Big bucks in coaching kids

Franchise: Dreams of fame, fortune - or scholarships - fuel a boom in youth fitness and coaching chains.

October 05, 2003|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Alexander T. Mason, an investment banker from Owings Mills, is amazed by the progress his 15-year-old son has made in polishing his tennis game one month after enrolling in a new youth sports training facility in Baltimore County.

"One of his tennis coaches has already noticed that his lateral movement has improved," said Mason, vice chairman of corporate finance at Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown, of his son, Christopher.

"That was amazing to me. I was surprised that a coach could see results so quickly. They identified a muscle group that needed strengthening. He's getting stronger and faster and more agile."

In Maryland and across the country, parents are spending big money to give their kids a leg up mentally and physically at sports training facilities such as Velocity Sports Performance in Bare Hills, where the Masons signed on. Spending on specialized youth training is estimated to exceed $4 billion in the United States.

For decades, individual coaches have trained elite young athletes - especially in figure skating, tennis and gymnastics.

But the latest evolution involves training franchises, popping up like chain restaurants, with brand names and locations across the country.

The trend is sweeping in many more children than the few who used trainers in the past, with more varied skills.

Some youth psychologists and others, however, wonder whether healthy, simple kid play is being lost in the push toward year-round training.

People involved in the industry and their clients say a range of factors are at work: a push for success in high school athletics, the lure of scholarships at a time of soaring tuitions or even professional riches, concerns about sedentary kids in a video world, and parents lacking time to practice with their children.

"The interest in unbelievable," said Dr. Josh Fink, medical director of Prescriptions for Fitness Inc., a medically supervised training center with sites in Connecticut and New York.

"In a down economy, people are less willing to spend money on themselves, but they're still willing to spend money on the future of their children," Fink said. "People think it's better to invest in their kids' future than in mutual funds.

"You've got people out there who think that their child could be the next cover of the Wheaties box, or an NFL player or a professional baseball player."

Youths represent about a tenth of his business, where some families spend more than $30,000 a year on athletic training. His rates range from $25 an hour for group sessions to $250 an hour for individuals.

Fink recalled one parent telling him, "When I call my broker and invest $20,000, I don't know if he really cares, but when I invest it in my son, I know he's going to try his best."

The explanation is simple to Jon Segal, founder and editor-in-chief of SchoolSports Magazine, which covers high school sports across the country:

"It's a logical extension of the big business that sports have become. Kids are turning pro at increasingly earlier ages, and colleges are offering college scholarships to kids at increasingly early ages. This is big business, and parents and their kids want to get a piece of the pie."

"These types of companies fill the gap left by those services cut by dwindling school budgets," said Paul M. Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "You're turning the level of time and investment up another notch."

In Anne Arundel County, a baseball training franchise called Frozen Ropes has worked with 7,000 clients, many of them in the 8-to-13 age range, since opening nearly three years ago. It has about 1,000 active clients.

Last year, Alex E. Brunet, the operation's president, found himself with a waiting list of 75 kids for the 12,000-square-foot facility, which was profitable by its second year.

"There's a lot more science going into sports now," said Brunet, who played college ball at the University of Maine. "A lot of the things I was taught in baseball are bio-mechanically incorrect."

The Glen Burnie center - named for baseball lingo describing a line-drive hit - has prospered for at least three reasons, as Brunet sees it.

Some parents acknowledge that they know little about baseball or softball and want trainers with expertise to help their children, he said. Others believe that they have taken their children as far as their own skills will allow and want them to receive advanced coaching.

And another group of parents believes their children aren't listening to their advice and seem to take instruction only from outsiders.

"Maybe 20 years ago, you're out in the back yard with Dad, but now he's still at work," said Brunet, who spends his days as a computer analyst for the Department of Defense.

"I think they want their kids involved in activities, and these are safe and have a good work ethic associated with them."

Frozen Ropes, a franchise business, has 19 locations nationwide. It plans to double in the next five to 10 years.

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