State of the Game Part 2: Commitment
By: Eric Kaufman
Click here to read Part 1: Who’s on First?
2,160 words: an 8-minute read
A pig and a chicken are walking down the road.
The chicken says: “Hey, Pig, I was thinking we should open a restaurant!”
The pig replies: “I don’t know. What would we call it?”
The chicken responds: “How about ‘Bacon-n-Eggs?’”
The pig considers this for a moment and says: “No thanks. You’d only be involved. I’d be committed.”
Now that we have a firm grasp of who is playing and how we got here, let’s pop the hood and see what makes this engine hum. The travel ball machine is a complex one, especially to the uninitiated. For many parents who grew up playing in Little League or its local equivalent, the world of travel baseball can be a little overwhelming. To help make sense of it, we conducted a sweeping survey of Baseball Youth parents and coaches on topics ranging from batting glove preferences to financial outlay.
In Part 1, we heard from key stakeholders and analyzed data from organizations such as the Aspen Institute to establish overall participation in youth baseball and the role travel ball plays in that figure.
In Part 2, we’ll focus on the bigger picture by examining the areas that impact every other aspect of travel ball: specifically, travel, equipment and budget.
There exists a slim possibility that the Wright Brothers did not invent flying machines specifically for travel baseball. Maybe it had more to do with manifest destiny or commerce or the triumph of man or something. We don’t know, the science just isn’t there yet. What we do know is that youth baseball’s increasingly prevalent travel component has been a boon for the nation’s airlines, gas stations, car manufacturers, hotel chains and local economies. A supermajority (85%) of Baseball Youth respondents reported spending over $1,000 on travel alone last year. Included in that number are the 65% who said they shelled out over $2,000.
Given the frequency of travel, it’s easy to see how the costs could pile up. Over three-quarters of respondents played in at least six weekend tournaments last year while nearly one-third reported playing in more than 10. Meanwhile, on an average weekend, roughly 60% said they travel at least 50 miles, and almost one-quarter travel over 100 miles.
For some, the travel can become a grind, especially during a time of year when sitting by the pool or relaxing on the beach may be preferable to roasting for eight hours under the south Georgia sun.
“We make it work,” said Brian Sanders, whose son Cameron plays for the 10u Louisville Vipers. “Cam loves it, and we love watching him play against kids from different parts of the country. But I’m not going to lie, there are some weekends when I’d rather be at the lake! Overall, though, having this time with my son is more than worth it. The lake will always be there.”
Chad DiCocco, whose son Jonah played at this year’s Baseball Youth All-American Games as well as for the Baseball Youth Elite team, agreed, adding that the off-the-field experience is just as important as what happens on the diamond. “We pay close attention to Jonah’s (and his brother’s) experience when we travel. We try to choose events that we can tie in a family vacation for some balance. He remembers the non-baseball things he does with the family and his teammates just as much as the success he had on the field.”
As touched on in Part 1 of this series, the overall experience is undeniably one of the most attractive features of travel ball, but the on-field competition is still the main driver.
Asked how far participants would be willing to travel to play in a “weekend tournament,” parents and coaches seemed to agree on a range of 100-500 miles. However, when asked how far they’d be willing to go to compete in a “nationally competitive” tournament, that range widens considerably. A whopping 93% indicated they would be willing to travel at least 250 miles with 46% saying they would travel over 750 miles.
To put that in perspective, a roughly 700-mile trip from Chicago to Atlanta would take nearly 12 hours by car — and that’s assuming no major traffic impediments and not taking into account stops for gas, food and rest. That’s also a pretty direct route between two major cities. For many travel ball families, the trip begins from a town that doesn’t reside next to one of the nation’s most traveled arteries.
“At least right now, [750 miles] seems like a little too much,” said Matt Wilmes, whose son Jordan plays for the 10u Lyndon Lightning. “We’ll see in a couple years. If he’s still having fun with it, and if it’s something he wants to keep playing and keep pursuing, then of course we’ll support him. If he’s willing to put in the work, we are too.”
In other words, it’s not enough to just be involved. You have to be committed.
“If you look good, you feel good.
If you feel good, you play good.
If you play good, they pay good.”
— Deion Sanders
There’s an old saying that goes something like “the suit maketh the man.” If that’s true, then baseball players have it made in the shade. More than any other sport, the baseball uniform is easily the most drip-friendly. It’s because of the accessories. Every choice says something about the player: what brand of bat they use, what color batting gloves, what color regular glove, how many chains are sticking out over the jersey, how their cleats are customized, what’s that arm sleeve about, etc. In this section, we’ll take a look at what players are sporting on the diamond and how much their parents are spending on it.
If we at Baseball Youth learned one thing in our travels over the summer it’s that in Myrtle Beach, in late July, you could grill a steak on a sidewalk. Not that we would. If we learned two things, though, it’s that drip isn’t just for MLB players. Travel ball players are also making fashion statements with wristbands, arm sleeves, Phiten necklaces — basically anything the big leaguers are wearing. But, and you’ve probably guessed this if you didn’t already know it looking good doesn’t come cheap.
According to Baseball Youth respondents, a plurality of families spent between $501 and $1,000 on gear last year. Meanwhile,95% spent at least $251 and almost 30% spent more than $1,000. A significant portion of that spending, thanks in part to BBCOR requirements, is on bats. For many, having one bat just doesn’t suffice when different tournaments adhere to different standards. This is likely a major reason why 60% of respondents say their athlete owned at least three bats last year while just 4% owned only one. Bat prices can vary greatly, but most parents (over 71%) indicated they would be willing to spend up to $400 on a bat. On the other ends of the spectrum, 15% said they would spend up to $200 while 13% said they would spend $401 more.
While the quantity of bats is pretty evenly spread throughout travel balldom, so too are the brands players are using, although at 31%, DeMarini is the bat of choice for Baseball Youth players. From there, the competition is fierce, with Marucci, Easton and Louisville Slugger all dueling to a near draw with 19%, 17% and 16%, respectively.
With bat requirements tightening, how do parents and players choose which bat is best for them?
“You can hear a different sound off of the DeMarini,” said Sanders. “Obviously, it could just be that Cam was making better contact, but that was the bat he was comfortable with, and I think that’s the most important thing. Also, they look cool.”
Along those lines, Ben Jenkins, founder of Warstic, recently told Baseball Youth, “The common mentality I get from parents is ‘Which bat is going to help my kid hit the best?’ And what they really mean is ‘Which bat is going to make it easiest for my kid to get hits?’ And I tell them at the end of the day that’s not going to help their kid progress as a player. If they want to get to high school or college or the big leagues it’s really about them learning to do the work and becoming a good hitter by training in practice.”
The market for gloves, meanwhile, continues to be dominated by Wilson and Rawlings, at 43% and 34%, respectively, while New Balance, surprisingly to some, has surged in popularity. Of Baseball Youth respondents, 40% say they wear NBs, compared to 28% who sport Nikes.
Why the popularity with New Balance?
“They look cool,” said Jordan Wilmes.
“They look cool,” said Cameron Sanders.”
“They look cool,” said Hamilton Haydock, Cameron’s teammate.
And if you look good…
“Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.”
— Job 38:11
You might remember that Bible verse from The Da Vinci Code. Or, like me, from 12 years of Catholic school. If, as we discussed in Part 1, travel ball is cost-prohibitive for many families, where is that line? Where is the Job 38:11 for those currently in the travel ball community?
The answers, of course, vary as widely as the financial situations of each family; however, according to Baseball Youth families, the line rests somewhere between $2,500 and $7,500 annually. More narrowly, it’s probably somewhere between $3,000 and$6,000, assuming a bell curve within our two points.
In fact, if you look at the amount our survey respondents spent on travel ball last year, a significant majority (58%) indicated they spent within the $2,500 to $5,000 range; however, that means 42% spent over $5,000, which is an objectively large number if you consider that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median American income is roughly $59,000.
To add a little more context, consider that $5,000 is roughly 8.5% of $59,000 pre-tax. After taxes, health insurance, retirement contributions, etc., that number rises to roughly 12% — not of disposable income, but of net income.
Now consider that, according to The Street, the average American family spends 12.8% of its after-tax income on food.
Further still, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “shelter expenses” — essentially the costs associated with housing — range from 14% for Americans in their early 40s to 24% for those under the age of 25.
In other words, the average American household would have to spend roughly as much on travel baseball as it does on food or shelter.
Again, we’re not here to say whether that’s right or wrong, good or bad, only to analyze the numbers and add some perspective.
Because it’s also worth considering that while food and shelter are two of the country’s most significant living expenses, so is entertainment. And while entertainment is the expense more easily controlled, it is a worthy and healthy expenditure. In fact, a paper published by the American Academy of Pediatrics states categorically that “children’s developmental trajectory is critically mediated by appropriate, affective relationships with loving and consistent caregivers as they relate to children through play. When parents observe their children in play or join with them in child-driven play, they are given a unique opportunity to see the world from their child’s vantage point as the child navigates a world perfectly created just to fit his or her needs.” Therefore, it makes sense for families to view entertainment — in this case travel ball — as an investment in the well-rounded upbringing of their children.
“The money is a factor,” said Wilmes. “It’s definitely a consideration. But as long as Jordan has fun doing it, we believe the lessons he’s learning — about practicing at something and seeing results, about being a good teammate — and the friendships he’s forming are worth it. Otherwise, you know, we’d just extend our deck another 10 feet and put in a fire pit.”
“We’re lucky to be in a position to be able to afford it,” added Sanders, “but I definitely get how hard it can be. No matter how much money you make or where you come from, every parent wants the best for their kids.”