The $70 billion travel sports industry (rich whites and Asians getting their kids into college)

Playing to Win, a short Michael Lewis book that is free to listen to for Audible subscribers, is a fascinating look into a strange corner of the U.S. economy: the $70 billion/year travel sports industry.

The primary motivation for kids’ travel sports is the parental desire for their children to get into elite colleges, which may reserve 25-33 percent of their spots for recruited athletes. (I.e., white privilege permeates America, but it is available only to whites with degrees from elite universities). The statistics that we see for selective university admissions lump together athletes and non-athletes. The chance of a white or Asian child getting into without an athletic coach’s recommendation is actually worse than the statistics suggest.

What does it cost? Lewis describes the typical athlete starting at age 11 or 12 and the parents spend $20,000 to $30,000 per year (plus a huge amount of time driving, flying, and spectating). In other words, at least $150,000 of which a small percentage might be recouped via an athletic scholarship. These costs mean that only one sport remains open to the half of Americans whose families are below the median income: football. This is because football is the only sport in which the good teams remain associated with public high schools. Travel sports is how upper-middle-class and rich whites/Asians compensate in a world where college admissions starts with a sort-by-skin-color and victimhood status.

Can individuals tap into this river of cash? Oh yes! The best is volleyball. Lewis describes a volleyball coach who organized a weekend tournament and made $1 million renting a convention center and filling it with nets. Sports for “girls” (however that term might be defined) are better than sports for athletes who identify as “boys” because the parents of the “girls” are less likely to allow the “girls” to travel unsupervised. At least one parent comes along with the athlete and books an additional hotel room then buys a ticket to the event. From the web site, a presumably typical document requiring participants to book their hotels through the event organizer:

(LeagueApps says that they have processed more than $1 billion in payments.)

Lewis’s own daughter gets into the liberal arts college of her choice after a softball coach watches her play. What is a stressful admissions process for her classmates is a brief conversation with the coach in the spring of her junior year of high school.


18 thoughts on “The $70 billion travel sports industry (rich whites and Asians getting their kids into college)

  1. I was thinking about writing on this subject, from first-hand experience in an uber-competitive suburban school district, where I learned from the high school counselor that about 2/3 of the parents hired a college advisor (like Rick Singer, but in theory not at that criminal level). So I was hearing parents complain about how expensive it was to spend a weekend in/near Orlando at some sports complex (and requisite hotel, airfare, etc.) so their children’s travel soccer team could compete. Then the Orlando sportsplex added basketball, so even more parents were making treks there. This was in addition to weekend early am drives to far flung destinations all over the Mid-Atlantic from their Bethesda, Maryland, home base. It turned out unless your kid is Division I caliber, which means in the top echelon of athletes, it doesn’t make a huge difference in admissions. Cuz if your kid is a Division II or III swimmer, it’s of no importance even to the Division II & III schools, as only the DI schools seem to make money off their sports programs. One of my kids was a DIII swimmer (200 yd and 500 yd freestyle, and 200 yd backstroke), but he didn’t start year-round competitive swimming until his junior year of high school. Unclear that he was DI material if he had begun the winter swimming at age 7 which became the norm around that time, about $4000/year in fees (this was 2007). Kid got into multiple Division I schools (where he was ineligible to swim except at club level), and was rejected by several Division III schools (granted, Caltech following waitlist status, then rejection a few weeks later once Caltech figured out yield among admitees, and MIT following deferral Dec 15).

    If the parents are genetically highly athletic, perhaps it’s more likely to yield the hoped-for results, in my view.

    A highly athletic family in my estimation with four girls I know: oldest recruited for sailing and rowing at Dartmouth College (ended up doing ski patrol and ski team as rowing was 4 am-ish, and Dartmouth no longer forced recruited athletes to play or to leave school as in the past), middle girls won various tennis tournaments and were recruited for that by Division I schools, but not admitted, and ended up at Division III schools (very happily at Middlebury and William & Mary); , the youngest an incredible basketball player (the Orlando trips, the Nashville trip which resulted in an injury to her father on a hotel door — SO not worth it) was admitted to William & Mary, Division III basketball, but deferred a year as she didn’t want to do freshman year cuz COVID fall term 2020. So she’ll begin fall 2021, God willing.

    Meantime, many studies show that kids who do sports learn competitve and teamwork skills which are critical to future success, in terms of perserverance and other factors. Many athletes go into financial and marketing fields, and excel supposedly in large part due to what they learned on the field in college.

    I do think the economic rate of return on these athletic endeavors is probably very low, as few of these kids end up attending a college based on their athletic prowess. But the few who do (cue the Dartmouth sailing & rowing recruit) tell their neighbors it made a huge difference???

    • > kids who do sports learn competitve … skills
      > Many athletes go into financial and marketing fields
      So kids who spent their entire conscious lives focused on a zero-sum competitive environment differentially thrive in extremely competitive zero-sum jobs. Hmmm.

      Perhaps this is a win for the parents but these jobs are among those known for creating negative societal value and we should all be critical of the result.

    • I wasn’t addressing the normative aspects. Supposedly one economist obtained data that top performing sales people and financiers tend to have been college or at least serious high school athletes. The Nashville trip to a basketball tournament was definitely not a highlight for the parents with the four daughters – as the father’s injury was similar to what Jimmy Fallon managed to do to his finger in his Hamptons kitchen (while wrangling two young children).

    • “Many athletes go into financial and marketing fields”

      Similarly, many cheerleaders go into pharmaceutical sales.

    • > Meantime, many studies show that kids who do sports learn competitve and teamwork skills which are critical to future success, in terms of perserverance and other factors. Many athletes go into financial and marketing fields, and excel supposedly in large part due to what they learned on the field in college.

      I agree with AnonZ. This is total bullshit. The reason why many athletes go into financial and marketing fields is that they are well-paid and most people are jock sniffers so they want to be around good athletes. Also, college athletes are in tremendous shape so it selects against fat people, which is the last acceptable prejudice.

      If finance wasn’t well paid, athletes wouldn’t bother going into the field. Unlike physical education and recreation studies, there is no inherent connection.

    • @Deplorable Prole: “Similarly, many cheerleaders go into pharmaceutical sales.”

      True. Met some of them in person in the outpatient psychiatry department of a big urban hospital. They’d show up with a big box of donuts, a few boxes of samples, and some incredible fashion to warm up the docs. Always a fun day when the pharma cheerleaders were around with their pom-poms.

    • @ScarletNumber: But, but: wasn’t childhood and adult obesity one of Michelle Obama’s most important causes? Was she fat-shaming people or just trying to help prevent them from dying early of diabetes (and now, COVID)?

      >Also, college athletes are in tremendous shape so it selects against fat people, which is the last acceptable prejudice.

      Yeah, but if they’re all dying of diabetes, isn’t it appropriate to select against them?

  2. The reason why elite kids shun football is of course concussion-induced chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Their parents don’t want them to become vegetables at 35.

    • @Fazal Majid:

      I have a close friend who is a physician in New Jersey now (in fact, he’s affiliated with the facility where Chris Christie was treated for COVID) and he was on the high school football team where we both spent some of our youth together. He was on the team for two seasons, and took some hits, but he wasn’t so worried about the impacts from the play on the field. He was more terrified of the hazing. This football team was fearsome and run by a guy who encouraged the hazing, which was more brutal than anything they did while they were playing. I’m not saying parents shouldn’t be concerned about concussions in high school football, but he told me point blank: “I love playing football, I love the team, but I can’t stand the football camp.” He was a defensive linebacker on the team, and a very good physician now. So I think (American) football can survive but they have to make some adjustments. The stuff that he told me went on at football camp is unrepeatable here, and it had no place in sports.

    • @Fazal Majid: I told him: “Jesus. We don’t do stuff like that on the rifle team. And we have real guns!”

  3. God invented equestrian sports so super-rich kids with no athleticism could get athletic scholarships too.

    • Neither Jennifer Gates (Stanford) nor Jessica Springsteen (Duke) needed their equestrian prowess to get into college. But for other applicants, sure.

  4. The Chinese Communist Party evidently wants to build an army of people who are so physically fit they can’t even find Olympic athletes who meet their standards. Meanwhile us Yankees are sitting there worrying whether we hurt someone’s feelings because they eat four Big Macs a day. Good luck in ten years when they take our cities by force, fat guy.

  5. I have a brother that took his son across the country to play hockey. My nephew outgrew the local competition in SoCal and then played a season in Colorado (my sister-in-law went too, they rented an apartment). After that my brother bought a house in Minnesota where my nephew joined one of the best teams in the state. My brother and sister-in-law traded off on spending time with their son while he was in school (2 years) It didn’t work out so well. The nephew didn’t make the varsity his senior year and played on some non-affiliated travelling team. He’s pretty good, just not Minnesota good for hockey. He graduated from HS last spring (Covid grads were screwed pretty good). The house has been sold. He was to play Junior hockey in the Boston area this year, but you can imagine how messed up that is with the ‘Rona.

    My brother has been very successful. I believe he attributes a good deal of his success to his playing hockey back in the day. (My brother and I still play a little bit. He’s way way better than me.) I believe he is trying to get that to rub off on his son.

    My sister has a daughter that plays hockey. She is a sophomore in HS. She would be playing her 3rd season of varsity hockey this year but for the Covid nonsense. I think she has a good chance at a college scholarship. But the environment is very competitive. My sister and family travel all over to for the hockey. The BIL was a college hockey player.

    Friends here in the Dallas area did the volleyball thing with their 2 daughters. Jackpot! Both got scholarships. The older one parleyed the 5th year of eligibility into a master’s degree. The second one, BIG JACKPOT, is at Princeton. They live in the ‘burbs and spent thousands and thousands on volleyball travel.

    We stayed in the city and spent thousands and thousand on private school tuition. It paid off for us in huge discounts (scholarships) on college tuition. We didn’t have to travel to anything other than what we wanted. I think we had better vacations.

    The sports thing is an encompassing culture. I know my sister and brother-in-law enjoy the whole scene. There is always a bar next to the rink and they have “safety” meetings there during the tournament. My friends in volleyball had the same sort of social life on their tournament trips. Neither couple has any regrets about the money, but then they had fun and success at what it’s all about. It will be interesting to talk with my brother about the whole thing in a few years. He hasn’t developed any perspective yet.

  6. Back in my misspent youth, I devoted three years as a member of my high school’s varsity rifle team. At the time, we were one of approximately 15 high schools in New Jersey that fielded a team, and I was a member from my sophomore to senior years, and Captain of the team the last year. We were undefeated — never lost a match among our peers. Our coach was a fantastic man who also taught graphic arts, and held several international long-distance shooting records. The team was comprised of more than 20 kids each year; we shot competition .22 bolt-action rifles made by Winchester and, later, Anschütz. In my Junior year, I was NJ State Champion in three-position shooting among our competitors. Our team were also National Postal Match champions that year. Best in the USA.

    It was an absolutely fantastic experience on every level. Safety and responsibility came first, and everybody understood the seriousness not just talking about safety but practicing it collectively, in a mutually-supportive way. Each year, we had at least 5 or 6 women on the team, and they were all treated as equals with the men, and indeed were kind of our “secret weapon” – especially against teams that didn’t encourage women to participate.

    There aren’t very many college or University teams that offer scholarships to outstanding shooters, but there are a few, from what I remember. The idea of getting one wasn’t ever part of my rationale for being on the team. It was the people! We had a true cross-section of the student body – from kids who were going to be auto mechanics to lawyers, doctors, even a politician! Many of us are still very good friends to this day.

    Several times a week, we would load our guns and gear onto a bright yellow school bus, right out in front of the high school, which was patrolled by the police department in our town. Everyone knew us, and what we were doing. We were NJ State Champions (IIRC) 7 years in row!

    After Columbine, a lot of high schools pulled the plug on their shooting teams and that was a real shame, in my mind. Our team was less dangerous in terms of injuries and other liabilities than the Cross-Country team. I think the worst injury we had during my entire experience was a sprained ankle that happened when one of our guys came out of kneeling position with a leg that had “fallen asleep” and twisted his ankle in the resulting stumble. Shooting competitively at that level was a thrill and a real challenge, and the experience of being on that team, particularly with all the friends I made, was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

    More high schools should encourage it. During the tryouts every year, we’d get people who showed up because they were curious about guns but had never touched one, fired one, or taken responsibility for handling one safely. It was important not just to the team but also the guidance staff at the high school to know who was coming to the rifle team tryouts, particularly if they seemed to have some ulterior motive for wanting to shoot, and indeed we had a handful of people who didn’t make the team but needed some extra support in their lives. I think a lot of high schools handle that curiosity the wrong way because they have no such alternatives for people who are curious about firearms.

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