Pay to Play: The High Stakes of Youth Travel Sports


Noah Shandler, Author

From $659 to upwards of $5,000 per year, the cost of travel sports can leave some student-athletes stressing family finances. Still others are left out of these teams altogether, losing opportunities because of the expenses involved. 

According to a 2019 ESPN article about the costs of each travel sport, hockey is the most costly at an average of $2,583 annually. Some other costly sports include skiing/snowboarding ($2,249) followed by field hockey and tennis, which cost between $1,500 and $2,000 annually. And while baseball can cost as little as $659, elite soccer can approach $5,000.

For Brigit Rivard, a Santa Fe High junior who plays on a travel ice hockey team, juggling school and two team commitments is stressful and takes a toll on her social and school life. She travels almost every weekend with the Colorado Girls Hockey League Mustangs and the Tier II U19 Mustangs. For her, it’s rare to be in New Mexico for more than two weekends. Even when she is home, she always has tournaments in Santa Fe or Albuquerque.

Brigit feels that she has “no time to hang out with [her] friends on the weekends.” She spends so much time with the team she says they have “practically become [her] family.” She also feels it’s almost impossible not to fall behind in school.

Brigit said she always has one or two assignments that are missing or late. There are weekends when she leaves on a Thursday for a tournament and worries she will “miss a test or have to make up a ton of assignments.”

SFHS senior Irene Pierpont played club volleyball for eight years. Although her team didn’t travel outside Albuquerque until the last three years, she said it was still a burden. Her team generally remained in the Southwest, traveling to Dallas or Denver at the furthest. 

Irene said the cost of the team wasn’t over-the-top expensive, so it didn’t strain her family’s finances. But she decided to stop playing travel sports this year because she could no longer sustain the time commitment; she wanted to prioritize her freedom during her senior year and pursue her passion for skiing. She feels it also would be hard to manage her course load and college applications.

Irene’s involvement in school and other activities contributed to her decision: “I just wasn’t able to make that commitment, especially because the club I played with was going to be doing a lot of away tournaments this year,” she said.

Hawk Luciano is a Sante Fe High senior who plays for the Santa Fe Blue Jackets and New Mexico Ice Wolves U18 AA team. Hawk’s greatest struggle is finding time to do homework. He says he tries to “squeeze it whenever [he] can.”

Hawk finds himself getting all his work done in the airport when he travels. Most of the time he stays up doing homework after practice. Although Hawk misses out on some things, he said it’s a sacrifice that “is definitely worth it.”

In order to play travel hockey, Hawk pays for everything himself. This includes his gear, plane tickets, and hotel rooms. To earn this money, he said he has to work “constantly.” He works at Coyote Cafe in downtown Santa Fe two to four nights a week.

Alex Waggoner, a senior who plays soccer for New Mexico United’s first team, has years of experience juggling the expenses and time commitments of travel soccer. When he played for the Rush travel team, he said it cost over $5,000 a year for league fees, coach fees, tournaments, etc. He also had to make the trip from Santa Fe to Albuquerque three or four times per week for games and practices. But he maintains that this was all essential for moving to the next level.

“To get in front of college coaches, you have to be on these teams,” Alex said. “It’s definitely a pay-to-play kind of thing. … Some players though, who can’t afford it – we would do fundraisers for them and try to support them. But some players aren’t comfortable accepting help.”

Student-athletes not being able to play travel sports leaves them out of chances to make good impressions on coaches. Travel sports allow kids to go to college showcases and get scouted by college coaches. If they can’t go to these showcases, some athletes feel they won’t ever make it to pro, which can lower their self-esteem and maybe cause them to quit sports altogether. 

“You have to be in the right place at the right time to be seen,” said Alex, who will be playing  Division 1 soccer at the University of Michigan in the fall. He explained that it was at a college showcase that he was scouted, and even that might not have happened if Mr. Eadie, Santa Fe High’s soccer coach, hadn’t been able to get him invited. 

“The system really needs fixing,” Alex said, adding that for soccer, long-term improvements are being made to support players and the sport as a whole so that the U.S. can become more competitive on the world stage. “The future does look better,” he said.

With travel sports taking such a toll on student-athletes and their families, playing rec sports and being on school teams might be their only options.