Richie Prunesti only has one regret.
He wanted to play college or professional hockey. While classmates were collecting lifelong memories, he spent weeknights practicing in Long Island or New Jersey and weekends playing all over the country.
His entire family made sacrifices to keep the former New Rochelle standout on skates.
“Most hockey parents, they’re comfortable,” Prunesti said. “I know, in my family, hockey definitely put us a little behind. We would do things differently so, if we had a tournament on Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Chicago, a lot of the kids would fly out Friday morning. The rest of us would leave late on Thursday, drive all night, get out of the car Friday morning and play. I was asleep in the back so it wasn’t a big deal, but my dad had to stay up all night to save money. We’d drive home and he’d maybe have $40 left in his wallet to last until the next Friday. … He enjoyed it as much as I did. To him, it was always worth it.”
That commitment is hardly unique in the rapidly expanding universe of youth sports. There was a time when club and travel teams were reserved for the select few standouts competing for college scholarships. Now, any parent with a checkbook can get a kid in the game. The difference, according to interviews with high school coaches, athletic directors, academics, parents and young athletes, is outside competition and specialized training have become almost commonplace for students who want to play varsity sports in high school.
“It used to be playing in high school was something relatively accessible to everyone,” said Karl Erickson, a faculty member at the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University. “A small number who had aspirations beyond that would go outside to club and travel. For many people, that could be a great experience.
“Now there has been this shift to where the club and travel teams, which tend to be more expensive and year-round time intensive at times, are becoming par for the course or mandatory just to take part in a high school sport,” Erickson said. “Now, you’re either all-in, full-bore, year-round, or you’re not even in the system.”
Parents spend thousands of dollars a year to place their kids in club or travel programs, hundreds or even thousands each season on new equipment, and often hundreds per hour on private lessons or coaching.
The time commitment can be equally burdensome. Now, more than ever, kids spend more time year-round on athletics in hopes of being able to play next season, be it in high school or college.
It’s not unheard of for a high-level high school athlete to spend as much as $20,000 a year on team fees, equipment, travel, private coaching and personal training.
“Back when I started, they had leather helmets almost,” said North Rockland Athletic Director Joe Casarella, who has worked in high school athletics for 50 years. “Kids played everything. They enjoyed themselves. Now they’ve been cheated out of their childhood a little bit as you move on 50 years later. Young kids are put on travel teams when they’re 7 or 8 years old and they specialize in whatever sport it may be.”
Prunesti, 23, fell in love with hockey in the second grade. His dad was a baseball guy, but was soon all in with hockey. There were only a couple of years when Prunesti wasn’t on two teams. He always made a point of suiting up with classmates for New Rochelle games. The atmosphere with friends in the stands making noise was a reward and Prunesti went on to become The Journal News/lohud Player of the Year in 2011. The real work, though, was done on the region’s top club teams.
Homework got tossed into the back seat on rides to practice and play with the New Jersey Avalanche or New York Applecore. It’s a lifestyle that requires an intense commitment, one that most star athletes know well.
“That’s where you had to go in order to get real competition,” Prunesti said.
So he kept grinding, but two years after high school, the passion evaporated.
“I was in Michigan for an NAHL tryout. I was missing my friends. I was tired. I was looking for a chance to relax. I quit,” said Prunesti, who is now working for the city of New Rochelle. “That might have been the biggest mistake I ever made. Looking back on it now, I would give anything to get back in.”
The supremely dedicated athlete is asked to push nonstop.
“I go to school, I come home, I practice,” said Kyra Cox, a junior at John Jay High School, who ranks among the country’s top junior golfers. “I practice in the morning. I practice at night. Golf is my whole life. It’s amazing how much work has to go into this.”
“I’ve seen the gamut,” Carmel Athletic Director Susan Dullea said. “Students that are just trying to make the team. Average students who are just trying to get better, maybe get on the court more. And then we have that child who maybe is specializing and just loves the sport so much that they would do anything to keep playing.”
A lucrative industry
It’s difficult to quantify the size and scope of what is a loosely regulated industry, but leading experts agree that more than 25 million kids between the ages of 6-17 participated in an organized team sport in 2015. Insiders estimate club and travel programs generate nearly $9 billion in yearly revenue.
And even after a heavy investment in money, time and private lessons, there are no guarantees.
Fingers point in all directions whenever this topic is raised. It’s a volatile discussion because parents, athletes, high school coaches and administrators, private coaches and trainers all have separate agendas.
“Most (high) schools have moved away from a model that is organized around the principle of providing sport opportunities for all kids,” said Tom Farrey, who leads the Sports and Society Program at the Aspen Institute. “That means shutting down intramurals, getting rid of freshman teams, limiting junior varsity teams, cutting back on PE. They are generally moving toward a model that serves the best athletes in the school or the best-trained athletes in the school.”
Colleges do offer scholarship money to a limited number of elite athletes, primarily at the Division I and II levels. Parents do want the best for their kids, and if they’re able to mention at a dinner party that their child is going to Georgetown to play lacrosse, all the better.
“The amount of money offered in NCAA athletic scholarships has grown by a factor of five or six,” said Farrey, who wrote “Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children.” “In the early 1990s, when you started to see the travel team environment really take off, the schools were only handing out about $250 million a year in athletic aid. Now it’s at least $2.7 billion.”
The coach vs. the private instructor
That chase can lead to trouble for high schools, their coaches and administrators who, in theory, pick teams and distribute playing time to the most deserving athletes. Their opinions don’t always jibe with parents and their sons and daughters, who have to sort through varying opinions not always rooted in truth.
“I’ll make the argument loud and clear that there’s a disconnect, that the AAU coach, that elite coach, is telling that kid all the things they want to hear because the parents are paying and you want to keep that money coming in,” Yorktown Athletic Director Fio Nardone said. “They say, ‘He’s getting better. He needs to keep working on this.’ And he keeps coming, the family keeps coming, and then, when it comes back to the reality of the high school season, (he) goes back and is playing for our team and (he) isn’t really doing well compared to the other 12 kids on the basketball team and isn’t going to play as much as he thinks because the AAU coach told him he should be starting. And they start a controversy with our high school coaches. It happens all the time.”
The conflict might be unavoidable. Athletes and their parents have turned to competition outside the school district because that’s where the vast majority of college recruitment takes place, even for Division II and III programs.
Many athletes consider activity outside their high school program essential. They believe it will further their individual development and their ability to thrive for the varsity and for the club teams that most often fuels their college recruitment.
“I play club and there are a lot of kids there being recruited,” said John Hufnagel, a sophomore who started on Iona Prep’s lacrosse team as a freshman. “If I wasn’t doing this, I’d be far behind those kids. Doing this keeps me up to speed with them. The other kids I’m going against are working 10 times as hard. I have to keep that in my mind so I know that I have to work 10 times harder than them.”
That is a common theme.
“You have to be there, playing all the time,” said Tatiana Cruz, a junior on the Suffern girls soccer team who’s played club with World Class FC and Players Development Academy. “It’s really demanding. Without travel and the high-level experience, I don’t think you’d be able to play in college because it’s very demanding and it’s very different so you have to be ready.”
Exploding business of travel and club teams
Statewide, 37,394 boys and 33,866 girls play at the high school level in Section 1, which includes public schools in Westchester, Putnam and Rockland counties, and parts of Dutchess. Statewide, the number of participants at NYS Public High School Athletic Association teams is 575,903.
According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, participation in team sports is down 4 percent since 2009, but the demand for spots on travel rosters is climbing.
Just ask Nick Daniello.
He had nearly 500 boys lacrosse players show up for tryouts late last month, all them hell bent on getting one of the 185 spots available on seven Prime Time squads. It probably had something to do with the fact that 19 players on the organization’s premiere teams graduated and joined Division I teams.
The gauntlet can easily determine a kid’s future.
“I think all of them have to play some kind of competitive travel lacrosse, whether it’s for me or somebody else,” said Daniello, who played at John Jay and is an assistant coach on the school’s varsity team. “It’s really important if you play for a traditional high school power. The days of picking up a stick in the spring and playing like a star are over. The talent I’m seeing at the younger ages is really good. We cut really good players. It’s gotten that competitive.”
Regardless of the sport, parents get used to writing checks right from the start of this process.
Defending the high cost of this world are entrepreneurs and coaches like Anthony Yacco.
“It requires a lot of money to run the organization,” said Yacco, a former minor league baseball prospect from Putnam County who now runs 4D Sports Performance Center in Mahopac. “You pay for professional baseball coaches, a nutritionist, a speed and strength coach, uniforms, league fees, insurance, administration fees. It’s a costly operation and parents are willing to foot the bill.”
Many clients will even pay for weekly individual pitching or hitting lessons at $100 a pop.
Not every club team has a strength and conditioning program, which provided another niche for industrious personal trainers.
“When we first got into the market, we felt like we really had to educate people on what they needed to do and who we are and what we could do to help someone,” said Brian Fee, the owner of Velocity Sports Performance in Elmsford. “Now, people are starting to seek us out. They know that, if they want to make the travel A-team, they have to start doing something to get to where they want to get to.”
“They know that if they want to make the travel A-team, they have to start doing something to get to where they want to get to.”
— Brian Fee, owner of Velocity Sports Performance in Elmsford
And no matter where a kid plays, parents have to pay for a lot of equipment. A top-shelf bat runs $450. A quality lacrosse helmet is $280. A pair of durable hockey skates go for $550. Those items are often quickly outgrown and have to be replaced.
“The interesting thing about this space is it’s going to get corporatized over the next few years,” Farrey said. “Right now it’s largely dominated by mom and pops. You’re now going to see a number of large players get into the space. Equity firms and media companies are waking up to the huge market that is youth sports and developing products that are going to meet the demand of this market better than it has been met in the past.”
It’s a significant investment, a risky investment, and it rarely pays off in the end.
“The coach says he improves. The coach says he gets better. But when you’re paying a guy $2,000 a season, it’s going to be hard for him to criticize you or you’re not going to come back.”
— Joe Casarella, North Rockland athletic director
“They get pitching coaches or goalie coaches or shooting coaches who get paid a lot of money. It’s become a big-time money maker for other people,” said North Rockland’s Casarella. “The coach says he improves. The coach says he gets better. But when you’re paying a guy $2,000 a season, it’s going to be hard for him to criticize you or you’re not going to come back.”
Specialization at an early age?
The path encourages specialization. A majority of the endangered three-sport athletes compete at high schools with fewer than 500 students. Those who play at larger schools, especially traditional powers like Mount Vernon basketball, Lakeland field hockey or Yorktown lacrosse, almost have to join the parade of club athletes in order to keep up.
“I’ve seen the older kids and their drive. I see what it takes to be a state champion, what you need to do in practice to be successful,” said Kelsey McCrudden, a junior on Lakeland field hockey, which has won seven straight state titles. “Every year, I was one of the younger kids and the older kids would take me out to the turf and teach me new tricks. It just kind of builds from there. That just keeps getting passed down in the program.”
Even in programs with a far less competitive culture, athletes have begun to strive for more. Josh Schultz, a recent graduate of Irvington High School, played his way onto the team at Western New England. Schultz had spent the last three years playing club lacrosse, but he started a strength and speed training program at Velocity this year to better prepare for college.
“It’s definitely so competitive and it almost makes you nervous that you have to prepare that much more to be as good as everyone else,” Schultz said in June. “I definitely see myself getting faster and stronger in ways I didn’t even know.”
Just a few weeks later into the summer, Schultz was even more convinced.
“I’ve lost a couple of pounds. I’ve gotten faster. I’ve worked on the technique of lifting,” he said. “Now I’m going (to college) knowing I’ll be ahead of the game.”
Schools aren’t likely to reverse direction and revamp a system that caters to the best athletes in each district. None of them have the money to expand current programs, much less restore teams cut when the recession put austerity budgets into play.
So, like any marketplace driven by supply and demand, the caveat is obvious: buyer beware.
“If you want your kid to get involved in sports and you’re going to pay whatever it takes,” Nardone said, “and you’re going to pay that all the way through high school; if you keep track of all that money — and I mean everything, from the cost of playing to the travel, to the food, to everything else involved with that journey — from 5 year old to 18 year old, if you look at that figure, you’re going to be astonished at how high it is. If you could put that same money away — do it both, if you’re in that perfect world financially — it’d be incredible how much you could pay for that college education. I think it’s be astonishing because the number is off the charts.”
ABOUT THE PROJECT: Journal News/lohud sports writers Josh Thomson and Mike Dougherty, along with photojournalist John Meore, fanned out this past spring and summer to investigate the growing world of youth sports in the Lower Hudson Valley for this series, Pay to Play.