SportsProf

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Travel Versus Rec League, Part I

Last spring, one of our local rec leagues played their final game before about 200 people. Family, friends, assorted locals. It was a well-played affair, with one team winning 4-2. All of the kids live in our township. Hence the turnout and the good community atmosphere.

Believe it or not, though, a large majority of the softball games played on our local fields involve very few kids from the town. They're travel tournaments, and most of the kids on the travel teams come from other towns, sometimes as far as an hour or two away. Mind you, the fields aren't in constant use, but the travel teams have dibs on them over the local rec league, and the travel kids get the lion's share of the use of the pitching machines.

It gets a little more complicated because while the town owns the fields, the local association (whose by-laws say that the teams are for the kids who live in our "district", whose boundaries don't extend that far beyond our town) owns the machines and maintains -- to some degree -- the fields.

Needless to say, there is a travel versus rec debate, and it gets hotter as the local association lobbies the town for more fields and more facilities. Their reason -- we have the demand for it.

But do they?

Or is the demand because the powers that be want to recruit terrific teams and win games to show that the people who run the association are both good talent evaluators and coaches, regardless of whether they coach local kids?

There are few development programs for local kids. The town's fields don't benefit local kids all that much. Yet, in this day and age, when governments are scampering to find additional funds to pay pensions, among other necessary or contractually obligated things, these parents pack town meetings and request that tax dollars be allocated for more fields.

To me, there are three problems with this.

First, to paraphrase from Bill Clinton's campaign in 1992, "it's the economy, stupid." How can a town afford more fields? Some have lost their jobs, and many are making less. More fields seems like a luxury, an overly indulgent one at that.

Second, why the emphasis on pediatric recreation? How many towns do an adequate job of hosting running tracks, fields, community centers that can benefit the entire community, and not just kids? Many adults are out of shape. They pay the taxes; they should demand more from their governments for, well, themselves. The kids have better facilities in comparison.

Third, geography. Why pay for additional fields to host travel organizations whose kids aren't from your town and really don't care much about it? It's one thing to have a developmental program for kids in your town and to field teams populated with kids from your town, but quite another to let parents who want to be Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi on a much smaller scale hijack your programs and use your town's fields for their own benefit? (Funny thing is that they usually get their kids on their all-star teams, whether or not their kids are "A" players).

Remember, the "everyone does it" argument is a bad one. Prosecutors use it to take down a whole industry and mandate reforms. They don't give the fourth company they catch a break because they opted for certain behaviors because everyone else was doing it. Instead, they find a bigger treasure trove of targets. Analogize that logic to this situation, and I'll contend that just because many organizations get their players from all over doesn't make it right. It's one thing if there are user fees that accurately reflect the cost of what out-of-towners are getting, but quite another when they "free ride" so to speak on an innocent municipality (as many council people might not realize what the travel organizations are doing). The travel parents will tell you that they're paying about $1000 per year for their kids, but much of that goes to uniforms, equipment, entry fees for tournaments and insurance. Some might go to the sponsoring organization, but almost nothing goes to the towns that have ceded their lands to these organizations on an implied promise that the fields will benefit the town. Many times, that's not what happens.

Travel teams can be very good when they're coached well, when the coaches make sure that the players bond together and don't form cliques, and when the coaches actually teach the fundamentals and finer points of the game. Many do that, and the experience can be very worthwhile. I'm not knocking travel teams per se, but just questioning the travel and town relationships, whether they're worthwhile, and whether the travel teams should be paying a lot more for their fields and whether the towns should really see who is benefiting. Again, I take you back to my early example of the town league's championship game that was a festive night, versus the average crowd at a travel tournament -- about ten people on each side, most of whom have the "thousand yard" stare borne of how early they rose and the chores and other family members they left behind.

We're living in an age where it can be increasingly harder for people to find meaning and for people to bond together, especially where they live. Those who espouse travel will speak of excellence (and, in softball, of opportunities to get scholarships because of Title IX). Those who eschew it will say that it requires too much of a commitment, too much money, too much time, and too much of a focus on one thing at the expense of much else. Advocates for travel versus advocates for much better local programs probably will not agree on much, and debates will rage on. But will also come up is how towns allocate their resources, and they'll start hearing from many families whose kids get shut out from their local organizations and don't have as many opportunities to learn, grow and play because their local organizations are chasing something that at times is hard to explain and, in these times, is increasingly harder to justify.

Let the arguments begin and rage on.

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