My soccer assignor called me last night. The Regional league is starting soon (or it will once temperatures gets back into the 20s), and they need referees. This league has teams driving six or eight hours for a pair of games on Saturday, stay overnight and then play one more on Sunday morning before driving back home. I like to ref this league as the teams are composed of highly skilled players with good coaches, so the games involve a lot of running, but they are predictable. Players put the ball where the ball should go, and they don’t randomly attempt to take out people’s knees. The fouls which occur make sense. The best teams will dress eighteen players of which fifteen or more will get some scholarship money to play in college. Unless I am laid off and go on the elite showcase tournament circuit to referee, this is the best youth soccer that I will see this year.
That league is overwhelmingly composed of middle and upper middle class white players coming from stable, two income, two parent homes. I know that is not a representative sample of where the US soccer talent pool lies as I’ll see local travel teams that are a whole lot poorer, a whole lot less white, and a whole lot more unstable in their home situations which could run with most of the Regional teams if they could afford to organize bi-monthly bus trips to another state to play. And those kids get forgotten unless they are so unbelievable that one of the Regional teams sponsors the kid to be the best player on the field. One of the local Regional league teams does that with a current high school All-American who has a full ride on offer from half a dozen elite NCAA schools which he may turn down in order to go to a European B-league. If a kid is “just” talented enough to be a solid Division 2 half scholarship player, but can’t afford the $5,000 a year in travelling expenses, they probably aren’t playing on a Regional league team which will help them get that D-2 scholarship.
Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates makes the same point on baseball — in the US, it is becoming a middle class sport as the breeding ground of future high level players:
But all the scraping and saving in the world wasn’t going to be enough for my family to send me an hour north to Lakeland every weekend to play against the best competition. That’s the challenge for families today. It’s not about the $100 bat. It’s about the $100-a-night motel room and the $30 gas money and the $300 tournament fee. There’s a huge financing gap to get a child to that next level where they might be seen.
I’m complicit in this cost structure as referees aren’t cheap, and refs are incorporated into the tournament fee, but sports at anything more than “here is a ball, chase it” level of play is increasingly a luxury good.
I’m glad I got out of municipal athletic administration and officiating 20 years ago. When I was in it we considered Park and Rec the poorman’s country club.
I felt I was in another nation. What it felt like seeing DC United play a friendly in RFK in the late 90s. Not a lot of middle-class white people running around (which I am one of). Both on the field and in the stands. Just saying.
Davis X. Machina
Ah, the “travel team” racket — it’s another tree-house for the prosperous.
Climb in and pull up the ladder.
“Atheletics” won’t get you into the grammar bowl.
But, cheap shots aside, which sports are worst at this in this country? You mention soccer because it’s your bailiwick (and my interest too). I wonder how it works for football (hand egg) a more-equipment-intensive sport, with more players on a side, and less play for all, therefore fewer opportunities to showcase.
@ThresherK: Worst at what?
Elite AAU basketball travel teams are a bit different because of subsidies from shoe companies. Football is structured through the school system at the high school and even junior high level. Hockey is a ruinous (for parents) time and money sink from peewee level on up.
@Tommy: OT, but I saw this and thought of your father. He doesn’t live in Wisconsin, does he?
jake the antisoshul soshulist
I am not a particular fan of AAU basketball. I think it is deeply corrupted by shoe company money. But, that system seems to do a much better job of giving the lower income kids a chance to travel and exhibit their skills where college coaches can see them.
Sadly, it is probably the shoe company money that does enable that.
@jake the antisoshul soshulist:
Gin & Tonic
@JMG: Ice hockey, indeed. It is very popular here in New England, and it costs a fortune.
Just One More Canuck
As much I like reading about your take on the health insurance industry (as a Canadian, it doesnt have direct bearing on me), as the father of a daughter in her first year of competitve soccer, your insights into the game are fantastic and really instructive. Thanks
The Junior Olmypic ski race business is crazy. Flying across the country on weekends for races, high priced ski resort hotels, all in hopes of an invitation to join the U.S. Ski Team and move to Europe for the winter, and much of the summer as well for glacier training.
McCutchen’s article is fantastic. It makes me sad that baseball doesn’t really produce stars (in the media celebrity sense) the way it once did, because McCutchen would shine in that spotlight.
@Gin & Tonic: My buddy’s kid played high level hockey in the Bay Area. . . talk about $$$$!
And all this for a sport that most Americans pay attention to for a couple of weeks every four years
Considering the average value of a Division II scholarship is less than $6k a year, most parents would be better off saving the money and having their kids avoid the sports racket rather than trying to pursue a college athletic scholarship. Considering that being a Division I competitive athlete limits what a person can major in and can put a student at an academic disadvantage, a scholarship may not be in the best interest of a student.
How else are you going to drive those blacks completely into the lower class if you keep giving them chances to make money? We’ve had the first black president, and now a sports-made billionaire (Michael Jordon).
@Wag: Who gives a fuck what Americans “pay attention to”? People play the damn game.
This doesn’t sound like a bad thing, really. Millions of kids are getting exercise, presumably having fun, and if their activities aren’t structured so that the very best players filter to the top… It could be that the gains outweigh the losses.
This is apparent even if you don’t have a kid involved in one of these ‘traveling team’ sports. My husband and I probably do 3-4 long weekend trips a year, and it’s rare that there isn’t a mob of traveling team kids and parents at the hotels we stay at. Granted, they jam 3-4 kids in a room together, but there’s still the cost of the room, food, and other traveling expenses. We have yet to see groups that weren’t predominantly White and obviously upper middle class.
@Davis X. Machina: Darn right it is. I went to college on a DI golf scholarship. The guy I played with almost every day was an African American. He came from a hard household and not a lot of black people playing golf in the 80s. My mother would always drive him with me to tournaments. Not taught about this for a long, long time.
this is of course, extremely pertinent to the Jackie Robinson West case, despite the largely white sportscaster community’s insistent that it’s just about BREAKING THE RULEZZZZ
Gin & Tonic
@Wag: To be an elite-level alpine ski racer in the US, you’re looking at $100k/yr in expenses with a minuscule chance of getting to national-team level.
I used to think about this when my oldest boy was a swimmer. It involved club fees, travel, etc. Luckily, that was prior to my putting three boys through college, and I had the money. Plenty of kids, however, were probably priced out of the competition.
The Ancient Randonneur
Same thing with dance. Both my daughters did dance: tap/jazz and ballet for years. The cost of that was high what with the classes and the costumes (two costumes a year, photos, tickets) and that was just for the recitals. The ballet shoes were extremely expensive and had to be replaced all the time. And my daughters didn’t compete. (We were so glad when my oldest daughter took up Bharata Natyam–which is done barefoot!–but her costumes for that had to be made in India.
My friend whose daughter does Scottish Dance drives far away for competitions every week, some years, and they have travelled to Scotland and Canada for some competitions. Meanwhile the Scottish Dance costumes are incredibly expensive.
And all of this takes massive amounts of parental time in terms of driving and scheduling.
@Gin & Tonic: OTOH, skiing, if you live near a ski hill, only costs a few hundred a year.
I’m writing this as a huge fan of ski racing. It’s a shame that few heard about the Alpine World Championships in Colorado the past two weeks. Fantastic racing and a ton of fun
@Gin & Tonic:
Which makes the bullshyt about JRW and the Little League Championship all the more glaring. Funny how the financials that Mr. McCutchen aren’t a problem for the Little League and it’s not seen as an unfair advantage…see how that works?
@ThresherK: I think hockey is by far the most expensive – it’s a result of the equipment and the need for access to a hockey rink, which in many places in the country are in short supply, and the resulting need for lots of travel.
Iowa Old Lady
To some degree though, things have always been this way. I wanted piano and ballet lessons as a kid and my parents never could have afforded it. They couldn’t afford to send us to the dentist half the time.
Gin & Tonic
@Omnes Omnibus: Sure. But attempting to make the US Ski Team is a completely different story.
@RSA: I think there is a difference between “have a ball, chase it” to “professional development leagues” with a middle ground of “have a ball, think about what you want to do, and make the other guy chase it while you do something smart”…. Soccer, or any other sport should be well coached at any level where the players actually learn how to think the game through.
@Iowa Old Lady: I would have LOVED piano lessons as a kid. No money. And when I “needed” braces, they sent me to a orthodontist training school, where they completely wrecked my mouth.
When I was a kid, the park basketball court wasn’t locked up. Any kid could use it. And stick ball was fun on any open field.
Nowadays the smallburbs love padlocking everything. The kids can’t even iceskate without paying a fee.
@superdestroyer: It depends on what the goal of spending money on the “sports racket” is — is it a scholarship? If so, I agree with you for 90% of the kids in the racket — is it to gain a set of softer life skills while enjoying a game, then if the resources are there and the committment is there and the activities are fun, then I’ll disagree.
So participating in organized sports becomes something rich kids do. And America gets fat. Any connection?
Jeesh! I just found out Oliver Sacks has terminal cancer:
And as usual, he is thoughtful, calm and analytical.
@dedc79: Yeah, ice time. Even in the middle of a winter like this, I await the a Four-Yorkshiremen-level of “My kid’s ice time is worse than yours”.
“We had to wake up each morning before we went to bed so we could get him to the rink at 3:00am.”
@Gin & Tonic: Doing anything at that kind of rarefied level gets expensive, but RM was talking about participating in a sport.
@Omnes Omnibus: Most schools in Vermont have ski & ride programs that provide a seasonal pass for $100 a year. This, combined with affordable equipment rental plans and/or used gear, allows participation for almost any kid who’s interested. AAU basketball and the soccer clubs, on the other hand, are exorbitantly expensive and require a full-time commitment on the part of parents.
@beltane: Leave it to Vermont to play its strong suit: Much of the population is close to many and varied ski areas, even with flatlanders (like me, sometimes) clogging up the roads.
I can imagine for NH, upstate NY, Maine and western MA, too. Does this kind of idea play in the Rocky Mountains?
Davis X. Machina
@ThresherK: Don’t know about the Rockies, but Maine after-school ski programs here start young, and Routes 26 and 302 are full of school buses in the afternoons, headed north to Pleasant Mountain and Mt. Abrams.
Nordic is more or less universal in high-elementary phys-ed classes, and only about half the kids report this as their first time on slats. (Report from my kids…)
Go to the Lost Ski Areas website, and see how many schools had their own DIY slopes, with rope tows, etc, and even a few ski jumps, back in the pre-reflexive-litigation age.
Football is probably the most egalitarian of the sports (which is not saying much) since the recruiting is done through the public schools.
For most D1 sports, the coaches will find the talent without a bunch of “exposure” events. It’s a total scam. Somehow talented football players are found without their parents driving them all over the country.
It makes a little sense, IMHO, for kids that want to play in college at lower levels. Either to help them get into a competitive school or so that they can play on the team of their choice.
I agree. It’s been forever since I was a kid playing sports, and I don’t have any more recent experience, but I didn’t think of that middle ground as being expensive, at least not like travel and tournament fees. If it is, then yeah that’s a problem.
I have a major recreational facility, soccer, football, softball, (outdoor) basketball about a half mile from me on a road I have to travel to get out of my local area, it’s always deserted even in the middle of the summer if there is no adult organized activity going on. I know we have a lot of kids around here because I see them getting on and off the buses but they don’t use the facility by themselves at all as far as I can tell. I use the large parking lot as a place to ride laps on my bike if I just want to listen to music and relax rather than play tag you’re it with four wheeled kamikaze pilots so I have a pretty good idea what goes on there.
When there are events the place is packed including RVs that spend the weekend in the lot (despite the posted rules about closing at 11 pm) but other than that, zip.
Upper middle class kids don’t seem to do anything that’s not organized and run by parents any more, certainly not sports around here anyway. FWIW, the area is mostly buppies, black upper middle class professionals although the crowd that shows up for organized events is quite mixed racially but as pointed out not so much economically.
On the traditionally female-heavy part of the spectrum, sports like gymnastics and figure skating are unbelievably expensive, even at the”hobby” level.
@Capri: I agree, good coaches will find players without “Elite” “Showcase” events that are 6 hours away or a cross country flight away. I live in a football dominant region, and a pair of regional high schools will host sophomore and junior year camps for a week over the summer. The one closer to my house (15 minutes away) charges kids $100 for the week which basically covers the atheletic trainer and lunch. The one on the other side of the region will charge $175 for a week with 40 hours of good coaching. During those camps, college coaches/scouts from JUCO to D-3 to major bowl particpant D-1 programs will visit, and scholarships will be offered.
The question is how does one get to be good enough to get offered? In most sports that means playing against good competition with good teammates and good coaching… and I know soccer and baseball charges through the nose for those conditions.
I’ve got a first year kiddo in a lacrosse league. Basic entry fees for non-competitive teams run around $350. Add on to that fundraising requirements (around $200/child). So – $ 550/year. If he wants to move up to competitive, it’s a $650 flat fee on top of regular league play, plus travel to the Northeast – weekends of flying / hotel / meals, etc. I’ve talked him out of playing travel this year, but he’s thinking possibly next year (ouch). Then we get into the world of camps and clinics – which range anywhere from $200 – $2,000 each. And of course there are equipment costs – pads, guards, crosses, heads, helmets, cleats, cold weather gear, hot weather gear.
I’m a single mom, middle class. Fortunately his dad helps with this – but if kiddo really does want to move up in the leagues, it’s going to take a LOT of planning, saving and budget-trimming. I have no idea how we would manage the travel aspects because we both work.
OTOH, he loves the sport, he’s getting amazing exercise and learning what it really means to be part of a team. His confidence is soaring, his agility and balance are improving and he actually enjoys running now.
I have small pangs of envy when I see the upper-middle class two-parent-homed kids who are planning on a lacrosse filled summer on the east coast – but I’ll do the best I can for him.
Mnemosyne (iPad Mini)
@Just One More Canuck:
A word of advice — make sure your daughter’s coach(es) know that they need to do some serious knee strengthening for their athletes. Girls are much more prone to serious knee injuries than boys because of anatomical differences, but extra strength training of the knee muscles helps a lot;
@RSA: That middle ground of competent coaching with competent team mates is fairly rare… From my view of the soccer world around me, most high school coaches who are also not travel club coaches are tactically unaware on a good day who don’t know how to develop kids as players. Part of that is the time restrictions (soccer season including preseason is 10 weeks with 7 weeks of 3 games a week — no time to recover much less improve), but part of it is the coaches don’t know what they are looking at.
And those are the coaches who are doing right by their players… there are too many coaches who are bullying sadistic assholes who think the solution to every tactical problem is to either belittle their own players for making a mistake, micromanaging the flow of the game, or telling their players to man-up and outmuscle/out elbow their opponent
Mnemosyne (iPad Mini)
I’ve posted this before, but evem though I’m not a hockey fan, I thought this profile of Canadian player PJ Subban was fascinating:
To Richard’s point, Subban’s family is firmly middle-class, but his father was able to hone PK’s ice skating skills on public outdoor rinks that were open 24/7 long before PK started playing formal hockey. By age 15, he was playing minor league hockey.
My daughter plays club volleyball. In my area (USAV Ohio Valley Region), club volleyball runs anywhere from $500 to $3000, just for the season club fees. The tournaments are at locations that can run from local travel to airline trips, so you’re looking at anything from bus fare to a $400/person round trip + hotel rooms. None of the clubs that I’m familiar with will pick up any of those incidental expenses; the girls are responsible for being at the tournament.
My experience so far has been that the more-skilled club teams (what OVR would call National teams) are mostly associated with high-end private volleyball training facilities. These are ran as a business.
What a racket.
I hate to say it but this is nothing new. There’s a reason that the wealthy have been the traditional golf market (the money it takes for the land dictates the fees will stay high). Horseback riding is another wealthy past time (buying and caring for a horse ain’t cheap). Meanwhile, basketball was always popular in cities (the courts are cheap to build, all but free to maintain, and take almost no land).
Baseball ‘is becoming’ a middle class sport? It always was one — the fields need maintenance, and they take room to build. That’s going to mean that cities aren’t going to have as many as the burbs. Hockey the same way — the only reason it wasn’t in years past was because people would just play pick-up on frozen ponds. In the economics of sport, in general the more expensive the field to build and maintain (including land area) the more expensive the barriers to entry of the sport, and hence the richer the participants.
And Americans must be paying some kind of attention to soccer, since average attendance is now in the 19K/game range, which puts it behind only the top European leagues and Mexico’s Liga MX. American broadcasters are fighting hard for the right to broadcast EPL games. And for people who think that interest in soccer is dominated by weird coastal elites and immigrants need explain why Salt Lake City and Kansas City had higher attendance last season than New York or New England. There hasn’t been the kind of explosion in popularity that soccer enthusiasts were claiming was just around the corner, but 20 years of gradually rising popularity have made it no longer a joke as a spectator sport.
Just One More Canuck
@Mnemosyne (iPad Mini): Thanks – I’ll give it a read and pass it on to her coaches – they do seem to spend a lot of time doing stretches and jumping exercises, but the extra information cant hurt
a hip hop artist from Idaho (fka Bella Q)
@ThresherK: I had no idea Piggly Wiggly was in Wisconsin. What I learned at Balloon Juice today.
Is it me, or has Teahadism infected every aspect of how we raise children in the 2010s? We’ve gone from “it’s for the kids” (a benefit) to “it’s for THOSE kids” (a complaint) faster than you can say IslamoFascoSoshulist.
@jake the antisoshul soshulist: Not all AAU basketball teams get shoe company subsidies. My son played on an unsubsidized team composed primarily of inner-city African-American kids, mostly really good kids but with virtually no resources. (The joke was that my son was the whitest player on his AAU team and the blackest on his high school team.) My wife and I paid for the entire team to go to Dallas for a tournament, which was great fun, but not something we could sustain on our own.
The San Jose Mercury News had an article about how small colleges are dropping football because of the expense. As colleges dropped it, the ones where it was still going incurred increased travel costs to get to schools of equivalent size.
If anything, your issues are going to be front-loaded by the insane trend of increasingly early recruiting in lacrosse. The lax websites are full of stories of high school freshmen “committing” to elite D1 programs. And the ever-growing talent pool is chasing a pool of scholarships that isn’t growing; AFAIK, there are no propsals to increase the current NCAA limit of 12.9, and the number of D1 schools is going to stay constant at 69 for the next few years.
Lacrosse is growing explosively at the D3 level, and although there are no “athletic scholarships” in D3 it’s an open secret that recruited athletes get preferential treatment in how their financial aid packages are put together.
So find him a club that emphasizes skill development over playing too many games, dont worry about accepting hand-me-down gear from the club, And whatever the ultimate outcome, be happy that your kid found an activity that makes him happy and is contributing to his personal development.
This is a problem, and I don’t know of a solution. My daughter is a swimmer, and she recently took first at a couple of events at state championships in her age group. Her club dues are $85/month, and although swim meets are relatively cheap ($10-15), her monthly totals are usually over $100/month. Add onto that the travel, which I probably plunked down $5K or so over the past two years, and yeah, it adds up. And all of the officiating and meet management is volunteer work by parents, so if those were paid positions like soccer, it would be even more expensive.
I often see kids around the city who look like they’d make great swimmers, but it’s obvious their parents don’t make much money. How to promote this is a good question.
pseudonymous in nc
I don’t know if it’s possible in the US to solve the problem of how much talent gets left behind by the cost/class barriers. You’re already starting with a minority sport in a large sprawling country where even participation in recreational play is expensive and involves lots of travel.
@Capri: So all the emails I got to send my daughter to be seen by college coaches for $$$ can safely be ignored?
Good to know, but it’s funny that 8th graders are being groomed as future stars. Or marks.
Tree With Water
I played Police Athletic League sports year round through most of my childhood, and as I age am ever more grateful for it. But I also had a baseball/football field around the corner from our house, where I played years worth of unsupervised pick-up games. On balance, unsupervised were near always more fun (and I had a blast playing PAL sports).
Well, it’s a zero-sum issue for the Teahadists – if one of THOSE kids is doing something clearly out of their economic reach, it must be because some agency “stole” the money from hard-working patriotic Real Americans. If only THOSE people would know their place and stop trying to associate with the Real Americans, we would all be better off.
Well, except for THOSE people, but who cares about them?
I think some of you upthread are mixing up “afterschool ski pass” skiing with lessons and competitive racing. Two completely different things. My younger brother was in the development program level of racing, and skied in the Junior Olympics. Having seen that world, I’m glad I live in an area without hills and season long snow cover, because my kids view skiing not as a competitive sport but rather a fun Christmas/Spring Break vacation activity and skill to be mastered. It costs a fortune and is an incredible time sink. The amount of time my parents spent driving to hills all over creation, only to watch their son DNF because he clipped a gate on the first run and be done for the weekend after 25 seconds, boggles my mind. And even though he had equipment sponsors, it was astronomically expensive.
Skiing, golf and tennis are and will always be in a category of their own, where for the most part even upper middle class kids are weeded out by financial considerations barring obvious amazing talent levels. Hockey is close for the same reason as golf – to play any sport you need to pay a share of the maintenance on the field of play, and it costs a fortune to keep a hockey arena in business or operate a golf course. That’s true regardless of geography – it’s just as expensive to run an arena in Minnesota or a golf course in Florida as anywhere else. At least that cost is spread wider for a team sport like hockey. True middle class, lower middle class and below can’t afford the three thousand a year for serious travel soccer, but you weed out even families in the $75-100k income brackets when talking about the $12k/yr. it costs to have a serious tennis player.
One silver lining to this arms race we’ve created is that, despite all the parental insecurity about making sure Johnny doesn’t fall behind in his basketball career by age 9, for the most part kids could take up any given sport at 12 and, if they’re athletic enough, make up for most of the lost time in a year, if they focus. All the little things you spend hours teaching to a 7-year-old are intuitive for the 12-year-old, if they’re coordinated and have played sports of some sort. That’s why we’re for the most part steering our son clear of anything with the word “travel” on it until he’s at least 10 or so. Thankfully he doesn’t play hockey, where it’s not a true meritocracy and if you’re not “in” early you may forever be excluded, but that’s not as true in most sports.
There are interesting little exceptions, too. My older nephew just got a D1 scholarship (he’s also 2nd or 3rd in his class academically) in a track & field event–one that not every state has at the high school level–which made him a hotter commodity for the college track & field teams. He’s also quite good at it (and has worked hard at it). My brother and SIL certainly ponied up $$ for some coaching and some events, but nothing like for other sports.
that said, I appreciated the link; it’s the kind of thing that is just invisible to so many people.
How did it used to be? I presume 15 or 20 years ago, there weren’t the same fancy yuppie leagues; kids played in their neighborhood, and the good ones started on high school teams.
Are high schoolers just not going to cut it in the soccer world? As with baseball, can no one just play seasonal ball and then practice a lot on fundamentals in the offseason? Unless players today are ten times better than players 30 years ago, they should still be able to do that.
Sure, the rich kids doing year round stuff will have an advantage, but so it goes.
M.C. Simon Milligan
I work with a German whose son plays professional football (soccer). He bought his kid shoes until he started getting free boots when he made the U16 development team at VfL Wolfsburg’s youth academy. That. Was. It. As a VW employee his family’s membership in the club was free. Every town has a club (or several) and membership fees are nominal. Shalke 04 (one of the largest clubs by membership in Germany) charges 12 Euros per year to members aged 7-17. 12 measly Euros gets you access to the Knappenschmiede that produced Manuel Neuer, Julian Draxler and Mesut Ozil.
This why a nation where more kids play soccer than any other sport can’t field a decent World Cup side. Germany’s players are the best they have. Ours are the best doctor’s and lawyer’s kids we can find. Our soccer priorities are inverted from the rest of the world’s. In the US you have to pay out the nose to get a chance at playing for a wage-controlled franchise. In Europe they have such a dire need for the best players in the cut-throat capitalist top leagues that they subsidize the youth system.
I think maybe the chase of athletic scholarships in non-revenue sports came with the insane rise in college costs over the last twenty years.
@agorabum: Soccer where I live (San Francisco) is a year round thing.
Between the Fall Season, Spring Season, School fall season, winter footsol, and soccer summer cams, it goes on all the time.
Whether this is because Coaches need income all year long, or kids really want to do it, or parents push their kids to do it, or whatever, you can make up your mind.
I’ll just say that my daughter on her day off today (Chinese New Year) organized with her soccer buddies their own independent practice session, even being willing to take public transit home.
This is as Dave Zirin has pointed out a direct result of white flight, residential segregation, and gentrification. The fact that people are consistently geographically far from forms of community that we romanticize as accessible is something we can only sustain if those people have interstate highways and houses and cars to make these trips possible. So it’s not just the private money to afford these activities in the hands of families of a certain income, it’s a publicly subsidized infrastructure that reproduces and incentivizes this way of life. It’s the reason Jackie Robinson West had players from where they were from, and the reason public, community schools are disproportionately black while private schools are disproportionately white.
@agorabum: I’d push the 15 or 20 years ago to more like 30 to 35 years ago – this ball’s been rolling downhill for quite awhile at this point.
Your point about being able to focus on fundamentals on your own and not play a given sport year-round is generally correct, but there are a couple of countervailing factors: (i) in a skill sport like baseball, where the coaching is light years ahead of where it was when I was a kid, you do risk falling permanently behind if you’re not playing in one of the saddle seasons. I’ve watched high school teams play recently and their level of play is way beyond what I was involved with in the early ’90s; and (ii) the travel coaches and high school coaches know each other and are aware of the kids on each other’s teams, so even if there’s no nefarious or intentional politics going on, your kid has a certain unknown quantity label to overcome if they only want to play hopps on the high school team but not play in the summer, too. That can be overcome if they’re just substantially more talented or everyone knows the reason they don’t play year round is they’re also a stud lax player or something, but if one kid’s approximately equal in talent to another, the one who’s in the system and known to all the coaches and has shown a dedication to the sport is going to get all the breaks and benefits of doubt over the one who plays the sport 3 months out of the year. It’s hard to overcome human nature.