Living

Young athletes, families adjust in troubled economy

Dallas – Approaching 20 years of marriage and immersed in the constant adventures of raising four talented children, Mark and Arolynn Jones know how to manage a budget.

As with most parents, this requires largely unnoticed acts of selflessness: The kids come first.

So, even as doomsday economic predictions frazzle nerves everywhere – and elicit second-guesses on spending on items from Starbucks to SUVs – the Joneses continue to plunk down upward of $6,000 a year to fund their kids’ athletic aspirations. Three of the Jones kids – Jordan, Matthew and Mason – are basketball standouts and play on select teams, travel nationwide to tournaments regularly and take weekly private lessons.

“As you can tell, that’s a pretty big piece of what we do financially,” said Mark Jones, a senior reimbursement specialist for Tenet Healthcare Corp. His wife works as a supervisor in corporate customer relations at the J.C. Penney Co. headquarters.

He ranked sports close to the top of the family’s priorities, just behind each other, church and school.

“We make sacrifices to get it done,” he said.

‘YOU JUST FIND A WAY’

The Joneses aren’t alone. Youth sports organizations, from ultracompetitive and pricey club teams to recreational leagues, indicate that parents who are weathering the recession remain willing to pay for their kids to play ball.

For some, it means the unfamiliar practice of relying on financial aid or squeezing the most out of available fundraisers; for others, it means a more acute awareness of what they’re spending on sports.

“With sports and kids, you just find a way,” said Wes Grandstaff, a longtime Dallas-area select basketball coach and programming director at FieldhouseUSA in Frisco, Texas. “That’s in good times and bad.”

While the Joneses haven’t experienced economic adversity, not all families have been as fortunate. One Dallas family, which spoke on the condition that names not be used, is struggling.

The family business is in danger because of tax burdens, high overhead and clients cutting back because of the recession.

The idea of spending more than $2,000 for the upcoming season with the Sting Soccer Club for their 10-year-old daughter causes anxiety. She’s old enough to start playing competitively, and the costs will soar.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” the mother has asked her daughter, already knowing the answer, as she’s watched her develop athletically and socially.

“She loves it,” the mother said. “What if we didn’t let her do this? Everybody wants the best for her child.”

So the family has inquired with the Sting about fundraising and scholarship opportunities.

The club provides many options for fundraising and has started the Sting Soccer Foundation, which provides girls with financial support to play soccer.

“I think the economy has touched everyone, and it’s certainly part of dealing with youth sports,” said Sting executive officer Brent Coralli. “Any time parents’ pocketbooks are affected it, it touches their children. . . . We continually try to provide options for parents who have difficulty.”

Fundraisers have long been part of select sports, ranging from selling gift cards or poinsettias to holding poker or golf tournaments.

“We don’t know where the end is,” the mother said. “I’ll work as hard as I need to.”

Travel expenses vary among teams even within the same organization.

Many of the clubs want to get their kids to tournaments all over the country, playing in front of college scouts. Gas, flights, lodging and food, it all adds up.

“Each team has a different economic level,” said Linty Ingram, a coach and vice president of the Dallas Tigers Baseball Club. “I’ve kept in mind that we can’t go to Florida, Arizona and California all in the same season … especially this season.

“But going to where the showcase events are … that’s not really negotiable.”

WAYS TO CUT CORNERS

Tom Shepherd of Flower Mound, Texas, estimates spending $7,000 to $8,000 a year for his son Syler, who plays on an under-10 team with the Tigers.

He spent even more when his older son, Tant, who now plays at the University of Texas, was in high school and playing in prestigious tournaments.

“It’s always been a priority,” said Shepherd, who works for himself and also shells out for Syler to take private lessons. “We look at it as a family thing to do together, not just sitting around the house.”

Tommy Hernandez, president of the Tigers, said enrollment is actually up this season. Club dues average about $1,400 a season, but that doesn’t include travel or uniforms.

Not every youth sports opportunity has parents checking credit limits on their Visas.

Recreation leagues can offer a full season for about $75 a season, although the increased cost of renting game fields can drive those costs up. In perhaps another sign of the times, the PBA noticed an increase in applications for open umpire positions this spring.

At Play It Again Sports, a store that buys and resells used sporting goods, John Fimpson, who manages the Carrollton, Texas, branch, said business was good as some parents squeeze more out of their sports budgets.

Back at the Jones home, many weekends in the upcoming months will be spent on the road. Jordan Jones, 15, who plays for DFW Elite, recently returned from a weekend tournament in Virginia. The plane ticket cost more than $300.

Her brothers – Matthew, 14, and Mason, 11 – played at another tournament in Arkansas the same weekend.

The family is fortunate that Matthew plays with the Texas Titans. Dallas billionaire Kenny Troutt covers expenses for the players and their families – sometimes in luxurious style.

But that’s one kid. The Joneses feel they have an obligation to give all of their children the best opportunities to hone their talents, even in a recession. Even if Arolynn would like a new car, or to redecorate.

“They absolutely love what they’re doing,” Mark Jones said. “They have God-given ability to do it. I think that sports does have a lot to offer as far as life is considered – teamwork and discipline and bonding with friends. It’s life.”

So is finding a way.

“We have chocolate upstairs right now,” said Arolynn Jones, flashing her best smile while thinking of Jordan’s latest fundraiser. “Would you like to buy a chocolate bar?”

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