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Youth Sports Tourism Boom Generating Mass Media Coverage – Complete with Added Scrutiny

6 Sep, 2017

By: Michael Popke

During the same week in August, HBO and TIME magazine both focused on the business of youth sports tourism.

HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel aired a segment on Aug. 22 titled “Youth Sports, Inc.,” chronicling how “travel teams have fueled an unprecedented sports tourism boom over the last decade, with millions of parents and their kids hitting the road for dozens of weekends a year to compete in soccer, baseball, lacrosse, basketball, volleyball and just about any other sport,” according to a press release from HBO.

Dev Pathik, founder and CEO of Sports Facilities Advisory, a consulting firm based in Clearwater, Fla., told Real Sports correspondent Jon Frankel that youth sports tourism is a $9 billion per year industry and referred to such travel as a “tournacation” — a tournament vacation.

Once languishing communities are creating destinations where previously there weren’t any. Take Grant Park in Westfield, Ind., where the mayor said youth sports made a $145 million economic impact on the area in 2016. One parent from Texas interviewed at the sprawling 400-acre indoor and outdoor facility told Frankel her child has competed in 10 states over the past two years. Another family spends 30 weekends per year on the road, providing its two young athletes the opportunity for elite coaching, plenty of games and better competition. The price for all that? About $15,000 per year, according to one Virginia family. 

Myrtle Beach, one of the destinations featured in the Real Sports piece, reaps $200 million a year in economic impact, with the majority of money coming from youth sports, MyrtleBeachOnline.com reports. Mayor John Rhodes said the exposure from HBO “is going to be something that when people throughout the country see, it’s going to allow us to grow even more.”

The overall tone of the Real Sports piece was positive, despite the incredulity of Frankel, who seemed shocked at some of the stories he heard and admitted that “millions of kids are being priced out of the fun.”

TIME magazine’s cover story in the Sept. 4 issue (published on Aug. 25) identified the youth sports economy as a $15.3 billion market. That includes everything from travel to private coaching to league and live-streaming apps. According to WinterGreen Research, a private firm that provided exclusive data to TIME, the youth sports business has grown 55 percent since 2010.

TIME’s Sean Gregory traced the evolution of the industry back to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, a 220-acre site that opened in 1997 on the grounds of Orlando’s Disney World and provided an all-in-one tournament, hotel and theme park experience.

“For better or worse, youth sports is being privatized,” Jordan Fliegel, an entrepreneur who has capitalized on the shift, told Gregory.

TIME took a cautious approach to the subject, stressing that despite the major economic impact that cities around the country are experiencing from youth sports, “[t]here are mounting concerns,” Gregory wrote. “The average number of sports played by children ages 6 to 17 has dipped for three straight years, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. In a study published in the May issue of American Journal of Sports Medicine, University of Wisconsin researchers found that young athletes who participated in their primary sport for more than eight months in a year were more likely to report overuse injuries.”

He also provided this reality check: Only 2 percent of high school athletes go on to play at the NCAA Division I level. “I’ve seen parents spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars pursuing a college scholarship,” Travis Dorsch, founding director of the Families in Sport Lab at Utah State University, told Gregory. “They could have set it aside for the damn college.”

This high-profile exposure for the youth sports travel business comes on the heels of a new study about the experiences related to youth sports conducted by two researchers at Indiana University. Richard Buning, an assistant professor in the School of Physical Education and Tourism Management at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and Cassandra Coble, a clinical assistant professor in the IUS School of Public Health-Bloomington, conducted in-depth interviews with parents, coaches, officials and others associated with youth sports tourism in the Indianapolis area to uncover data they say was previously not available.

“There’s been little research to see what people want out of these types of trips, how they make decisions related to this type of travel, what they look for in destinations and events, and what their experiences are like when they go on this type of trip,” Buning said in an IU press release.

Among the travel behaviors Buning and Coble found:

  • Limited planning occurs before a trip to a sporting event, other than to find a hotel.

  • Preconceived notions about destinations influence trip planning and activity information search behaviors.

  • Parents, young athletes and support staff have little to no time outside of the event to participate in activities away from the sport venues.

  • Typical event trip duration is predominantly Friday to Sunday, due to school commitments and travel expenses.

Generally, Buning said, a child, usually accompanied by one parent, will travel with a team to a tournament. The parent and child check into a hotel with a pool so the child can swim. Saturday is spent at the tournament, with the parent and child eating at a restaurant like Subway for lunch and then ordering pizza for dinner. When the tournament ends on Sunday, the parent and child return home.

The study was commissioned by the Hamilton County Sports Authority and conducted through the Sports Innovation Institute at IUPUI.

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