THE MONEY PIT: WHY ‘PROFESSIONALIZATION’ OF YOUTH SPORTS IS WORRISOME
The same science of sport that has allowed innumerable records to fall and the superhuman to become routine has also created a Frankenstein.
The knowledge provided by these sciences has spawned entire industries, employing practitioners who charge monster fees. But without that specific coaching, the nutrition training, the strength training and medical support, breaking through to the elite level is unlikely.
The resulting trend has been the stratification of sports: a level for the affluent, and one for most everyone else.
Postmedia News inspects three of the most popular youth sports — hockey, basketball and soccer — to see the models their athletes follow to achieve the elite level, and the pitfalls that threaten players along the way.
HOCKEY: THE RISE OF THE ACADEMY
Kristin Rosner estimates she spent $60,000 in two three-year chunks on her kids’ dreams. And she’s still paying for it.
“It’s called credit lines,” the Cloverdale parent said, laughing. “It’s debt. You go into debt. And it’s crazy.”
Her son Colby played three years of major midget hockey. So did her daughter Taygan. Registration fees, team fees, ancillary fees can push a base price of around $7,000 to well into the teens for each season of minor hockey. And then there’s spring hockey, which runs after the minor season.
“I paid atrocious amounts of money for them to play spring hockey. Why? Like every parent out there, you’re told if you don’t, they don’t get the opportunity,” said Rosner.
Both her children followed what has been the traditional progression for hockey players. The boys move from bantam to major midget, and on to the junior or post-secondary ranks if they’re talented enough.
The girls do the same, but their careers usually end at the major midget level unless they move on to a USports or NCAA school, simply because there are no playing options for them.
Minor hockey has long been under fire because of the expense involved, and seen its numbers erode nationally because of it. The costs involved are already out of reach for many families, and the new, emerging model is pushing costs even higher.
The academy model, which integrates hockey and school into a single entity, has been around since the early 2000s, but has exploded in popularity during the past five years. Hockey programs are affiliated with high schools, with credits for hockey applied toward academic credits. Players do dryland training in the morning, attend classes, then practise in the afternoon, and do it five times a week for 10 months a year.
It’s an effective development model, but it comes with a steep cost.
“The program is fantastic for developing skill and their talent, and helping them play at the next level. No question about it,” says Julie Chapman, whose sons are part of the Burnaby Winter Club.
“If you want to get to an elite level at sports these days, it seems there’s a price tag that comes with it.”
Chapman’s oldest son, Ben Poisson, plays for the Prince George Spruce Kings. Younger son Nick is in his second year in the program, playing for the Midget Elite 15 team, a level for first-year midget-age players.
BWC’s hockey director and midget prep coach Maco Balkovec says 18 of his 19 midget players are affiliated with BCHL teams. In the most recent WHL bantam draft, nine of the first 10 players selected were from academy programs that play in the Canadian School Sports Hockey League.
The CSSHL has taken over from B.C. Major Midget as the source of players. Using the Salmon Arm Silverbacks as an example of a typical Junior A team, 12 of the 22 players on the current roster came from CSSHL schools. Five years ago, there would have been two or three.
According to the CSSHL, there are currently 122 of its grads on WHL rosters, 28 playing NCAA Division 1, and 219 playing Junior A in Western Canada — including 123 in the BCHL.
“The CSSHL has kind of become more and more dominant from the perspective of the development model,” said Silverbacks’ coach Scott Atkinson, who knows a little about hockey, having split 27 years of coaching experience between running the Edge Hockey Academy in Calgary, and a decade each at the University of Calgary and Mount Royal University.
“The downside is the expense. The unfortunate thing is … as that grows, money is a big influential factor in regards to player development.
“I feel like the Major Midget programs are very good, but as more and more players decide to go the academy way, it leaves it in a situation where there’s not as much opportunity perhaps for people who don’t have a lot of money.
“In another year or five years, what is that going to look like? That, to me, is the concern. If you don’t have a lot of money, there’s not going to be any chance for you to play at the elite levels.”
That hasn’t escaped the attention of even the greatest to play the game.
“When I was 10 years old, I went to school at 9 o’clock and I got out at 3:30 … and then you went and did hockey, baseball, lacrosse. Now these kids they go to school at 8 o’clock, they get out at 11 and they’re practising from 11 until 5 at these hockey academies and these camps,” Wayne Gretzky, who turned 57 on Friday, told the CBC.
“What we’ve lost a little bit of is playing on the pond and just going out there and using your creativity and your imagination. As far as the money goes, it’s a huge issue. I can remember my dad borrowing money from my grandmother to buy me a pair of skates for $25, or buy me a new hockey stick for $3.99.
“We couldn’t even hardly afford it — and it’s a big problem right now.”
The academy model has tremendous value, however. The costs are nearly comparable to B.C. Major Midget, if you factored in the extras you would need to add to replicate an academy curriculum, such as power skating lessons, skills training, strength training and travel expenses.
Academics are highly stressed by each program as well, and with players home in time for dinner every night — no late evening practices, as sometimes happens with minor programs — they don’t suffer the same sleep deprivation.
While the academies are siphoning away the top talent from the minor leagues, the drain doesn’t stop with the elites. As there are only so many elite players, academies are fielding tier 2 and tier 3 teams. Those players likely won’t be battling for scholarships or making the junior ranks — even if some programs insist that will be the end result if your son or daughter attends their academy.
“They are attracting the top talent. That’s been the biggest thing,” said Dan Cioffi, executive director of North Vancouver minor hockey and coach of the A1 bantam rep team.
“That being said, they’re not just attracting the top talent, they’re filling in. They have multiple teams. (They are) trying to create a viable, continuous cash flow of players to fund the (academies).
“So if they have three bantam teams, their top team will have the best players. The second team might be OK, but the third team … well, they’re probably no better than any A2 team in any minor hockey association,” added Cioffi, whose bantams routed the West Van academy in a pair of exhibitions, 7-1 and 7-0.
Cioffi can easily envision a future where minor hockey is relegated to recreational and grassroots status, and those looking for the high-performance, specialized schools will be willing to pay for them.
“Where we’re seeing it, and this is an epidemic from Hockey Canada down, is the overall perception of it. Is hockey becoming too expensive?” Cioffi said. “If that continues, I think the growth of hockey is going to struggle. Because if everyone is focusing on growing that (business, high-performance) side of the game, the grassroots side is going to hurt.”
BASKETBALL: HOOP DREAMS COME AT A HIGH COST
The moment Andrew Wiggins pulled on the NBA hat of the Cleveland Cavaliers and walked across the stage in 2014, it was a defining moment for Canadian basketball.
For the second consecutive year, the No. 1 overall pick hailed from the land of Maple syrup, as Canada became the only country other than the U.S. to have back-to-back No. 1 picks. There are more Canadians than any other nationality — besides the U.S., of course — playing in the NBA.
There have been more lottery picks since then: Jamal Murray, Thon Maker, Trey Lyles, and there could be yet another No. 1 overall pick next year when R.J. Barrett, the son of national team standout Rowan Barrett, will finish his first season at Duke University.
“It’s all stemming from those programs, such as TRC Academy, Orangeville Prep … they’re starting to grow, starting to build,” said UBC forward Grant Shepherd, who attended Montverde Academy in Florida — the same prep school Barrett attended this year — in 2016.
“Before, we didn’t have much opportunity for guys to play that much basketball or get that much better, compared to the United States, at least. All these different programs are allowing us to get on top.”
Club basketball has unseated the traditional path of provincial and national team exposure as the way to the next level. Drive Academy in Richmond has produced four out of the last five MVPs of the basketball provincials — Shepherd, a Kelowna Secondary School grad, was the other — and its list of NCAA and USports alumni can now be measured in the hundreds.
“(To get to the next level) they have to play youth basketball year-round, and they have to be part of a club. And if they’re just getting involved in club basketball at 15 or 16, it’s probably too late,” said Pasha Bains, a former B.C. high school MVP, NCAA player and CIS player of the year, who co-founded Drive Academy with Chad Clifford.
“Most of the kids who are going on to Division 1, or even USports nowadays are the top players in B.C., and have pretty much been playing AAU basketball since they were little kids. I think the advantage they have over other kids is they’ve played a lot better competition for so many years, under higher stress environments. … By the time they get to Grade 11, high school ball seems easy to them.”
The provincial rep programs, under Canada Basketball, used to be the only high-performance option for high school basketball players, until club teams appeared on the scene and began to compete for the same players. The scales tilted heavily in favour of the for-profit clubs, even if the cost of being part of a travelling team has climbed to the point where it’s pushing five digits a year.
At prep schools, the cost is even higher. A prestigious one like Montverde — which has produced five players drafted in the top three, including two No. 1 overall picks — has tuition fees of more than US$50,000.
Dozens of travelling club teams have popped up in B.C. over the past decade, hoping to cash in on the rising wave. But be warned: Do your due diligence on the teams.
“Joe Smith, whomever he may be, could start a basketball club tomorrow. No criteria, no coaching qualifications, just hang up your shingle,” said Lawrie Johns, executive director of B.C. Basketball.
“And we think that’s a very dangerous situation. There are a lot of groups out there — I wouldn’t even call them clubs — who have unqualified coaches, no criminal record checks, etc.
“It’s the wild west of basketball right now.”
The AAU basketball system in the U.S. is a perfect example of how money can mutate a developmental system into an ATM for private individuals. Brands and hype have become just as important as providing a competitive platform for emerging players.
Shoe companies battle to sponsor the top teams, who are in a recruiting dogfight to attract the top players, who are in turn ushered toward particular NCAA programs in return for kickbacks.
“It’s a huge business,” said Johns. “A number of NBA players have spoken out against that development model. My fear is that some clubs may even call themselves Canada AAU clubs. If we don’t work together and solve whatever problems may be out there, my fear is that is the way we go.”
Some academy coaches of Vancouver schools — some of the smaller ones, it should be noted — spoke on the condition of anonymity, and admitted pushing the promise of a post-secondary scholarship through their program, as well as the necessity of a year-round training regime.
Johns hears complaints like this on almost a daily basis. It’s partly spurred a recent movement to bring the clubs back under the B.C. Basketball umbrella.
The hiring of UBC coach Kevin Hanson to lead the U17 team was the latest step toward a cooperative model where schools, clubs and the provincial/national team are supplementing each other instead of working to each other’s detriment.
The larger clubs don’t schedule trips and scale back practices during the high school season. The provincial teams will meet once a month after the high school season, instead of two or three times. There will be certification clauses put in place to make sure coaches are qualified, and they’ll undergo criminal record checks.
“We’ve all watched clubs get bigger and bigger and bigger, and bottom line is club basketball (is) likely going to be the saviour of the sport in B.C.,” said Johns. “But there has to be some criteria put around them to protect parents, and more importantly, athletes.
“What’s really encouraging in the last year or two is clubs are saying, ‘We’ve got to get ourselves together. We’ve got to evolve into something else. How can we do that? How can we work together?’
“If everything’s money, a lot of kids are going to get left behind. And that’s a concern that we have and will continue to discuss with the clubs. We kind of have a pathway for the elite kids and how they develop. What do we do with the grassroots kids?
“We’ve all done the statistics. There are 400,000 kids playing basketball in Grade 12 in this country. There are 14 people on the national team. Do the math.
“It’s a nice dream to have. And hopefully it’s a realistic dream for some kids, and not just the parents.”
SOCCER: THE UGLY SIDE OF THE BEAUTIFUL GAME
Money in soccer has made coaching better. It’s also opened a can of worms in terms of misplaced expectations.
Two decades ago, paid coaches in soccer were a rarity. But clubs started putting money at the top of their coaching tree, with the expectation that a paid leader would raise coaching standards among the volunteer ranks.
Most would say that part has worked.
“You pay for swimming lessons and piano lessons … because you expected a specialist there,” said Douglas College women’s soccer coach Chris Laxton. “If you’re paying $5,000 a year, of course you’re going to expect a certain level (of teaching quality).”
But how many parents sign their child up for piano lessons expecting a concert pianist at the other end?
Alongside the move to paid coaches, like in other sports, has been the emergence of pay-to-play teams, presented as the elite.
Most notable was the creation of the B.C. Soccer Premier League, with tightly controlled nearly year-round teams presenting themselves as just about the best of the best, and the establishment of the Whitecaps’ sprawling residency and academy programs.
Teams in the SPL — some were created out of thin air, while other clubs simply added them to the top of their development pyramid — charge thousands for their base registration fees, which go toward paying coaches, buying new uniforms and paying for other team costs, such as travel.
What was once seen as a rather cheap sport to play all of a sudden isn’t.
At the peak of B.C.’s elite pyramid is the Whitecaps’ Residency program. Starting in Grade 8, a few dozen boys and girls from across the province and the country are put through their paces in a highly professional environment at the team’s UBC training centre. During the day, they attend school at nearby University Hill Secondary.
Players selected for the residency team, which progresses through four age groups, aren’t charged a fee — but players involved in their regional academies around the province are. The team runs these academies essentially like an ongoing skills camp. Players get a free trial session, after which it’s $25 per session.
Staffed by highly certified coaches, these sessions are meant to supplement what players are getting from their own clubs.
One parent with kids at an SPL club spoke with Postmedia News but didn’t want to be identified for fear of consequences for his children.
“Overall, it’s been a positive,” he said of his kids’ experience. “It’s helped them grow as people. They’re strong and they’re healthy. That’s been great for them.”
But he also knows it’s not a perfect system. He worries that families who can’t afford what his can really are missing out, thinking especially of talented but impoverished kids he’s encountered in his time as a school teacher and coach.
And he also knows there are parents and kids who either haven’t been told fairly of their likely outcomes or just don’t recognize the truth they’ve been told.
The best coaching “inspires and realizes potential in kids,” he believes. A player “doesn’t have to be Alphonso Davies” at the end of their time in a high-end program to call themselves a success.
Like the SPL parent, Laxton thinks it’s essential parents are being told about what their child will get out of the experience.
They’ll be better players, sure. But a future professional star? As ever, check your expectations. The focus should be on personal development as people as much as anything.
“We just don’t do a good enough job of setting expectation, of including parents in the discussion,” said Laxton, whose coaching history includes time with the old Dunbar Soccer Association, a stint with the West Vancouver school district’s soccer academy, time with Vancouver-based Fusion as well as coaching at the University of B.C. and Quest University in Squamish before taking over the Douglas program in 2014.
“I think (setting parent expectation) needs to fall on the club level,” he says. “If you’re one of the very few lucky ones that becomes a pro athlete, great, but there’s just so much more to sports.
“We’ve ended up with parents who have it in their head that their kid is the next Christine Sinclair or Atiba Hutchinson. And if they’re not getting there, it’s someone else’s fault.”
THE ELITE DREAM: IS IT ALL WORTH IT?
As a parent, one can’t put a price on encouraging your child’s dream, whether it’s an attainable one or not. Doing your due diligence in the program you intend to place your child can save you money, heartache and angst, but another important factor to consider is: is it all worth it to your child?
“From my experience … there’s a very small percentage of kids at that age who know what they want to do,” said Cioffi, the North Vancouver hockey coach, expounding upon the early age children are asked to specialize and focus on a sport.
“And you can tell by how committed they are to the sport. And when I say committed, I want to say ‘obsessed.’ The kid that wants to be on the ice all the time. The kid that wakes up without a huff at 5 a.m. to go do it. And that’s a small percentage.
“The rest of the kids, they might love playing the sport, and the social aspect of being around their friends, they love the competition, but it’s not necessarily the sport that they’re obsessed with.
“When they’re 10 or 11, as a parent, you’ve got to put the reins on them, too. Just because they want it, you don’t have to give it to them.
“… It’s like chocolate cake. If a kid wants a piece of cake, they’ll take the whole thing. But as a parent, are you going to give them the whole cake? Or are you going to give them a piece at a time? It’s just like sports. ‘You want to play this? You need a break. Try something different.’
“And if they get to 13, 14, and they’re still showing that (obsession), then you can support that a little bit further. … As soon as you have to start dragging them to do things, you know they’re not necessarily all in.”
SOURCE: J. J. ADAMS / THE PROVINCE