Youth sports promise elite status, but they often feel like a marketing ploy

April 7, 2023 3:33 am
Teenage soccer players warm up for a match at an Elite 64 match during a national showcase in Tampa in February

Teenage soccer players warm up for a match at an Elite 64 match during a national showcase in Tampa in February. (Eric Thomas)

The Kansas State University men’s basketball team advanced to the Elite 8 last month before falling to tournament upstarts Florida Atlantic. For first-year coach Jerome Tang, the accomplishment was exceptional, especially for a team that had a losing record last year.

In those ways, playing in the fourth round was elite.

However, that word — elite — has become a marketing crutch, if not an all-out lie, in sports. This is especially true in youth sports, where the sale of nearly everything these days seems to lean on some kind of elite status.

Consider the examples in Kansas youth baseball alone. Last year, Topeka hosted the Kansas Elite Championship for players in the 15U and 16U age groups. The 316 Baseball academy in Wichita merged two baseball programs to become 316 Sluggers Elite. This June, teams from 15U to 18U can play in Manhattan at the Midwest Elite tournament. There is KC Elite Sports, just across the state line in Lee’s Summit, Missouri.

Whoever names these teams and tournaments understands something essential about youth sports these days. The word “elite” sounds irresistible to parents, who must decide whether to give up their family weekends and hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in the pursuit of competitions that promise to showcase their young athletes.

In that way, “elite” is exactly the right word. It signals a status that will cost something. And it describes competition that is substantially better than normal.

Thirty years ago when I was growing up, precocious athletes played on Olympic Development teams, invitation-only squads that chose players and coached them explicitly for potential national teams. The rosters of developmental teams helped provide talent for international competition, such as the Olympics and soccer’s World Cup. While these developmental teams still exist, their local importance and prestige have diminished.

In the ’90s, if a talented athlete wasn’t on an Olympic Development team, many areas of the country had “feeder teams,” constructed to gather middle school players who would soon attend the same high school. The jerseys for these feeder teams were in your soon-to-be high school’s colors. You learned the high school team’s offense and defense. The focus was on high school athletics, playing with kids from surrounding neighborhoods and building the prestige of making the local high school’s varsity team.

More recently, club teams sprouted up with polished uniforms and professional coaching to increasingly young kids.

– Eric Thomas

More recently, club teams sprouted up with polished uniforms and professional coaching to increasingly young kids. As a high school coach and teacher at the time, I worried, along with many others, about club sports. The specialization on a single sport could bankrupt kids’ bodies. The cost might exclude many of the most talented athletes. The travel might erode the hometown pride for sports teams.

Nevertheless, when our family had a decision to make about soccer for our son, we pulled him from his recreational team and dad’s coaching when he was 8 years old. The prospect of elite competition — with all of its attendant costs and travel — appeared on the horizon.

Today, those clubs, from soccer to volleyball to basketball, have become so large that an extra level of prestige seems necessary to designate the top teams. The best teams travel the most, have the most patches on their uniforms and join leagues with professional sounding names and impressively designed logos. They are explicitly elite.

The question is, is all of this hype necessary? And who is clamoring for it? The kids or the parents?

If seeking that status is misguided, then count me in as part of the confused mass of parents.

My son currently plays soccer in a league of 64 clubs called — you guessed it — Elite 64. The number of clubs borrows some of its swagger from the 64 teams that made up the iconic NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The branding is impeccably alluring and familiar to avid sports fans.

Sponsored by United States Youth Soccer, the league groups 64 teams from across the nation into regional play. Two boys soccer clubs from Kansas — TOCA FC and Sporting Blue Valley — play teams from Wisconsin and Illinois.

Some of the games are in Kansas City. However, five weekends in the first half of this year involve out-of-state travel. When the boys traveled to a recent showcase event, they played teams from California and Massachusetts. 

In many ways, this sounds elite indeed.

The question, however, is how necessary it is for any group of 13-year-old boys to be involved in something that involves so much money and travel. Is it vital that we drive 16 hours back and forth to Chicago for a weekend that provides two Elite 64 matches when there are talented teams right here in Kansas? Should we spend two weekends out of four making that same trip?

Those are the questions that I belatedly asked myself when I stared down an expanse of Illinois highway Sunday evening.

If “elite” is the word of the moment, what’s next? My son’s soccer league has an answer for that. The most accomplished teams are elevated to an even more exclusive league: National League P.R.O.

This league joins the flock of other consumer products that aren’t really for pros, from toothpaste to vacuum cleaners. Indeed, the P.R.O. is an abbreviation, standing for “Player Recruitment Opportunity.” Signage that promises both pro sports and college recruiting is worthy of the eyerolls that it receives from parents at tournaments.

This month, young athletes and their families are in the busiest season of competition with club baseball, softball and soccer overlapping, competing with high school and middle school spring sports.

In a few months though, soccer and many other sports wrap their seasons, allowing parents to pause and reconsider their commitment to youth sports. The clubs will present the same demanding league schedule as an option for next year, if not a more challenging one. The central question that we parents often ask ourselves at these moments is often: “How elite do I want my kid to be?”

Perhaps the real question is: “How elite are these leagues, really?”

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.