Chasing a Dream
Inside Utah’s Youth-Sports Industry
By Zoe Zorka
It’s 8 a.m. on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. While most fathers are settling in for a long weekend of watching football and eating turkey, Glenn Lanham and his 16-yearold daughter, Kat, are already four hours into their drive from Salt Lake City to Sacramento, Calif. Or maybe it’s Denver. It could be Phoenix. Either way, the purpose remains the same: to attend one of Kat’s numerous competitive soccer tournaments.
Meanwhile, Shelly Blanchard and her 12-year-old son, Sam, are on their way to Mesquite, Nev., for the National Youth Football regional championships, and Samantha Garong is heading to a dance competition in Las Vegas with her daughter, Arianna, 13, while her husband juggles 15-year-old Alyssa’s cheer competition with 12-year-old Rylann’s mixed-martial-arts practice.
This is the reality of Utah youth sports today—high costs, high stakes and high risks, all with the potential for high rewards, and more importantly, high profit for many Utah businesses.
Capitalizing on Competition
Capitalizing on Competition Over the past few decades, youth sports gradually grew from summer Little League games to a $15 billion business nationwide with the most explosive growth taking place over the past five years. In few places is this growth more evident than in Utah, which is not only one of the fittest states in the country, but one of the most economically robust.
The youth-sports sector boasts one major economic advantage over other industries: a steady supply of children who dream of a collegiate or professional sports career. Gone are the days when it was enough to play on a seasonal high school team, especially when college recruiters are looking at players as young as those in junior high.
Players not only need skills but a network with the right connections and as much visibility as possible. As more and more families look for supplemental sports training and programs to fulfill these objectives, Utah businesses have been quick to provide myriad off-season competitive teams, personal training and specialty camps for children as young as 8.
Developing the Fundamentals
The rationale is simple: The higher the quality and greater the quantity of training, the better the athlete will perform in a given sport.
Alema Te’o is Alta High School’s head football coach. He also runs the Rocky Mountain Youth Football League spring football program and hosts the prestigious All-Poly and Mountain West Elite camps. The spring program, according to Te’o, “helps players develop the fundamentals that they need so they can perform effectively at the summer camps,” that attract up to 130 college coaches from across the nation. It’s crucial for these players to showcase their skills to coaches as well as go head-to-head with other elite players.
Nate Soelberg, owner of the Utah Speed Academy and former BYU football and track star, now coaches sports-specific speed, movement and agility skills at his facility. “We’re preparing them for high school,” he said, noting that most of his participants are between ages 10 and 15.
“Everything is getting pushed down to a younger age,” said Everest Matagi, Bingham High School linebacker coach. “But you have to start young if you want to learn the sport.” Some of today’s camps accept participants as young as 8 years old.
Hard Work Gets Results
Sei Lesa, a father of Latoa, 10, and Tai, 8, knows this well. Not only are both of his sons involved in AAU and CYFL leagues but Lesa has recently hired a private pitching and quarterback coach for Latoa to teach him proper technique and prevent injury. According to Lesa, the coach also teaches “important life skills such as time management and the value of hard work.”
For the older athletes, the hard work is getting results. This fall, Kat’s training with USA Metro, one of several elite soccer leagues in northern Utah, paid off as she helped carry her team to the 2A Utah state championship. Her upcoming tournaments will put her in front of college coaches.
Sam’s workouts with a personal trainer at Gold’s Gym—the same gym that sponsors him to play for the Brigham City Bees, a Youth Football USA program—has helped him run a 40-yard dash in “the high fours,” according to his mother.
Shelly believes that Alyssa is excelling at school cheerleading due largely in part to her supplemental training at Rocky Mountain Tumble and Cheer training facility while Rylann’s workouts at The Garage, an MMA gym, will help him during football season with hand-eye coordination, strength and speed. In Las Vegas, Arianna will have a chance to earn immediate scholarship money at her dance competition.
Salt Lake City itself is banking on youth sports. In 2007, the city opened the SLC Regional Athletic Complex (2350 Rose Park Lane, SLC, 801-972- 7883, SLCGov.com/RAC), a 140-acre complex with 16 soccer/multi-purpose fields, including a stadium field that features a scoreboard, restrooms and concessions. The investment is paying dividends—not only for the city but for nearby businesses.
According to Chris Laughlin, program manager for the Regional Athletic Complex, the recent President’s Cup soccer tournament yielded up to $5 million for the city over a period of six days. This figure factored in spending by players and their families on hotels, restaurants, gas, flights and other leisure activities.
Selling skills? Or the dream?
There may well be a dark side to youth sports, especially in a state where multi-level marketing companies and get-rich-quick schemes run rampant and largely unchecked throughout the region. Not only is it hard for kids to be kids these days, but some parents live vicariously through their children, managing their social-media accounts in hopes of an endorsement deal (LaVar Ball, we’re looking at you).
While every business in the youth sports industry promises that it’s selling skills, at what point are they really just selling snake oil? After all, Division I college football programs are highly unlikely to seriously look at a 5-foot-6, 150-pound safety. Yet if their parents can afford the costs of extra training, it’s not illegal for a business to accept their payment.
“There’s all of these fly-by-night guys,” Te’o said, citing the disgraced and now-defunct camps that promised to showcase aspiring football players by putting them in front of elite coaches (for a nominal fee, of course). The problem was that few if any of the coaches from the colleges listed had even heard of the brands.
And when the 8- to 18-year-old market is oversaturated, how much younger will unscrupulous business people go? “What’s next? Pushing protein powder to 6-year-olds?” Matagi asks.
Like Te’o, Matagi works to help keep illegitimate programs from entering the Utah market, which isn’t an easy feat considering that “every athlete who’s ever played in the NFL, or who’s just picked up a ball, or just thinks they’re a businessman, is trying to get in on this,” according to Te’o.
Both coaches and parents agree on the need to not only do research when choosing supplemental sports training but to keep expectations realistic. Parents should focus not just on end goals for their children, but on the process of personal improvement, and how they live up to their potential and learn life lessons.
Winning, losing and finding one’s passion are things that should not be exploited by scam artists.