Softball scholarships a pricey pursuit for elite travel teams

Published August 11 2017
Updated August 11 2017

ATLANTA — Alex Hare can make acrobatic moves to corral grounders from every direction. She can slap a softball into the gap or smack one over the fence. She displays speed, power and range, all the tools necessary to make it as a shortstop at the college level.

The Mitchell High junior hones her skills through countless hours of lessons on every aspect of the game, from pitching to hitting to fielding to agility. She shows them off at showcases, tournaments and camps.

The price tag for that much softball consumption is steep.

Her parents, hoping to write off some expenses on their taxes, calculated everything they spent on the sport from 2014-15.

The cost: $14,000 a year.

"It's a lot of money," said Hare's mother, Heather. "We tried to find a tax loophole, maybe something for educational purposes, but there was no chance."

Travel expenses make the biggest dent.

In the offseason, Alex plays for the Florida Firecrackers, a 16-under club team based in Tampa Bay that goes on a summer-long trek of tournaments across the country.

The Firecrackers spent weekends in Alabama and Georgia (twice) as well as a nine-day stay in Colorado. Alex's family estimates the trips cost $6,000 in airfare, hotel rooms and rental cars.

"It was $3,000 for the Colorado trip alone," Heather said.

Eve Edelheit | Times

Alex Hare watches her teammates on the field while she waits to bat during the ASA Gold Nationals in Clearwater on July 19.

It's a total familiar to many other families. The price tag to play on an elite travel team often is at least $10,000 to $12,000 annually.

"Those are probably conservative numbers, too," said Dan Romanello, whose daughter Danielle played high school softball at Canterbury, travel softball with the Gold Coast Hurricanes in Plantation and is starting her freshman season at Florida.

Families are willing to pay because the competition is better.

So is the exposure.

College coaches, most of whom have limited recruiting budgets, attend showcase events to watch hundreds of teams — and thousands of prospects — in one setting. Alex, an Alabama State commit, got her offer after playing in a Naples event last year.

Still, some experts wonder if it is money well spent.

"The sport has been taken over by travel softball and many parents are panning for gold," said Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Sports Institute, a think tank that deals with societal problems in sports. "There are a lot of benefits besides a college scholarship on the travel circuit. There is a sense of achievement for the child, time spent with parents on the road and the development of skills and friends.

"But, boy, there is an awful lot of delusionment with the return on investment that is buoying the sport, especially on the travel side of softball."

Destinations for college coaches

The ultimate pursuit — for many players and parents — is a college scholarship, a rare commodity. Fully-funded Division I-A softball programs offer 12 scholarships. Teams carry about 20-25 players. Scholarships are scarcer in lower divisions.

"You can easily do the math and figure out there are hardly any full rides," USF coach Ken Eriksen said. "I would say if a player has a half-scholarship that's a very good deal."

The average softball scholarship at the I-A level is $15,296 per year, according to an analysis by FloSoftball.

Alex has her yearly $19,396 out-of-state tuition covered, typical of most partial scholarships. But she still has to pay for room-and-board and books.

The amount out of pocket: $7,022 a year, according to Alabama State's website.

A good chunk of that cost can be offset through academic aid.

Because there are so few scholarships, competition is fierce. Players send videos and emails in hopes of enhancing interest. But to really build an athletic resume, prospects join travel teams.

And there is no shortage of showcases.

Growth spurts

A snapshot of three of the nation's top travel ball showcases:

Colorado Sparkler/Fireworks Tournament

Where: Denver, Co.

When: June 26-July 2

Year started: 2002

Teams first year: 108

Entry fee first year: $1,000 (estimated)

Teams this year: 860 (combined both tournaments)

Entry fee this year: $2,250

John Amis | Special to the Times

Firecrackers travel team members Alicyn Grete, left, pitches and Alyssa White, center, plays first base, during the Atlanta Legacy Showcase.

Atlanta Legacy Showcase

Where: Atlanta

When: July 13-16

Year started: 2008

Teams first year: 36

Entry fee first year: $450

Teams this year: 320

Entry fee this year: $1,600

Scenic City Summer Showcase

Where: Chattanooga, Tenn.

When: June 8-11

Year started: 2009

Teams first year: 55

Entry fee first year: $555

Teams this year: 317

Entry fee this year: $1,175

"You can go to just about every state in the country and find at least one type of these college exposure tournaments that has more than 200 teams in it," said Alabama State coach Chris Steiner-Wilcoxson, who has watched Alex at two such showcases.

The Atlanta Legacy Showcase, held last month, is one of the biggest. What began as a 36-team tournament a decade ago now has to limit the field to 320 teams spanning three age levels (14U, 16U, 18U).

The $1,600 tournament fee guarantees each team five games, an average of more than $300 per game. The tournament also requires teams to stay in designated hotels, a stay-to-play format common at most showcase events.

Cost is no deterrent. Nearly 150 teams were willing to pay a $200 nonrefundable processing fee just to be on the waiting list this year.

"At the risk of sounding overly Pollyannic, there's nothing that I could ever touch where you'll have a direct effect on someone's life as this does," Atlanta Legacy founder Will Tomasello said. "To the layman on the street that drives by, what they see is a very aggressive for-profit picture. Are we here to make money? Absolutely we are. We're unabashed about that. But we also tell people there's nobody out there that does this business like we do and that puts these players in a position to be successful."

In 2016, the Atlanta Legacy drew more than 25,000 spectators and had an economic impact of $28 million. Those numbers were a big reason Sports Destination Management listed the tournament as an award winner in sports tourism.

Tomasello said he puts 72 cents of every dollar back into the tournament. Running such a massive event is not cheap. Umpires alone cost $200,000 for four days.

The planning starts in January. Teams go through a vetting process, particularly with new organizations looking to make their Atlanta Legacy debut. The Firecrackers know just how difficult the process can be. They were on the waiting list as a 14U team a year ago before making the cut this time at 16U.

To ensure quality, Tomasello said he waives the entry fee and pays for the hotel rooms for about a dozen of the nation's best travel teams, most coming from California.

All this is done to increase attendance from college coaches, who are the biggest selling point of the tournament.

"It's a simple formula," Tomasello said. "Take care of the college coaches and everything else takes care of itself."

No age limits on exposure

The Legacy Showcase is spread out among nine softball complexes in the Atlanta metropolitan area.

At Patriots Park, a three-field complex in Woodstock, Ga., college coaches arrive as soon as the gates open for 16U games. Organizers give them packets with detailed schedules and provide covered areas to sit at each field.

Some travel teams use clever marketing campaigns, such as hanging folders of player profiles along the fence.

On one field, Western Carolina's Jim Clift thumbs through the information. The seventh-year coach is making his second stop of the day, all before noon.

"This is one of the tournaments I have to come to," Clift said. "Games are played just about every hour. There are a lot of teams and a lot of players. But one of the things that's maintained is you're seeing some of the top teams in the country and that's the key to a tournament."

John Amis | Special to the Times

Trevecca Nazarene head softball coach Ben Tyree, left, John Erb, club team coach, and Georgia College and State University assistant softball coach Mary Beth Dennison, right, watch the Atlanta Legacy Showcase.

Coaches from Coastal Carolina, Cornell, East Carolina, Florida Atlantic, Georgia State, Harvard, Rhode Island, Virginia and Yale show up later.

There were nearly 300 college coaches registered for the event, and many of them went to the 14U tournament to recruit players who are just entering high school.

It is becoming the norm for big-time softball players to get offers in middle school and commit to a college by the time they are high school freshmen. At a tournament in Colorado there were more than 20 Division I-A coaches in attendance for a single 14U game.

Organizers said some college coaches were scouting the 12U age bracket.

"On a 14U team they're all seventh- and eighth-graders," Clift said. "They're so young they don't even count as prospective athletes yet under NCAA rules. I can literally call them up, run into them and talk to them. The rules don't apply until they hit ninth grade.

"And what's crazy is they're all committed. It's so competitive at the major college level and they all have the same resources. I don't have that. We're not a fully-funded program."

Talented Tampa Bay

These locals committed to college programs early — some before high school:

Charlie Kaijo | Times

It's not uncommon for players like Wesley Chapel's Jordan Almasy to commit to colleges before they enter high school.

Position/player Current year High school College Year committed

P Jordan Almasy So. Wesley Chapel UCF 8th

SS Brooke Blankenship Fr. AATL FSU 8th

P Ashley Blessin Jr. Plant City Jacksonville Fr.

OF Mia Buffano Jr. PHU Florida 8th

SS Taylor Bump 2017 grad Canterbury Michigan Fr.

P Mary Beth Feldman Jr. Newsome Utah Fr.

SS Jordyn Kadlub Pasco Jr. USF 8th

P Alexis Kilfoyl AATL Jr. Alabama 8th

C Kaia LoPreste Riverview Jr. FSU Fr.

SS Morgan Noah Sickles Sr. FSU Fr.

C Danielle Romanello Canterbury 2017 grad Florida 8th

IF Jada Smallwood Newsome So. Maryland Fr.

P Callie Turner Land O'Lakes Jr. Tennessee Fr.

The push toward younger recruits also forces college coaches to commit to players before they fully develop their games.

And there is the risk of burnout.

Clift remembers a player saying she no longer wanted to play during her freshman year at Western Carolina. He spent four years recruiting that player and lost out on another prospect to Purdue.

"I'll keep an eye on them at that age, but I generally do not offer until their sophomore year of high school," Clift said. "… I can't afford to make a mistake."

RELATED: Softball players get college offers as early as middle school.

As the recruitment of softball players becomes younger, so too does the age when specialization begins. At Next Level Training, where Alex takes fielding lessons, girls start as young as 5.

Alex, whose first love was showhorses, took her first softball lessons and began playing travel ball when she was 10.

Her mother wonders if she got a late start.

"There are girls on travel teams at 8 or 9 years old," said Heather, who works as a human resources administrator. "You feel like you're having to keep up."

Pay to play

In the days leading up to the Atlanta Legacy, Alex kept a busy schedule. A hitting lesson on Monday. A fielding lesson on Tuesday. An impromptu practice with her travel team on Wednesday. After that, three days of games before heading back to play in another tournament in Clearwater.

Softball consumes nearly all of her spare time. At one point two years ago, she spent every day of the week doing something with the sport. Travel games take up half the weekends. Add in high school softball and Alex plays roughly 130 games annually, almost rivaling a Major League Baseball schedule.

She would not have it any other way.

"It's a lot but I love every minute of it," said Alex, who recently turned 16. "You have to be dedicated and determined to keep getting better."

And willing to pay.

John Amis | Special to the Times

Firecrackers travel team members, Jordan Wharton, left, of Inverness, Amanda Denis, below right, of Orlando, and Alex Hare, right, of Trinity, watch their team bat during the Atlanta Legacy Showcase.

Two years ago, at the height of Alex's training, her family was spending $80 an hour for pitching lessons, $45 an hour for hitting/fielding lessons and $20 for each speed and agility class.

Wearing the travel team name costs money, too.

The Firecrackers organization, which has teams in 21 states at all age levels, charges a monthly fee of $25 per player or $300 per team, depending on the arrangement.

The payments are unique among travel ball programs in the bay area. But they do have some perks, said Bill Hoopes, coach of the bay area-based 16U Firecrackers.

"The organization is known nationwide," Hoopes said. "That recognition goes a long way. When I call about a tournament, I know I'll at least get my foot in the door being part of the Firecrackers."

Other travel organizations are expanding nationally. The Georgia Impact, run by Tomasello, now has seven teams in the bay area, including a 16U team coached by Newsome High assistant Greg Feldman.

Since joining the organization last year, Feldman said the exposure is more noticeable. The proof is in the recruiting: 11 of his 13 players have either made commitments or are receiving offers from colleges.

"The biggest stress I have as a coach is getting college coaches to watch our games," Feldman said. "You can be at the same complex where plenty of coaches are attending but you could be stuck on a remote field where no one is watching if you're not well-known. Now I'm on the good fields and the players are getting noticed, and that has a lot to do with the organization we belong to.

"I didn't create this monster with travel ball. I've just learned how to be successful inside of it."

Road tripping

A glance at how travel ball teams spend their summer:

Gold Coast Hurricanes 18U

Locals on team: Taylor Bump (Canterbury/Michigan), Paige Pfent (Springstead), Danielle Romanello (Canterbury/Florida), Kama Woodall (Springstead/N.C. State)

Out-of-state tournaments this summer: 5 (California, Colorado, New Jersey *twice* and Texas)

Florida Impact 16U

Locals on team: Ashley Blessin (Plant City), Lexie Chevalier (Bloomingdale), Logan Coward (Wesley Chapel), Mary Beth Feldman (Newsome), Celia Higgins (Strawberry Crest), Kacie Huber (Pasco), Ally Hulme (Sickles)

Out-of-state tournaments this summer: 4 (California *optional*, Georgia *twice*, Illinois)

Tampa Mustangs Hennigar 14U

Locals on team: Brooke Blankenship (AATL), Tori Brennan (East Lake), Katie Bright (Mitchell), Destiny Dehoyos (Jefferson), Giulia Desiderio (Hudson), Madison Droz (Riverview), Lili Ferrer (Sickles), Krystina Hartley (Northeast), Brianna Langlois (Newsome), Jessica Mott (AATL), Marina Rao (Mitchell), Alexis Spencer (Steinbrenner)

Out-of-state state tournaments this summer: 5 (Alabama, California, Colorado, Georgia, Tennessee)

As travel softball organizations grow, so do showcase events.

But some coaches wonder if they're becoming too big.

Eriksen, who is entering his 22nd season at USF, said he prefers attending smaller qualifying tournaments where teams are playing strictly for something at stake. He also encourages players to attend his camp to have more time to evaluate potential recruits.

"These parents spend all this money on these tournaments and for what?" Eriksen said. "I call it the Disney effect. You'll do anything to see your kid smile, even pay $150 to go to Disney World. This is the same thing except on a much larger scale.

"It's preying on hopes and dreams. Every time I see one of these big showcase events pop up I just want to stand up and scream 'Bernie Madoff'."

Parents like Steve Shenefield see the value — in making their children happy and in attending showcases.

His daughter, Ali, a standout at Hernando High, pitches for the Firecrackers. Besides travel ball, Ali takes pitching and hitting lessons. Her father, a mechanic for a Ford dealership, estimates he spends about $12,000 a year for everything softball related.

To cut down on some of the costs, Steve uses the family RV for out-of-state tournaments.

The reward comes through offers. Ali already has one from Louisiana Monroe and got an unofficial one from Rhode Island after the coach saw her pitch in Atlanta.

"If any of my five children have a dream I'm going to do everything to make it happen," Steve said. "I told Ali as long as she was completely dedicated to softball I would provide whatever was needed."

On to the next tournament

The Firecrackers play the finale on the second day of the Legacy tournament. Alex's mom watches along the third-base line. Her father, Paul, an assistant with the team, coaches from the dugout.

Dark clouds form. The wind picks up.

The Firecrackers come through, beating their opponent to remain undefeated.

John Amis | Special to the Times

Heather Hare, left, watches daughter Alex walk back to the dugout during an Atlanta Legacy Showcase game on July 14 in Acworth, Ga.

In the final innings, Steiner-Wilcoxson shows up. Afterward, Alex waves to her future coach..

The moment is brief.

Steiner-Wilcoxson heads for the parking lot. She already drove two hours, mostly through heavy downtown Atlanta traffic, just to get here.

Now she is ready to drive to another field, to watch another prospect.

"It's all part of the game plan," she said.

Contact Bob Putnam at Follow @BobbyHomeTeam.