Playing the scholarship game: Club sports’ rise fueled by hopes of paying for college

·8 min read
Joe Davidson

It can cost families thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours for their child to participate in club sports. And there’s no guarantee there will be a tangible payoff in the form of a college scholarship.

But as the world of competitive sports continues to evolve — with college sports looking more like professional sports, thanks to the NIL era — it’s not hard to imagine club sports looking more like the systems in other countries. Kids could soon be allowed to focus solely on the sport they might play professionally, as happens with soccer in Europe.

In the meantime, club sports in America have become a necessity for high school-age student athletes to earn a college scholarship. The difference between club sports and professional sports, of course, is athletes pay to play, they don’t get paid to play.

“Recruiting is done more heavily on that (club sports) side,” said Paul Edwards, a Sacramento State associate athletic director. “It’s heading in that direction and I haven’t seen it slow down in 15-20 years.”

The numbers back it up. According to an NCAA study using data collected from 2019, the vast majority of male student athletes in college baseball (85%), basketball (91%), ice hockey (59%), lacrosse (82%), soccer (77%), swimming (79%) and wrestling (77%) participated in club sports before college.

For women, there were similar numbers in basketball (92%), field hockey (79%), ice hockey (66%), lacrosse (81%), soccer (88%), softball (94%), swimming (79%) and volleyball (91%).

The sports that don’t require kids to play on club teams include 11-on-11 football, tennis, track and field and golf. Those sports often utilize specialized training or camps, which can be nearly as costly as playing for club teams. Seven-on-seven football camps have become increasingly popular in the spring and summer, allowing players to improve in a non-tackle format that is safer on the body.

Do club sports pay off?

For years roughly 2% of high school athletes end up getting a scholarship to play their sport in college, which means high school students and their families have a choice to make regarding the financial and time commitments it takes to play a club sport with a college scholarship in mind.

Club sports are important for recruiting. NCAA rules limit contact college coaches can have with high school players they recruit. Club team tournaments, particularly in basketball, softball, baseball and volleyball, provide a conduit for college coaches to legally contact recruits and evaluate them against better competition, which isn’t always the case for high school teams. Del Oro High School softball coach Sean Erickson has coached club teams and says there’s no comparison for what works for college teams.

“The problem that is had by many young athletes looking to be recruited is the inability of the high school and the college teams to connect with one another,” he said.

“College teams are playing, coaches have restrictions to those players during that period of time, so they can’t just meet with them. The high school team that’s playing at virtually the same time, with the same rigors, with the same or similar schedules, the colleges are playing with. So you can’t recruit, you can’t review players, you have a hard time meeting players.”

Club teams often play outside of the high school season for a respective sport. In basketball, a sport that’s played over the winter in high school, clubs play in the spring and summer. In softball and baseball, spring sports in high school, club teams play over the summer, fall and winter.

For softball, Erickson said club teams typically play up to 70 games outside of the high school season, with many of the games coming during six-game tournaments.

“We want (players) to be reviewed at the highest level they can be so we have liaisons with our travel teams that have relationships with college,” Erickson said. “So in softball, it’s almost mandatory that we get that opportunity.”

‘A nonstop grind’

Sacramento’s club basketball scene has grown in recent seasons, with a number of clubs joining the AAU circuit, both on the boys’ and girls’ sides. Team Militant, a women’s club program, started just five years ago by Darius Harvey and has since become one of the largest programs on the West Coast, with teams in Bakersfield and Arizona.

Team Militant has been successful on the court in tournaments and helping a number of students get college scholarships — but it comes with a steep time commitment that might resemble what athletes face at the next level. There’s also a focus on balance to help avoid athletes getting burned out.

“It’s a nonstop grind,” Harvey said. “If they’re not practicing twice a week, maybe three times a week, the expectation is that they’re grinding on their own on the other four days. We do preach them being children. They gotta find balance at this young age. If you want to play at the next level, you got to dedicate to your craft. But they also gotta have balance. I think a lot of programs, or other programs, run into issues when they don’t allow these children to be children. And that’s what we preach to these kids. You put in the hard work, but also play hard.”

Brandon White is a founder of Rose City Ballers, a boys AAU team that’s been around for four years. The organization has six teams total with “elite” and “local” teams for kids under 17, under 16 and under 15. According to White, the entire 2021 class of seniors is enrolled in college and they’re planning the same for their younger teams. The elite team participates in the Under Armour Rise circuit, which includes playing in tournaments in Indianapolis, Kansas City and Atlanta.

“We really stress the development piece and our style of play,” White said. “We’ll nurture that and we try to get good kids, good parents, who don’t struggle with being held accountable and allow themselves to be coached. But we try to keep things pretty exclusive and you can’t just roll in and try to play for our program. We try to vet and screen all the kids as much as possible. But we’re a very close group, we do a lot of things together outside of hoops.”

White said the team draws players from all over Northern California which limits their practice time to the weekends to help players that drive from long distances. They have games two or three times a month.

Academics and clubs

Both Rose City Ballers and Team Militant monitor their players’ grades which are maintained in order for players to stay eligible. The financial commitments range yearly from $1,000 to $1,800, with installments that can be paid monthly. Sometimes, fundraisers are needed to help players with financial aid or help out with the tournament fees and travel.

One benefit prospective college athletes have is the phasing out of standardized testing that’s happened largely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sacramento State, and a number of other public colleges, have stopped heavily relying on SAT and ACT scores in the admissions process. Which means schools take a more holistic approach to evaluating applicants and future athletes.

“Right now, coming out of COVID, many schools around the country are trying to get their numbers back up, so they’re probably going to be a lot more flexible in terms of their ability to admit people even if they don’t meet 100% of their requirements they lay out (in admissions),” Edwards said. “

Edwards said Sacramento State, for example, uses a multi-factor admissions criteria that’s been emphasized since testing has been phased out including socioeconomic background, work experience, grades and courses taken. Put more simply, student athletes focusing on sports no longer need specific standardized test scores to get into college.

With so much time, money and effort involved in public sports, parents and their kids should go into the process with realistic expectations. Very few children are good enough at their sports to make the cost of club teams worthwhile by earning a college scholarship. But there are also cases where kids simply want to play because it gives them more time with their friends. Or even more simply, they enjoy it.

“Some parents are realistic to it,” said Edwards. “But they’re willing to invest in it because it was a great circle of parents, it was a neighborhood group, it was a Little League team who had a great coach and a great perspective who said, ‘Let’s just go play more baseball because these kids want to do it.’

“I also experienced club coaches that were out of control. I’ve witnessed parents that had assessments of their own sons or daughters that were probably a little bit more inflated than what was reality.”

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