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Why a Midwestern suburb is going on a youth sports building frenzy

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Here is an example on what gets built, and what doesn’t, in our not-officially-in-a-recession economy.

In the fast-growing Indianapolis suburb of Westfield, Ind., there was a proposed $1 billion, 1,400-acre project that was going to include mostly new housing and stores, but would also have 150 acres set aside for youth sports fields, a new Y, and a minor-league baseball stadium. Because of the lousy real estate market, the housing-and-stores part of the development has been cut by two-thirds.

Meanwhile, the athletics portion of the project has broken off, and its size has doubled — to 300 acres, or as the Indianapolis Business Journal points out, the size of the Kings Island amusement park.

I’ve written about it here before (and before that), and I’ll write about it again, because cities keep doing it:  using youth sports as an economic development tool. And why not? At most, your huge complex can host scads of tournaments, which means scads of out-of-town teams, which means scads of parents and kids spending money at your hotels and restaurants. At worst, if the out-of-towners don’t show up, you can justify the cost of the project (and Westfield’s was estimated, when it was half the current size, at around $60 million) by pointing out that, unlike building a new NFL stadium, the community gets to use it.

Even in the throes of the recession, parents in unemployment-scarred towns such as Elkhart, Ind., ponied up to put their kids in sports. As one parent told me in 2009, he will cut any other expense, because “if you save $5, it’s $5 you can spend on your child.” With such a loyal spending base to work with, it’s no wonder even little towns like Edwardsburg, Mich. (population 1,200), have huge sports complexes in the planning or construction stages.

After all, you don’t want to have your hometown newspaper write about all the tournaments (and money) you lost because you didn’t keep up with the Basketball Joneses. (Often, the local coverage of proposed complexes sounds a lot like the fawning articles that beat the drums for taxpayer-funded pro stadiums. Sample headline: “New sports complex offers cities financial home run.”) Again, so what if the promised multimillion-dollar impact from youth tournaments doesn’t happen? At least your kids have a nice place to play, right?

Westfield, population 27,000, is much more ambitious than most cities building youth sports complexes. Instead of just saying, we’re building a complex, Westfield and its mayor, Andy Cook (no relation to your humble blogger) have declared they are building “The Family Sports Capital of America.”

Why so grandiose? Westfield, located in Indiana’s Hamilton County, one of the fastest-growing in the nation, is trying to grab more of the executives who have been more apt to settle in other suburbs, particularly Carmel, located immediately to Westfield’s south. Carmel (hometown of your humble blogger) itself has stood out nationally because of its grand schemes, such as its embrace of roundabouts, its snagging of Michael Feinstein and his Great American Songbook, and its getting Kendra Wilkinson to film her reality show there. A few years back, the U.S. Census Bureau renamed the Indianapolis metropolitan area the Indianapolis-Carmel metro. One of Westfield’s few claims to fame was being the home of a serial killer.

Carmel has always been bigger, richer and more important than Westfield, and damnit, if the town was going to be known for being more than Carmel’s leftovers, it needed to do something grand. Hence, “The Family Sports Capital of America.” (Giving yourself a grandiose nickname is a tradition among Hoosiers. See Michael Jackson, “King of Pop.”)

With ground yet to be broken, we’re a long way from finding out whether Westfield can pop a big civic boner in the face of its rival, which I just realized is a highly inappropriate metaphor in a piece about a place kids play. But we are hardly a long way away from cities of any size determining that putting money into shiny, new youth sports complexes is maybe not such a good idea after all. As long as parents are willing to spend their last $5 on their kids and their sports, there is going to be a market for the facilities. The only question might be is if some other town is going to try to beat Westfield to the “Family Sports Capital of America” punch.

(Actually, Blaine, Minn., already did.)

Written by rkcookjr

October 6, 2010 at 1:21 am

Inside a Catholic how-not-to-molest-children class

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John Pilmaier (R) and Barbara Blaine (L) of th...

Image by AFP via Daylife

As you might have heard, the Catholic Church and its pope are in a bit of pickle over new allegations about priests who abused children, and how the church covered up and/or ignored that activity. Of course, this has been a sensitive topic for some time now. How sensitive, I got to see first-hand in 2007 when I was required, in order to coach my son’s fourth-grade Catholic school basketball team, to sit in on special training that was supposed to teach us how to make sure none of the kids on our team were abused, and how not to make sure we put ourselves in a position to be accused falsely of being an abuser.

I wrote the following post Jan. 7, 2009, for my old WordPress blog. I’m bringing it back because it will give you an idea of how some of the most loyal Catholics are dealing with the church’s pedophile problems, and how the church itself is in ass-covering legal mode to the point it’s treating the laity like they were the abusers. Also, because even though my family isn’t Catholic anymore, I’m still getting emails telling me there’s a new online refresher course for my special training.

If you are coaching a team at a Catholic school, or working with children there in any capacity, more than likely you have to go through something called VIRTUS training. Or as I call it, How Not to Molest Children.

I went through VIRTUS two years ago before coaching my son’s fourth-grade basketball team, and my wife went through it this year to teach first-grade CCD (stands for Confraternity of Catholic Doctrine — I had to look that up). I haven’t coached in a Catholic environment since then — the end of that year, we transferred our kids from Catholic to public school — but I still get emails updating me to online training, which I have to keep up with in case I ever do. The latest one came today, which I why I’m writing about VIRTUS now.

The major unvirtuous, if that’s a word, cloud over VIRTUS training is that it was designed by the National Catholic Risk Retention Group — the ones who provide the church insurance to cover costs associated with those pesky priest-molestation lawsuits. Like any corporate lawsuit prevention training, it focuses as much on how not to get in trouble as it does helping the actual, you know, children. It talks about ways to prevent yourself from being falsely accused. And when you go for your two-hour training, one of your first thoughts — well, it certainly was mine — was, why are we here? As I recall, it was clergy that was the problem, not the fourth-grade basketball coaches.

After two hours in the auditorium-like, tiled basement of St. Bede the Venerable in Chicago’s Scottsdale neighborhood, my feelings changed from cynicism to sadness. As easy as it is to joke about diddling priests, it was heartbreaking to the depths to which people have been shaken by the scandal.

I don’t mean that they are questioning themselves as being Catholics, or that they are even sympathetic to the criticisms lobbied at the church. Predictably, some groused the media was making too big a deal out of it. Particularly in Chicago, and particularly on the south side of it, Catholicism is deeply ingrained culture, not merely a place to go on Sundays and worship without ever taking off your coat. Being told not to be alone around a parish child, not to give anyone a ride home who isn’t your own kid, not to leave a kid with a priest until the parents arrived — whatever the sound, ass-covering reasons, for these hardcore, lifelong Catholics, this was like being told that we are not friends anymore. The best (and sometimes worst) thing about life inside a Catholic parish is its intense sense of community, and the message of VIRTUS training was that you no longer could trust anyone.

As you might have gathered, I am not a lifelong southside Chicago Catholic. I was baptized Catholic so my then-nonreligious parents could get me into a Catholic school, and I was later confirmed as an Episcopalian. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Now I go to a church affiliated with the United Church of Christ -- letting priests be gay since 1972!] Before I got married to my wife — a lifelong southside Chicago Catholic [EDITOR'S NOTE: Scratch that last word now] — I had priests in two different archdioceses trying to figure out what I was. When I gave the priest my baptismal certificate, he saw that I was four years old when I was baptized and asked me, “This is REAL certificate?” I had no idea passing fake baptismal IDs was such a problem.

Still, I was sympathetic toward people who whole worldview was being rocked good and hard during VIRTUS training. Here we all were, wanting to do good by coaching or teaching kids, and we were being treated as potential molesters first, eyes and ears to potential molestation by others second, and maybe good-hearted people third. The pastor of St. Bede knew the vibe. He had been installed there not long after word broke that the Chicago Archdiocese had reached settlements for molestation by priests, including one who had served at St. Bede. Meanwhile, another former St. Bede priest was already in jail. The new priest, who seemed to me a genuinely nice guy, said a few parishioners greeted him by asking, to his face, if he was a child molester, too.

Guarding against child predators isn’t only a Catholic problem or concern, of course. Everywhere I’ve coached, I’ve had to fill out a form for a police background check. There are too many memories of kid-friendly coaches who turned out to be not so friendly. Heck, just run a quick Google News search and you’ll see it still happens, despite all the precautions. That’s why VIRTUS training exists. Yes, it tries to prevent child predators from entering the system or if they do, from getting out of hand. But it also exists to say to parents, don’t sue us — we tried.

Youth soccer facility, eliminating the middleman, starts its own pro team

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The National Sports Center in Blaine, Minn., is the model everyone wants to follow when they want to built a big honkin’ facility to host big honkin’ youth sports tournaments. But the National Sports Center stays one step ahead. Not only does it provide the means for parents who dream of their children going pro, but it also now provides its own pro team.

The center decided to own its own Division II-level pro team (one level below Major League Soccer) to replace the Minnesota Thunder, a National Sports Center tenant that died as the United Soccer League converted into an old name playing a lower-level game, the North American Soccer League. Pele will not be in this league.

Inside Minnesota Soccer gets the word from Paul Erickson, the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission’s executive director, on why the National Sports Center is expanding into the professional sports business:

The one advantage we have, we are the only owner in the entire division II system that owns all of its own facilities. We also have the largest soccer complex on earth with 4 million annual visitors. Now that we are owners of this team we have the ability to program all the youth soccer tournaments and other facilities and incorporate a professional soccer experience. Now that the owner of the team is the owner of the events, we can do a lot more creative things in building ticket packages into the events to make it a comprehensive soccer event.

Plus, the National Sports Center has a beer garden.

The facility is having a name-the-team contest through Jan. 26. Your choices are: the Minnesota Voyageurs, NSC Minnesota, FC Minnesota, Minnesota United, Minnesota Northern Lights, Northstar FC, or that ever-popular choice, Other. Everything but Other sucks. How about the Fats?

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You can laugh at the idea of a Minnesota Fats record album, but Etta James is allegedly his daughter, and she had to get the talent from somewhere, right?

Written by rkcookjr

January 18, 2010 at 3:53 am

Minnesota declares a week without sports…

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…and I’m sure it’ll be just as effective as TV Turnoff Week.

From the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

…[t]he Minnesota State High School League [approved] a no-contact period for coaches and student-athletes effective July 1-7, 2010. The amendment, which the MSHSL representative assembly passed by a 43-2 vote, calls for an Independence Week of sorts, a small piece of summer reserved for athletes and their families.

“The kids need breaks,” MSHSL executive director Dave Stead said. “They are not collegians connected through a scholarship to play a sport. The good coaches know that, and they’ll make the adjustments.”

Metro-area coaches, while acknowledging a seven-day moratorium is not a big deal — Apple Valley wrestling coach Jim Jackson called it “trivial” — question two principal implications. Girls’ basketball coaches Faith Patterson of Minneapolis North and Ray Finley of Providence Academy wondered what message is being sent when only high school coaches — not AAU basketball coaches — are asked to provide time for kids to be kids.

And Blaine boys’ hockey coach Dave Aus and Spring Lake Park boys’ basketball coach Grant Guzy are concerned that the MSHSL might decide to expand the no-contact period. If that happened, Wayzata football coach Brad Anderson worries that athletes choosing to invest in private instruction might not get a worthwhile return.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association established a similar summer no-contact period in 2007. Associate director Tom Rashid said schools can choose their own seven-day break to be completed by Aug. 1, and about 95 percent do so over the Fourth of July. Adjusting to the new rule, Rashid said, took time.

“We probably had 100 phone calls that first summer, maybe more, from coaches asking, ‘I can’t do this? I can’t do that?’ Rashid said. “The amount of agony in the first year of the program to find 168 hours of no high school sports led me to believe that we absolutely needed something to pull the reins back.”

Bless their bleeding hearts and good intentions, but here are the problems for any high school athletic association mandating a week without sports.

The elite athletes, as noted above, are going to keep playing AAU and club sports, so all this rule does is give athletes and their parents one more reason to find school-affiliated sports lacking in comparison.

As for the comments that athletes investing in instruction might not get a worthwhile return — it sounds crazy that one week mandating no practices or games might make that much of a difference. But I’m sure every hockey and basketball coach (and every other coach in every sport but football) in Minnesota (and the nation) sweats whether the best players are going to keep playing high school sports, knowing college recruiters are paying a lot more attention to the more elite club level.

Meanwhile, the middling high school athletes, trying to keep up, will still end up in private sessions, worthwhile return or not. So it’s not like they’re actually taking a week off — nor are their parents.

I know we’re all trying to figure out ways to de-emphasize sports so kids aren’t getting mentally or physically burned out. But Minnesota’s rule rests on an assumption that kids at the high school level are burning out. That’s not necessarily so. Most surveys talk about 75 percent of youth athletes quitting by age 13. However, one Canadian study, looking at registration data, posits the idea that the decline in youth sports participation into the teenage years not a matter of kids quitting en masse in the tween years– it’s that fewer new players join a sport as the years go on. That makes sense, given the early age so many kids start in sports, and the self-selection either in discovering one’s talent or realizing one is a long way back from the kids who have played for a while.

There are players quoted in the Star-Tribune story saying they feel like the week without sports is ridiculous. After all, if you’re dedicated to some activity at the high school level, you’re probably good at it and passionate about it. Heck, my 6-year-old son, whose T-ball closing ceremony is tonight, is upset he can’t start next year’s league tomorrow.

Minnesota’s move for a week without sports comes from lofty ideals, and I’m sure there are parents who hope that really means they’re on break for a week. However, I doubt it’s going to change the athletic landscape in the state, except to tip a few more of the top athletes away from high school sports.

The youth sports stadium game

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If you thought the competition to build massive sports stadiums was just for cities that were, well, cities, then you are correct. As long as you think of those stadiums only for professional teams. Smaller towns and suburbs are drooling to replicate the success of Blaine, Minn.’s National Sports Center, or merely trying to attract big tournaments that fill hotel rooms and restaurants with rude kids running wild (at least that’s what I’ve seen and heard in the hotels I’ve stayed in that were hosting kids playing youth tournaments).

For example, the State Journal-Register of Springfield, Ill., reports in today’s edition that a $60 million youth sports facility is under consideration. It would have, as the paper notes, “a 3,000-seat baseball stadium, soccer fields and a football/track facility.” That would make it the biggest construction project in Springfield since the monorail.

If $60 million in a city of about 117,000 sounds like a lot, how does $60 million in a suburb of about 24,000 grab you?

That’s the pricetag Westfield, Ind., is putting on its proposed complex, which would be located a 5K run from where I’m sitting now (my parents’ house in Carmel, another north Indianapolis suburb.) The complex would consist of a 4,000-seat multipurpose outdoor stadium (which would also be used to attract an independent minor-league pro baseball team), indoor sports facilities, and baseball, soccer, softball and lacrosse fields. It would be part of a $1.5 billion development with retail, housing, hotels and a golf course already there, money to be raised in a public-private partnership.

Wow.

The youth sports stadium game is like the big-time stadium game in that burgs known for little or nothing (as Indianapolis was when it beefed up its Olympic sports facilities and filched the Colts in the 1980s) are using the facilities to make some sort of a name for itself. For example, Westfield, known nowhere outside of Indianapolis and barely known within it, wants to be known as “the Family Sports Capital of America.”

As Westfield Mayor Andy Cook (no relation to your humble blogger) told Indianapolis TV station WTHR: “To our knowledge, there are two there facilities similar to this. One is in suburban Minneapolis. The other is in Disney World.”

See, there’s Blaine lust again. As for Disney World, apparently Cook is hopeful that someday a Super Bowl winner will yell, “I’m goin’ to Westfield!”

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Come in to Westfield, the Happiest Place on Earth.

I must admit, I admire Westfield’s gigantic civic nards in proposing this project, especially in this economy, even though Westfield is a fast-growing burg.

There are plenty of stories out there bragging about how much money youth sports is bringing to various small towns. If you need an exact number, you can always call someone like Patrick Rishe, an economic professor at Webster University in St. Louis, who is making a side business assessing an economic impact number just like people used to do for pro sports stadium projects.

Of course, a lot of those pro sports numbers are in serious dispute, like this report in the Philadelphia Inquirer (via The Sports Economist) states:

In a just-released article in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues, my colleagues and I [Rick Eckstein, a Villanova sociology professor] studied media coverage of 23 publicly financed stadium initiatives in 16 different cities, including Philadelphia. We found that the mainstream media in most of these cities is noticeably biased toward supporting publicly financed stadiums, which has a significant impact on the initiatives’ success.

This bias usually takes the form of uncritically parroting stadium proponents’ economic and social promises, quoting stadium supporters far more frequently than stadium opponents, overlooking the numerous objective academic studies on the topic, and failing to independently examine the multitude of failed stadium-centered promises throughout the country, especially those in oft-cited “success cities” such as Denver and Cleveland.

The argument for youth sports stadiums over pro sports stadiums is that they’re cheaper to build, and that they attract almost all out-of-towners rather than taking money from one local entertainment venue to another. The argument against is that given the relative size of the towns, the money being spent is the equivalent of what a big city pays for a big stadium. And you can’t assume everyone will stay in your town’s hotels, or spend as much money as you think they will spend. Plus, it seems slightly creepy to base a major part of your city’s economy on kids playing games.

However, it’s doubtful this (fools?) gold rush is ending anytime soon. To symbolize where we’re going, Vero Beach, Fla., is looking at converting Dodgertown, the old Los Angeles Dodgers spring training site, into a youth sports complex.

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