JEFFERSONVILLE - Players barely touched a basketball for the first half of Tuesday’s training session.
They lined up along the Grant Line Elementary gymnasium wall for squats. They stretched their hands toward the ceiling to loosen up their muscles. They gathered along the baseline, eying Ryan Wheeler as he demonstrated pivoting techniques and how to properly jump-stop.
It’s about the fundamentals for Wheeler, a former star basketball player for New Albany High School and a current assistant coach at his alma matter. Wheeler has helped mold the skills of players at the highest levels of Indiana high school basketball, including former Bulldog and current NBA player Romeo Langford. But his latest venture is a mix of profession and pleasure – instructing youngsters from kindergarten-age through high school in his own training business, Trust the Process Basketball.
“Back when I was young, we played outside with older guys who had experience,” Wheeler said. “No one plays outside anymore. They have cell phones, maybe they are raised by a single parent who is working all the time, so it’s not same. Parents are paying for the training.”
For $25 per session, Wheeler and staff train players for an hour. On Tuesday, the session started with younger kids, and it was hyper-focused on the basics.
“If you can’t take a kid who doesn’t know how to dribble, and teach them to dribble, then I think you’re doing the wrong thing,” Wheeler said.
He was encouraged by former players and coaches to start his own business based on his talents and the increasing demand for youth training. From basketball to volleyball, youth sports continue to grow in investment.
“It’s a multi-billion-dollar industry these days,” Lebanon Mayor Matt Gentry said.
BUILD IT, AND THEY WILL COME
Just off of Interstate 65, a nearly 300,000 square foot athletics facility is being constructed in a partnership between Lebanon and Cards and Associates. Once completed, it will include nine indoor basketball courts that can also be used for volleyball and pickleball. There will also be two full-sized indoor football fields in the facility.
“There’s an unmet demand in the market for additional, high-quality youth sports facilities,” Gentry said.
Tournaments have already been booked for 2024, and developers and city officials believe the influx of visitors to the area will result in increased sales for local businesses, especially hotels and restaurants. Estimates forecast up to 60,000 visitors to the facility monthly once it’s completed early next year.
“The response has been overwhelmingly positive. There’s a lot of excitement around the facility,” Gentry said.
Youth sports are an emerging tourism draw and there’s no signs of a slowdown for the Indiana market, according to industry experts.
“It was the first market that came back after the shutdown specifically because Illinois and Michigan were slower to open back up than we were,” said Jim Epperson, executive director of SoIn Tourism in Jeffersonville.
“It’s what kept some of our communities and their hospitality industries alive.”
The link between youth sports and tourism has grown to the point where some planners are connecting the two for capital projects.
“There are some communities that have gone all in and made that their version of a convention center,” Epperson said of youth sports facilities.
GETTING ON THE SAME PAGE
Tourism officials are typically charged with marketing an area’s attractions to groups, and oftentimes, they are seeking commitments for conventions years in advance of the event. The same holds true for recruiting youth sports events, Epperson said.
In Southern Indiana, multiple communities boast quality outdoor fields and indoor facilities. But for a tourism agent to book a major tournament that could require the use of multiple locations, all the entities have to be on the same page. Epperson said better planning between all groups, from those who manage facilities to those recruiting tournaments, would be beneficial financially for a region.
“We think we have a pretty good package, but what we’ve struggled with in the past is finding the commitment for the fields and courts far enough out to invest resources to go out and sell them,” Epperson said. “We need those commitments firm, on the same weekend, X number of months a year, two years out in order to make that worthwhile.”
IMPACT ON ECONOMY
Epperson said the tourism bureau is still working to secure data correlating the financial impact of youth sports on the local economy, but noted that the organization definitely observes a bump in hotel stays when there’s a big tournament in town.
It’s difficult to find an open weekend for booking at the Southern Indiana Sports Center in Floyd County several months of the year. The facility is often crowded with spectators watching travel volleyball teams.
“Basically, it’s wall-to-wall weekend tournaments from January to May,” said Floyd County Parks Superintendent Matt Denison.
“For me, it’s been amazing to get to see volleyball and its growth in recent years.”
Up to 20 teams packing the Sports Center on an average tournament day means a lot of visitors to the community.
“It’s clear when people are here and it’s volleyball day for us, the hotels are more full and the restaurants in the area, you can’t get in them at certain times,” Denison said.
NOW AND THEN
Youth sports have transitioned from being seasonal to all-year, with travel teams, AAU and training contributing to more time commitment. Wheeler said it depends on the athletes – do they want to be the best they can be at a particular sport, or do they view it as more of a hobby?
“A lot of kids play a lot of sports – baseball, football, basketball – and I think that’s good, but if you really want to be good at something, you have to do it a lot,” he said.
A youth athlete’s dedication at an early age can often set them apart from their peers when they reach higher levels of play, he continued.
“If you have a group that’s been training since they’ve been in the fourth or fifth grade, that matters,” Wheeler said.
Denison, who has organized and managed multiple youth sports leagues, said there’s also a change in attitude amongst adults when it comes to the quality of play.
“Everything is going younger and younger and it’s not just recreational opportunities, a lot of parents want things to be very competitive. They want championships and tournaments, even at the younger ages,” he said.
And with the heightened focus on performance, there’s more room to capitalize financially on the industry. From photography to travel ball, there’s profit and expense in youth sports.
According to the Aspen Institute, the average youth sports parent spent $883 in 2022 on one child’s primary sport per season.
“It seems to be growing. I’m sometimes concerned if it’s growing in the right direction or in the right way,” Denison said.
Income disparities are also at play.
“Children are having different sports experiences based on money,” researchers from the Aspen Institute stated in their Project Play report. “Parents making $150,000 or more spent 83% more on travel for their child’s experience than families earning under $50,000, and 65% more than households making between $50,000 and $149,000.”
Is the future of youth sports, and eventually higher levels of athletic play, tied to money? Wheeler is attempting to keep that from happening. Though the rates charged for Trust the Process are modest, he said there are several donors willing to sponsor kids for sessions if their households can’t afford the cost.
Most importantly, coaches, instructors and kids should have fun and enjoy what they’re doing, Wheeler said.
“You have to get to know the kids, joke with them, and build a rapport with each kid, and that starts early,” he said. “I love being around kids and impacting them and seeing them grow and seeing them out to eat later in life. It’s just a different experience.”