Sports Inc.

October 16, 2017
Sean Gregory for TIME, adapted by TFK editors
Joey Erace, 10, plays for several elite teams around the U.S.
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Joey Erace knocks pitches into the netting of his backyard batting cage. The cage cost $15,000. Joey lives in southern New Jersey. His private hitting coach is charging $100 for this evening batting practice. Earlier in the day, Joey had a fielding lesson in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It also cost $100.

Constant training is key for a top player like Joey. Scouts are seeking his talents. Joey is lightning quick. He can adjust his body slightly at the plate. These adjustments can drive the ball. “As long as he keeps putting in this work, he’s going to be a really, really solid baseball player,” Dan Hennigan says. He is Joey’s hitting coach.

Already, Joey has more than 28,000 followers on Instagram. Companies have asked him to promote their stuff. Not bad for a 10-year-old.

Joey Erace, 10, of New Jersey, has played for youth baseball teams in California and Texas.

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An Early Start

Across the U.S, youth sports are changing. Neighborhood Little Leagues, town soccer associations, and church basketball squads are being pushed aside. Young athletes are joining private club teams instead. The most competitive teams seek out the best talent. They travel to national tournaments.

The cost for families is high. They pay for things like registration fees, travel, and equipment. Joey’s father says he has spent more than $30,000 on Joey’s baseball career. A father in upstate New York spent $20,000 in one year for his daughter to play club volleyball. Much of it was spent on gas. Up to four nights a week, she traveled two and a half hours round-trip to go to practice.

King-Riley Owens, 9, of Los Angeles, California, hopes to play in the NBA someday.

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Money Matters

The U.S. youth-sports economy is now a $15.3 billion market. WinterGreen Research studies the industry. The company says the market has grown wildly since 2010.

There are good things about the craze. Some kids benefit from intense competition. Travel teams can bring people of different backgrounds together.

Melanie Barcenas, 9, of San Diego, California, plays multiple soccer games most weekends.

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However, recent studies show troubling signs. Early focus on one sport increases the risk of injury. And rising costs, such as for team fees and travel, are pricing out lower-income families.

College costs are also rising. Millions of parents hope their children will earn a sports scholarship. But only a tiny number of high school athletes go on to the NCAA’s Division I. It is the top level of college sports.

Still, college coaches are now seeking middle schoolers. Kids learn that it’s critical to attend travel tournaments. And they must impress. Katherine Sinclair, 13, plays basketball. She has played games in Philadelphia and New York City on the same day. But she embraces it. “I don’t have that long until I’m in eighth grade,” Katherine says. “That’s when college scouts start looking at me.”

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