Inflation has tilted the playing field for many in life, but the ripple effect is also felt on the actual field.
Having kids in youth sports is a way of life for so many families in Aurora and around the country, which makes the consistent rise in prices for things such as eggs, gas, utilities and everyday staples put extra strain on budgets.
A youth sports industry that generated around $20 billion nationwide prior to the coronavirus pandemic according to a survey cited in a recent story by the Associated Press is at stake, as with everything else coming at greater expense, it has forced real examination of its value — and practicality — to those involved.
Real economic decisions must be made, but many families find so much value in athletics and competition that they would only get out of it as a last resort.
For some, sports is what the family revolves around and enjoys most, while for others, it is the life lessons, work ethic or the ancillary benefits of being part of a team and learning how to handle success and failure that make it a crucial part of development.
And for still others, it is something that is vital in keeping their children away from the snares of idle time that catch many young people.
The motivations and paths for each family are all different and the formula has many variables, which make the monetary threshold for each family — as long as they have the resources — adjustable.
Sometimes the goalposts must be moved.
The older generation never had to pay so much for sports — nor did so many opportunities exist previously — so it gives them pause when they get the bills for what it could cost these days. Many will do whatever they must.
“I had a very modest childhood compared to what kids have these days and it’s just astronomical how much these experiences can be,” said Pam Dailey, whose daughter, Paige, is a senior on the girls swim team at Aurora’s Grandview High School and has earned a Division I scholarship in her sport.
“But when your kid is living their dream, you find a way to do it,” she added.
So many things add up quickly
According to a recent story from the Associated Press, in a study conducted before inflation entered the equation in the past year, American families on average spent around $700 per year for their kids’ sports.
The majority of those things were for equipment as well as travel related to those respective sports.
Those numbers have been blown out of the water currently, however, as the annual inflation rate for the 12 months ending last September was 8.2%
“Costs of uniforms and equipment, along with facility rental, are shooting up — all products of the onslaught of supply-chain issues, hard-to-find staff, lack of coaches and rising gas and travel costs that were exacerbated, or sometimes caused, by the COVID-19 pandemic that disrupted and sometimes canceled seasons altogether,” the AP wrote.
The story also quoted a study published by The Aspen Institute — an organization that issues an annual State of Play analysis of national trends in youth sports for children ages 6-18 — that said on average across all sports, parents spent more on travel (an average of $196 per child, per sport) than any other facet of sports. With the prices of airline tickets and hotel rooms skyrocketing, those numbers have likely grown as the calendar flipped to 2023.
Not every family has a child or children who travel for athletics, but it is a very real part of the equation for many and often can force tough decisions. Also in play in the overall picture is specialized equipment (some of which has to be custom made for individual athletes), personal coaching, fitness training, team or club fees and the cost of potential injury, especially for the uninsured.
All those things add to a bottom line that is already hefty in terms of providing basic needs for kids and teenagers. And there is certainly no guarantee that the hard work and expense will pay off in a scholarship or anything more than just activity and life lessons. Yet that still makes it worthwhile for many.
Here are the stories of some families of youth and prep athletes from Aurora and how they have handled the ever-changing costs of their respective sports:
It can start young
Most parents try to be discerning and pick the right time to invest when their children show a dedication to a sport that goes beyond fun.
Sometimes it comes early, like for the Clark family, whose daughter, Haylee, is a member of the girls varsity golf team at Cherokee Trail High School.
“When she was nine, Haylee made the U.S. Kids World Championship Tournament at Pinehurst, so we knew she was pretty good,” her mom, Silka, said.
Athletics have played a major role in the family, as Silka’s husband Chris, a graduate of Aurora’s Gateway High School, played at various levels of minor league baseball for more than a decade. An older son played football at Cherokee Trail and a younger one has just entered the expensive world of youth hockey.
Haylee, meanwhile, started hitting balls at the range when she was three and began to compete at six after she had tried other sports. The Clarks began to pay for travel tournaments — though most of her play is in Colorado, the entry fees are around $150 for a one-day tournament and nearly $300 for two.
Then, there is equipment, which in golf can be a prohibitive cost. Kids are especially challenging given that growth requires different clubs and for Haylee, some must be custom made as she is left-handed.
Silka estimates Haylee has “like $2,000 worth of clubs in her bag right now,” but she is thankful that her daughter’s growth has slowed and the clubs have lasted two years. Once in high school, the family paid the Cherry Creek Schools’ $90 athletic participation fee plus about $500 for the season (which included her bag, uniform and greens fees for a variety of tournaments). Haylee made the varsity team and helped the Cougars qualify for the Class 5A state tournament in 2022.
Despite all that they have doled out, Silka estimates her family is still “in the lower middle class range as far as golf goes. Most of the kids she went to worlds with have private swing coaches and they are home schooled so they can play more. We don’t live on a golf course, either.”
While her husband is hopeful that Haylee will get a scholarship offer to play in college, Silka is focused on the other benefits.
“Right now, she wants to play and as long as she wants to play, we’ll keep supporting her,” Silka said. “I do think she’s good enough to play in college at some level, but there may be a different path for her. …The nice thing is she can play golf until she’s 90.”
Ice, ice family
Denise and Ron Balatbat enjoyed going to hockey games when they were dating and when they eventually got married and had a family, they thought it might be something their kids would enjoy.
Little did they know.
The Balatbats now have five boys and all of them have been on the ice at one time or another. The three oldest have been members of the varsity team at Regis Jesuit High School — including current senior Cameron — while the two youngest have since turned to basketball.
It began with inline hockey for their older boys and once it reached the ice, the Balatbats became well acquainted with the costs associated with one of the most expensive sports for kids to play. So far, the price hasn’t been too great to keep the family involved.
“Hockey is such a great sport,” Denise said. “It has just always been something our family does. It’s our bonding time.”
The reason for the expense in hockey is severalfold, beginning with the scarcity of the playing surface. No school has its own ice rink, so getting time to practice and play requires the use of public facilities, which don’t come cheap and sometimes require inflexible hours of use. Fortunately, it is a team sport, so the cost is shared.
The cost to play club hockey can run between $2,000-$3,000 and can go up significantly at the higher levels, as more ice time is required for practice and teams travel more as they seek top competition in other states.
And then, there’s equipment.
In high school, players typically receive only a uniform from their programs. After that: a quality pair of ice skates can run $800 or more, a lot of pads are required and sticks — which have evolved in terms of engineering and composition over the years to get tougher — usually range between $200-$300. And they break way more often than anybody, especially those paying to replace them, would like.
“It hurts (when you hear a stick break),” Ron said. “I’ve told our kids you don’t have buy the most expensive sticks. A couple of our sons had expensive sticks and weren’t performing, so they used their backup sticks and then they were. I think it might be psychological. Like the kids think ‘I need the Alex Ovechkin stick,’ but they really don’t.”
In America, hockey is also different from many sports in that a college scholarship is very, very rare.
Some of the most talented players can go on to play at the junior level in Canada, but for the majority, the last time they hang up their skates for club or high school team is the last time they compete on the ice other than maybe an adult rec league.
The end of Cameron’s season — which is currently ongoing as he is part of a Regis Jesuit team that is ranked No. 3 in the state — is likely to be the swan song for the family on the ice, but it has done so much for them.
“It has helped build their character for sure and it is big on life lessons,” Denise said. “They learn a lot of discipline and a lot of grit. They have to put in hard work at school to play on the team, so it is a motivation to do well at school and do well at home.”
The Balatbats have discovered that AAU basketball is also costly, but courts are much more plentiful than ice and shoes are decidedly less expensive than skates, even at the top end. And there are no sticks to break.
Diamond dreams can come at a ‘luxury’ price
Luis Martinez enjoyed watching his daughter, Jaelyn, dance at a high level as a child.
Clearly talented from a young age, she danced at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and traveled across the country many times for competition in what Martinez called a “gauntlet,” both in terms of price, demand and commitment.
At the age of 11, Jaelyn tried summer softball — something near and dear to Luis’ heart as a longtime player, coach and instructor — and she fell in love. She traded in the dance shoes for cleats and eventually told her dad that her dream was to play the sport in college.
As owner of 5280Fastpitch — which offers individual instruction — as well as an assistant coach with the Colorado Batbusters Brown 14A competitive team, Luis knew exactly the costly path that would require, but he was willing to help her travel along it.
“When a kid says they want to go to college and play the game, it’s like OK, here’s what you have to do,” Luis said. “You start looking at high level hitting coaches and strength and conditioning. Then they need to make their high school varsity team and play that season and competitive seasons, where you incur a lot of travel expenses.
“Pricing is definitely starting to play a role and high level softball really is a luxury sport.”
Part of that reason is because softball is a sport that is played on a team level, but requires a lot of work on individual skills outside the team to compete at a high level.
Working against Colorado softball players is the weather, which limits the playing window to 7-8 months, as it does with several other outdoor sports. While softball players in places such as California, Florida and Texas can play year round, Colorado players often have to head to warmer places to play.
Competitive softball teams typically run between $2,000 and $3,500 per season to join, which comes after players make it through tryouts. Teams on the lower end of the cost spectrum typically play most tournaments around Colorado, while the higher end teams go elsewhere, which also may require even more of an outlay for travel expenses. Bats, gloves and cleats all cost in the hundreds for quality on top of that.
Jaelyn went through the grind of club softball and also played four years on the varsity team at Cherokee Trail, which was very successful in her career. At the end of it all — with help from the support of her blended family — she earned a scholarship to play at Chadron State, a quality Division II program located in Nebraska.
For Luis, the cost of helping her get there was never in question. He grew up poor in Commerce City and the benefit of sports became deeply ingrained in him when considered against the alternative.
“Sports saved my life, that’s why I am such an advocate of it now,” he said. “Kids that have materialistic problems, they don’t need to turn to sports. But kids from Commerce City, where I grew, it was sports or you were going to get in trouble. There are so many ways they help you to grow up.”
By land and by water
Pam Dailey has had vastly different athletic experiences with her daughters, Peyton and Paige, who both have gone through Grandview High School.
But the family is all about commitment. The girls were allowed to try different things growing up, but if they started them, they had to finish them.
So with that basic guideline, Pam didn’t mind spending the necessary money when Peyton got heavily into cross country and Paige became fully dedicated to swimming.
“It is all about commitment, when they are so serious about that and gaining self confidence and drive from their achievements, that’s when you support them most, especially when they are committed to doing more to improve and get better,” Pam said.
Pam said the family was surprised when Peyton reached high school at the costs associated with participation. The Cherry Creek Schools’ $90 athletic fee doesn’t cover much, so there were extra expenses for quality equipment and training gear for her for three years.
When Paige got into swimming (which came after her interest got peaked by watching a club practice of the Colorado Stars, whose successful alums include Olympic goal medalist Missy Franklin) the costs of joining a club also included two or three travel trips — a surprise to Pam, who said she didn’t get on an airplane for the first time until she was 23 — but still didn’t deter the family.
To save costs, Pam worked the internet for the savings on quality gear (including tech suits, which can cost as much as $800 and generally need to replaced every year) and travel when necessary and Paige has done her part by making sacrifices in other areas of her life so as not to strain the family budget any further.
“I had a German grandmother, so I’m frugal and I am of the mind that you don’t waste anything,” Dailey said.
Paige has made the most of her own sacrifices and those of her family, as she earned a scholarship to swim at Division I UC-Davis, which received her verbal commitment over the summer. Before she gets there, Paige will try to help her team shoot for a top-five finish at the Class 5A girls swimming state meet in February and will make a run at a state championship in her specialty stroke, the 100 yard breaststroke.
The goal on the pitch
For many families, the idea of their child or children earning a scholarship to play in college and have their secondary education paid for is tantalizing.
Those opportunities are certainly possible, as Aurora has significant numbers of prep athletes who sign National Letters of Intent with schools ranging in size from massive Division I programs all the way down to some in NAIA, the smallest level of competition.
The chase for a scholarship is the motivation for some, but Will Cropper, Regis Jesuit’s longtime girls soccer coach and a teacher at the private high school, believes that families might actually sink more money into the pursuit of that hope than they might actually realize.
“The ironic thing is that if you put that money into a bank account instead of spending $1,000 every weekend for training or travel, kids could go to just about any college they want,” Cropper said. “For the lower end college tuitions, that could 100 percent be true. I’ve known players that have gone to a number of development camps and the cost of all those could rival some college tuitions.”
Cropper is facing his own cost realization with two young sons currently playing youth soccer.
His oldest son, Brody, is 11 and has been invited to play up an age group, which has brought with it the invitational to play in a variety of out-of-state tournaments. Each of those must be paid for individually — like a recent trip to Las Vegas — while next year, his club expenses are likely to hit the $5,000 mark, which includes a portion for coaching and training and a portion to go towards travel.
Cropper’s other son is two years younger and could be on the same track, setting the family up for a costly future if they both continue to play.
Cropper and his wife are having conversations about budget regularly, but for right now, they have made it work. Cropper said he has also entertained the idea of getting a summer job to help supplement the costs of athletics and he is happy to do so.
“As long as it is still checking the right boxes, I’m in,” he said. “I think sports is an important part of their development in many ways.
“If you find the right coaches, team and people for your kids to be around, it will help them find the best versions of themselves.”
Choosing to keep things reasonable
Cheri McElhiney has two boys under the age of 18 in her house who are heavily involved in athletics, but has been fortunate with both when it comes to cost.
Her older son, Kaiden, grew up in football, rugby and wrestling, but has zeroed in on football as he has gotten older. He just finished his junior season on the Smoky Hill High School football team, during which was selected as the All-Centennial League first team punter and also played a variety of other roles for the Buffaloes.
Many expensive camps and trainings were suggested to the family, but many were geared towards quarterbacks and didn’t seem to be worth it.
“We stayed with his teams and if they did extra workouts or camps, he would do those,” she said. “There are a lot of expensive camps out there with big names associated with them, but we didn’t see the benefit.”
Unlike any other sports, football can be lower cost to play at the high school level in large part because of the presence of parent-run booster clubs, which work to secure corporate sponsorships and put on events to help supplement the budget set aside by their respective schools for things such as equipment.
Cheri is the booster club president for the Smoky Hill football team and has been part of the program’s effective fundraising efforts over the years. Though Smoky Hill doesn’t have a massive booster club like some other bigger schools locally, it has been able to find ways to help provide needed equipment (such as the recent acquisition of 50 new helmets, which cost around $150 apiece) and set up opportunities for players to earn funding for things such as a trip to the team took to Florida in the 2021-22 season.
“In high school, we are really are buying just a mouth guard unless we want something else,” Cheri said.
Cheri’s younger son also plays rugby (which has minimal cost) and is very interested in wrestling, which requires just shoes, headgear and participation fees.
The value of athletics to the future success of her boys — plus its immediate benefits — definitely makes any investment worthwhile.
“They are staying busy, staying fit and learning how to interact with people they may not like,” Cheri said. “They are also learning skills like starting something and finishing it. Not quitting unless it is because of health.”
Two different worlds
Both of Pam Dale’s daughters — Zoey and Grace — played soccer growing up, but eventually both left it for sports that were on two different ends of the spectrum.
Before they reached Regis Jesuit High School, the girls attended Graland Country Day School, where they had a chance to explore a wide variety of sports. Zoey ended up developing a love for field hockey, while Grace fell for swimming and both experienced a lot of success at Regis Jesuit.
Field hockey has become one of the staples of Regis Jesuit’s athletic program and Zoey played three season and won a state championship with the team in 2018 and helped it back to the final (as she scored the game-winning goal in the semifinals in double overtime) as a senior in 2019.
Grace (who dedicated herself to swimming at the age of six and swam with the University of Denver Hilltoppers) joined Regis Jesuit’s elite girls swim team, which counts Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin and a slew of Division I swimmers among its alums. She had four outstanding varsity seasons, capping her career in the 2021-22 season with multiple NISCA All-American performances.
“It was all about what they were happy doing and we’ll see where it takes you,” Pam said of the different paths. “I feel like there is so much pressure on kids of these age, so we tried to take it off.”
Grace ended up on a path of more than a decade of sacrifice that included giving up trips to the mountains to ski on weekends in lieu of swimming in high level club meets. There were club participation costs, travel bills for trips which began in earnest when she reached eighth grade and started achieving times required to swim at increasingly more elite meets, plus outlay for tech suits (which can cost several hundreds of dollars).
It all paid off in a Division I scholarship at Tulane University, but it hasn’t easy for Grace. Her Tulane coach that recruited her quit just a few days after the team’s first meeting and the life of a DI athlete is really “like a full time job” according to Pam as competition and training demands as well as high standards in the classroom put a lot on athletes.
Zoey (who is now a student at Cal Polytechnic State University) did a variety of field hockey camps each year, played all of her club and high school games in Colorado and really only incurred expensive for equipment. Quality field hockey sticks run $150 and up, while shinguards and face protection are really the only other things needed.
Pam Dale is proud of both of the different paths of her daughters and like many others, looks as much at the importance sports served in their developments over the cost.
“Determination and commitment is something they will have for a long time,” she said.
Affordable options exist in Aurora
While some families can and will pursue the most competitive options for their children, The City of Aurora has some outstanding options for those looking to get their kids involved in new things or just to stay active in a way that won’t break the bank.
The city has a slew of opportunities for kids ages 3 to 18 in all seasons that range from t-ball/baseball/softball to basketball to soccer to tennis & racquet sports, track & field and volleyball that are all recreational in nature as opposed to competitive.
It’s a chance to explore a sport or multiple sports at a low cost and Todd Steinkamp, the city’s Sports Supervisor, said many families have their kids in Aurora rec leagues until they are 10 or 11 and then go seek more competitive alternatives if they so choose.
“We believe in equal playing time for all kids and we keep score in our games, but our end all philosophy is for the kids to have fun,” said Steinkamp, who has been with the city for 25 years and is one of its three full-time sports programmers.
“Wins and losses are not a priority, so our goal is that kids want to come back and play sports again, whether it is with us or elsewhere,” he added.
Some families also stay with the Aurora programs specifically because of the financial advantages. The cost to play in a city rec league ranges from $62 to $170 depending on the length of the season. That figure — which Steinkamp said ranks among the most low-cost in the metro area — takes care of securing officials (which is an escalating expense) and helping to replenish supplies for equipment, which athletes also have access to if they don’t their own.
The City of Aurora programs can keep fees down chiefly because of several things, including the use of volunteer coaches (who have to pass background checks and get training like all other coaches) as well as unique advantage in terms of facilities.
The youth programs can not only use city facilities such as the Aurora Sports Park and various other multi-use fields around the city, but they have arrangements with Aurora Public Schools and Cherry Creek Schools to use their gymnasiums and indoor facilities as well.
“We have a huge inventory of our own fields as well as great partnerships with the school districts, which not many places have,” Steinkamp said.
Best of all, Steinkamp said that families can apply for the city’s financial assistance program, which can lower fees based on household income — though he said that is a very small percentage of those enrolled currently — while there are also community partners who fund scholarships for kids in summer sports camps, which Steinkamp said have grown “dramatically” in registration in the last two years.
Amazing. What a complete waste of hard earned money.