Little Athletes, Big Dreams

Austin's youth sports boom is young athletes, big competition – and big money

Austin United Capital Soccer Club's Wolfgang Suhmholz.
Austin United Capital Soccer Club's Wolfgang Suhmholz. (Photo By John Anderson)

Twelve years ago, my wife and I took our then 5-year-old daughter Amelia to her first recreational soccer game. She refused to go onto the field. In 1995, I wrote an article for the Chronicle about coaching my daughter's soccer team and praised the motivational power of making fart noises. This spring, in March, Amelia played center midfield and co-captained the district champion Westlake High School girls soccer team in a heartbreaking playoff loss to Klein, a big, bruising team from the Houston suburbs. After the game, one of my fellow Westlake soccer dads e-mailed me: "That was a tough loss and a tough way to end a career."

It's difficult to think of my 17-year-old daughter at the end of "a career" – especially for me, a semisuccessful slacker who has managed to avoid not only a career but even leather shoes. Yet in Austin today, a decadelong career in a single sport is now the norm for any serious high school athlete. While most jocks play on school teams, the serious competition has now moved to the private pay-to-play teams, sometimes called "select" or "traveling" teams. With salaried staffs, well-trained coaches, and competitive schedules that demand substantial funds and a year-round, 10-year commitment from participating families, these select teams form the structural core of the booming American social universe known as youth sports.

The Big Picture

"Our philosophy is to build kids who know how to achieve something," explains Wolfgang Suhnholz, the head of my daughter's soccer club. "It's not just scoring goals. It's beyond that. It's having all kinds of goals and learning to achieve them."

Suhnholz is one of the emerging breed of youth sports professionals. A native of Berlin, who played for Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga, one of the world's greatest soccer clubs in one of the world's premier leagues, Suhnholz came to the U.S. and played in the North American Soccer League from 1975-1981. A blown-out Achilles tendon ended his playing career, but in 1985 he came to Austin to coach a boys soccer camp. This led to coaching two boys teams, then four, and then an invitation to start the Capital Soccer Club, the first soccer club in South Texas (Austin is in the South Texas region) to field both girls and boys teams.

Today, Suhnholz heads up the Austin United Capital Soccer Club, which boasts 3,500 kids ages 5-18 playing on 54 select teams and a host of recreational teams. Another Austin-area club, the Lone Star Soccer Club, has 60 select teams. Including the various smaller select clubs and numerous recreational programs around town, in the Austin area today there are probably more than 8,000 kids playing youth soccer.

While soccer has become the most popular youth sport, it is far from the only game in town. Each sport has its own method of showcasing major youth talent. Basketball has Amateur Athletic Union-sponsored teams for both boys and girls, playing during the summer and spring. Baseball offers Pony League and Little League (two separate organizations with separate rules), as well as traveling teams with paid coaches that compete in special showcase tournaments. (The money and internal politics of these barnstorming youth baseball teams are fast and loose.)

In football, there are Pop Warner and various youth leagues. Football still holds most closely to the traditional model – at the moment, the best teams are high school teams, and the best players focus on performing for their high school teams. According to Mark Cousins, the athletic director for the University Interscholastic League, which supervises school competitions in Texas, "I believe we haven't seen the development of select, nonschool football yet because of the costs associated with equipment and insurance. But there are people talking about it."

In addition to the major sports, there are pay-to-play youth programs for any sport you can imagine – tennis, golf, softball, rowing, gymnastics, fencing, cheerleading, dance, martial arts, lacrosse, volleyball, and others. Extrapolating from youth school sports statistics compiled by the UIL, as many as 800,000 kids in Texas pay to play youth sports. In Austin alone, the youth sports business generates tens of millions of dollars per year.

"Two years ago, we had 720 teams. This year there are 926 teams," says Glen Lietzke, the executive director of Austin Junior Volleyball, which manages the Lone Star Classic, the largest junior volleyball tournament in the U.S. "We are renting the Austin Convention Center for two weekends in a row, and still we don't have enough space. Where are all these teams coming from?"

Little Athletes, Big Dreams
Photo By John Anderson

Lietzke coached volleyball at UT-Austin and taught in the physical education department for 18 years before he began working full time in youth sports. With 20 select volleyball teams and 250 girls aged 11-18, his Austin Junior club is one of the top-ranked select volleyball programs in the country, drawing players from Bastrop to Lake Travis, Georgetown to Hays. "There are probably 30 or 40 other volleyball clubs in the Austin area. We haven't achieved the level of soccer yet, but we are trying to develop programs for younger players."

Lawrence Chalip, a UT professor of sports management, has been working for years to assess the impact of youth sports. According to an economic impact assessment that Chalip helped develop, the 2003 Lone Star Classic volleyball tournament was one of the biggest events in Austin in terms of economic impact, adding $12.2 million to the Austin economy in terms of local spending. "We are looking for a different paradigm," Chalip says, "youth sports not as impact but as leverage. We want to show city officials the economic impact of youth sports, then work with them to develop youth sports as an important part of Austin's social and economic profile."

Cynthia Darwin is the executive director of the Greater Austin Sports Association, and a 24-year veteran of the Austin youth sports scene. Her group performed an economic impact comparison between UT football and youth sports competitions in Austin and found that youth sports generated significantly more dollars. "For the most part, pro/collegiate sports attendance draws from the local population who do spend more money as a result, but for half a day or so. The trend in school and club/select competitions is for entire families to travel with the athlete and book rooms for several nights as well as spend money in restaurants, malls, et cetera. Essentially, the traveling youth sports activity has become the family vacation."

The explosion of youth sports is not unique to Austin. The biggest youth soccer club in the country is in North Carolina, with 12,000 members. A Denver soccer organization recently spent more than $20 million to acquire land to build fields and other facilities. A volleyball club in Chicago guarantees that players who follow certain guidelines will get a college scholarship or a full refund on the fees they have paid to the club. For millions of American families, youth sports has become a full-time secondary occupation.

Pay to Play to ... Payday

"When you start out it's like grabbing the tail of a tiger," says Don Weidemann, a good buddy of mine and a fellow veteran dad of the Austin youth sports scene. "You just don't realize that you're in for a long, hard ride."

Don, I, and other parents who get our kids into youth sports as a lark soon learn that it is serious business. When my daughter began her soccer career, I never imagined that I would spend the next eight Thanksgiving weekends standing on the sidelines of soccer games. For volleyball dads like Don, the big weekend is Easter weekend. Both Don and I occasionally considered dropping out of the youth sports scene, but, as Don puts it: "Once you're in the game, you're in the game."

Most everyone agrees that the biggest problem with youth sports is not the kids but the parents. Parents have a more difficult time socializing than kids, mainly because they have to spend an enormous amount of time in stressful situations involving their children. I myself have acted at times like a total jerk. Once, during a tournament game when my daughter was quite young, I ran out onto the field and intimidated a teenage referee into giving my daughter's team a goal. Friends of mine have been banned from the sidelines of their kids' sporting events for going over the top – although I don't know anyone who has shot a coach, as recently happened with an irate football dad in Canton, Texas.

"Parents have a hard time separating the emotionality of playing time and their kid's self-worth," Glen Lietzke observes. "And letting the kids solve the problems themselves whether it is with the teammates or the coaching staff. We now have to have an arbitrator at our events because of the parents. When our building is full, I have to have a police officer there. We have insecurity because of our society, sure, but maybe we should require that all parents take sportsmanship classes."

"Parents want to see success for their children today," Suhnholz explains, "but it's a process. It can take a long time. And that's hard for some parents to understand."

Little Athletes, Big Dreams
Photo By John Anderson

What's not hard for most parents to understand is the holy grail of a college scholarship, or even a shot at pro sports. Boys can hope to go to the big leagues, and sometimes – very rarely – they realize those hopes. From Westlake High School, Drew Brees went on to play for Purdue and now the San Diego Chargers, Chris Mihm went to Longhorn basketball and the Los Angeles Lakers, and Longhorn pitcher Huston Street now plays for the Oakland Athletics.

Girls have fewer professional opportunities, but they currently have a much better opportunity to get college scholarships than athletic boys, because the pool of female athletes is still so much smaller – and colleges are required (under the federal civil rights law known as Title IX) to offer girls the same number of scholarship opportunities as they offer boys (pending changes contemplated by the Bush administration).

Because even the best odds are not great, most youth sport coaches downplay the scholarship angle, but there is no denying the allure, especially to parents eager to see their kids succeed. "I hope the drive to play is not scholarships," says Lietzke, even as he admits that the main reason Austin Junior Volleyball has no boys teams is because "there are lots of scholarships for girls volleyball, not a lot of scholarships for boys."

"The irony of it," he says, "is that we've got two 18-year-old teams with 20 kids, and out of those 20 kids, 14 or 15 already had scholarships going into their senior years. And yet, they still played for the club team because they enjoyed it."

Who Wins? Who Loses?

Many parents have come to object to the increasingly para-professional youth sports culture, because it has made the school sports scene so competitive that nonselect athletes have no chance of making the team. For many schools, this is now undeniable. In the most competitive athletic districts, school teams that do not rely on youth sports career players are simply not going to win. My daughter's soccer team at Westlake High School in the wealthy Eanes Independent School District clobbered the AISD high schools that did not have youth sports veterans on their rosters. Don Weidemann's daughters Margot and Jamie, and their teammates on the Westlake High School girls volleyball team, all played select volleyball – and they also won the state championship.

Cynthia Darwin believes that in this institutionalized context the athlete whose parents cannot afford youth sports may lose out early in the game. "Although most youth sports organizations have scholarship programs or financial aid," she says, "that assistance does not cover all the costs that go along with this new 'professional' look and demand of youth sports." According to Darwin, the financial requirements of youth sports have forced clubs to rely increasingly on donations and corporate sponsorships. "Essentially," she says, "we are seeing a filtering down of the professional sponsorship of sports teams and events into the youth sports arena."

All financial concerns pale when compared to a parent's greatest fear – permanent injuries. Don Weidemann's daughter Margot was playing at a major volleyball tournament in Las Vegas when she tore her meniscus knee cartilage, necessitating surgery. "The worst part was not being there," Don told me. "Somehow with boys, injuries are acceptable, but with a daughter, when she wrecks a knee, it's your little girl."

The Families That Play ...

Yet despite the dollars, despite the social stress, despite the injuries, Don and I agree that the youth sports experience was worth it for our families. From a financial standpoint, Don estimates that he spent tens of thousands of dollars on his daughter Jamie's volleyball career, including visits to the chiropractor before and after every tournament. Jamie got a full volleyball scholarship to Stetson University in Florida, a private school. If she continues to play volleyball, the youth sports investment may indeed make financial sense for the Weidemanns. But they are the exception to the rule. Most of us (including my wife and I, who figure we spent about $25,000 on our daughter's soccer career) would have done better financially putting the money in a savings account rather than investing in the promise of a sports scholarship.

But even if youth sports does not make financial sense, most youth sports parents would likely say that it is money well spent. My daughter Amelia is in great shape, loves to play soccer, and has made friends from all over Mexico and Latin America on the Zilker Park soccer fields. "I always knew where my kids were," Don Weidemann explains, "Youth sports was an activity that we shared, that allowed us to be together while giving each other space."

For Don, the most emotional time in his career as a youth sports parent came in October 2003, when he attended a college intent letter signing party for the Westlake High School girls volleyball team. Seven girls from this phenomenal team signed with colleges – and only six girls play on the court at any one time. As Don recalled, "The girls were all lined up in their sweatshirts from the various colleges that they were committing to – SMU, Texas A&M, Tulane, Stetson, Maryland, Virginia, Tulsa. We all looked at each other, and all the rough spots were gone for one night. It was like, hey, we've made it. We were family in a way."

"We are trying to build a clubhouse," Wolfgang Suhnholz says, "where younger players can get to know older players, where all the people involved in the club can spend time together, like a family." Belonging to an extended family might be the real reason for the boom in youth sports. Our own nuclear family exploded long ago, and belonging to a youth sports club gave us the chance to connect with a variety of adults from different backgrounds, and a variety of kids from all around central Texas. We had fun together, got bored together, sniped, laughed, and wound up appreciating one another. We attended funerals, baptisms, and birthdays, and watched our kids grow up together.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed being a youth sports Dad, I understand why select sports is so controversial. Youth sports culture is a pay-for-play culture that excludes kids and families who don't have the time or money to participate. Like sports, many aspects of family life are being privatized. Increasingly, we believe that the best thing for our families is to have specialists for everything – from coaching our kids to cooking to gardening to tutoring. We are probably right to think that experts can do better at various jobs than we amateur parents, but the trend to outsource aspects of family life has increasingly stratified the Austin social scene – and it's a trend that has increased dramatically, right alongside the rise of youth sports. end story

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