to Louisiana.
"It was fun going new places, but there were times I was homesick because I couldn't sleep in my bed or see my friends and animals," Allare says. "I'd like to have a week off every three weeks. That would be good."
Randy Bradberry has traveled the country with his son Tony, a Lakota West wrestler who was in 21 tournaments last year. The Bradberrys spent $9,660 on such things as travel, camps and equipment.
Recently, father and son pondered the question: Is it all just too much?
"Would you rather quit, and me give you $10,000 a year?" Randy asked.
"No," he said. "What would I do with my time?"