For many families, the transition from Little League to travel baseball comes with stress, anxiety and questions about what to look for in a team and what to expect from the experience — not to mention the question of whether making the switch from a more laid-back rec ball program to a more competitive (and expensive) travel club is the right decision in the first place.
In this post, we’re going to go over everything you need to know about getting started with youth travel baseball. We’ll help you answer the questions above and determine whether travel baseball is a good fit for your son or daughter.
What is Travel Baseball?
First, it’s important to understand what a travel baseball team is and how travel baseball is organized.
There are tens of thousands of travel baseball teams around the country, and their popularity has exploded over the past two decades. As recently as the 1990s, travel baseball was a niche experience limited mostly to elite players in baseball-rich areas like Texas and California. Today, participation is seen by many as a near necessity for talented players to develop their skills and hone their game against the best competition they can find.
Whereas Little League is the dominant organization when it comes to recreational youth baseball, there are multiple organizations throughout the country that host hundreds of travel tournaments each year. Some of the biggest and most popular are USSSA (United States Speciality Sports Association), AAU (Amateur Athletic Union), Triple Crown Sports, and Perfect Game. Travel baseball teams often participate in tournaments organized by more than one of those organizations.
A team can be started by anyone. Many are formed by parents, but many others are formed by high school and former college coaches. Depending on their organizational goals, some programs have just one team that participates in one age bracket (such as 10 and under), while some are run like businesses and have teams that compete in every age group.
Some huge organizations, such as California Baseball Academy (CBA), even have multiple teams within the same age group, located in multiple cities. CBA has teams not only in California, but also in Nevada, Texas, Utah and the southeast. High-level programs like that are often known for attracting top talent, for training recruits into elite players, and for feeding those players into nearby colleges and universities.
Travel Baseball Competition Structure
Virtually all travel baseball games are played on weekends in a tournament format. Those tournaments can theoretically be held anywhere, but are frequently held at multi-field facilities in easily-accessible travel hubs. For example, many Florida tournaments are held in Orlando because it’s in the relative center of the state, it has plenty of hotel rooms, and it’s home to many great baseball facilities. The farther you live away from such a hub, the more you should expect to travel.
Most tournaments begin with pool play, meaning that teams are guaranteed a number of games before heading into single elimination. A team can expect to play anywhere from three to eight games over the course of a two-day or three-day tournament, depending on how they perform.
There is no set number of tournaments a team must participate in. Each team decides which tournaments to enter on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration factors such as age level, skill level, and cost. In general, two tournaments per month can be seen as about average, although higher-level teams may play more frequently.
Most organizations run regional and national championships, which are invite-only. For example, USSSA hosts “qualifier” tournaments, where the winner of the championship game (and sometimes the runner up) can earn a bid to the USSSA national tournament.
Additionally, beginning at age 14, some teams start participating in “college exposure tournaments,” where college scouts come from across the country to watch and evaluate prospects. These tournaments are typically more expensive than regular tournaments, and are often farther away.
How to Join a Travel Baseball Team
If you’ve decided to join a travel baseball team and aren’t sure where to find one, there are a number of resources available.
It may go without saying, but word-of-mouth can be a valuable first reference point. If you’re thinking about switching to travel baseball, chances are that you already know someone in your area who has made the jump. If so, don’t be afraid to ask them questions about the team and their experience. It’s a big commitment — both in terms of time and finances — so it’s important to make sure you find the right club for your son or daughter.
In addition to word of mouth, many organizations offer a list of active teams on their website. For example, USSSA has a tool that lets you filter teams by age level, skill level, and location. There are also many state-based forums and Facebook groups where coaches post their team’s tryouts (and positions needed). As an example, here are Facebook groups for travel baseball teams in Florida and Michigan — you can find similar groups for every state.
Another good option is FieldLevel.com, which (like the USSSA site) allows you to filter teams by state and level. While not every team is listed on that website, it does include over 4,000 clubs.
What to Look For in a Travel Baseball Team
Here are eight things to think about when evaluating teams. These factors will make a big difference when it comes to your overall experience, so take the time to think about them, and don’t be afraid to ask questions of parents and coaches.
A coaching staff can make or break a team. How coaches manage players, keep the game fun, instill the fundamentals, and focus on development — not only as athletes, but as young men and women — is extremely important.
Some travel baseball teams have parents or grandparents serving as the head coach. While that can be fine, it’s important to make sure those coaches don’t make keeping their own child on the field a priority. Before committing to a team, spend some time researching it by watching a practice and talking to current and/or former players and parents.
What’s the coaching style? Do they have high expectations but still encourage and love their players? Or, on the other hand, are they screaming at players when they make a mistake?
Additionally, are players treated equitably, or do some get preferential treatment based on their relationship to the coach or their financial contribution to the team?
Ideally, your child will be a part of that team and organization for consecutive years, rather than bouncing from team to team. As such, determining whether the coaching staff is a good fit is a crucial first step.
For many parents, this is the most terrifying aspect of travel baseball.
Just how much of a toll is this going to take on your bank account? The specific answer varies, but the typical range of cost for participating in travel baseball is between $500 and $2,500 per year.
That said, you can end up spending a lot more than that. Back in 2011, CBS News reported that one Georgia family paid $4,000 per year for their 9-year-old son’s travel team. You can imagine that older players in elite programs that travel all over the country can spend even more over the course of a season.
Typically, the more intensely focused a program is on developing its players for college baseball, the more money the program is going to cost. On the other hand, teams that are playing more for the fun of it — those looking for just a little more structure and competition than offered by Little League — won’t put as much of a dent in your wallet.
There are a number of specific factors that go into how much it costs to be on a team:
- Where you live. If you live in a baseball hub, like Texas or California, you won’t have to travel as far to get to tournaments. Many teams from rural areas regularly drive across multiple states (or sometimes even fly) to tournaments. As such, where you live will likely be the single biggest variable in your overall travel baseball cost.
- Whether you have to buy your own equipment. Some teams are sponsored by equipment companies like Easton and Rawlings and have their bats, gloves and cleats provided either for free or at a reduced cost. Obviously, this can be a huge savings. Also, keep in mind that (unfortunately) equipment is often viewed as a status symbol in travel baseball. If your child joins a team where every other player has multiple bats and position-specific gloves, he or she is going to press you for similar gear.
- Whether you have to rent facilities. Some teams practice exclusively at public fields. Others have little or no access to such facilities and have to rent fields and/or indoor space (especially for winter workouts). This can have a huge impact on the overall cost of participation.
- Whether or not coaches are paid. Some teams — typically the more competitive ones — pay their coaches small stipends and/or cover their cost of travel. On one hand, this tends to lead to better coaching. On the other hand, families are the ones who will ultimately foot that bill.
- How competitive the team is. Higher-level tournaments typically have higher fees. Lower-level tournaments, operated on a more sub-regional basis, are usually much less expensive to enter. If cost is a concern, make sure you know what types of tournaments the team usually enters over the course of the season.
As stated earlier, location is a key factor in deciding which travel team to play for. If you’re fortunate enough to live in California, Florida or Texas, you’re going to have a lot of opportunities to play with and against high-level competition right in your backyard.
But outside of those states, it’s a little bit tougher, and you have to decide how committed you are to playing at the highest possible level.
For example, if you live in a medium-sized town outside of a major baseball hub, chances are you have at least a couple of travel ball options. However, the odds are that those options are not the absolute cream of the crop when it comes to coaching and competitiveness. In order to play for the absolute “best” team possible, you might have to commute from your mid-sized town to the nearest major city.
So you’ll be faced with the following choice: play on a lower level team that’s closer to home, or drive a hundred miles or more for twice-weekly practices? It may sound crazy, but many families do just that.
Why would they commit so much time and money to their son or daughter’s athletic pursuits? It comes down to goals. Better teams often provide better coaching and more opportunities for exposure to college and professional scouts.
What’s the team’s mission? Is the focus on fun, player development, college exposure, or a mix of all there? Teams can have many different goals and missions, and there’s no right or wrong approach.
However, it is possible that a team’s mission does not align with your values and goals, and you need to think about this before committing, as a compatibility mismatch can lead to coach-parent and coach-player tension.
Consider the reputation of the organization you’re evaluating. When you join a team, you and your son or daughter will essentially be endorsing everything the program stands for. If they’re known for dirty play or being disrespectful to the game, you’ll be associated with that.
And believe it or not, the baseball world is a small and surprisingly tight-knit community. College coaches tend to know which programs produce bad apples — and they avoid them. In fact, many college coaches will completely write off an entire organization that has a reputation for not playing the game the right way or for having disrespectful players.
6. Playing Time
There’s an important balance between getting enough playing time and being challenged. Before committing, ask the coaching staff what kind of playing time your child can expect — including at what position.
If there are two returning shortstops, he or she most likely won’t be playing there and might have to learn another position. That’s not a bad thing: college coaches want players that are versatile, and many players change positions as they get older and their bodies develop.
Still, it’s helpful to know what to expect ahead of time. Getting game reps is important from a development perspective, but also just from a fun perspective: no kid wants to consistently travel to a tournament only to sit on the bench for most of the weekend.
7. Skill Level
Be realistic about your child’s skill level, and pay attention to the level of competition around him or her at tryouts (i.e., the skill levels of the other players). If your kid has the fight and desire to compete for a spot (like they’ll have to do if they make it to college ball), then putting them on a team where they’ll be challenged is the best option.
But if he or she is there to have fun and make friends, with no burning desire to be constantly improving, then choosing a travel team that’s more low-key will be the better call.
8. What You’re Giving Up
Travel baseball tournaments are on weekends, and players often have to sacrifice certain things that are part of a normal childhood.
Is your son or daughter willing to miss out on things like birthdays, sleepovers and school dances, because most of their time is spent doing homework, traveling to and from games and practices, practicing on their own (possibly including private lessons), and spending nearly every summer weekend at the ballpark?
And are they willing to sacrifice the material things that matter to kids — things like clothes, video games, new smartphones, etc. — because so much money is being spent on baseball?
As I wrote in THV’s guide to travel softball, my family made major sacrifices to support my athletic pursuits.
For some, their love of the game is so great that giving up these things is a no-brainer. For others, they may regret missing out on these social activities. And that’s perfectly fine! Just be honest with each other and talk about the true costs of travel baseball — because it’s not just the sticker price.
Travel Baseball vs. Little League
There are some important similarities and differences between competitive travel baseball and recreational baseball. Both can teach many valuable life skills, such as work ethic, good sportsmanship, teamwork and bouncing back from failure. But they are very different when it comes to time commitment and competitiveness.
The Little League schedule usually runs from the late spring through early summer, with teams practicing twice per week and playing two games per week. The total number of games per season varies, but it usually ranges from 10 to 20. It’s a local program, which means travel is either limited or non-existent. In general, Little League coaches are parents.
Little League can be a great place for kids as young as 4-years-old to start playing the game. They’ll learn the rules and the absolute basics of hitting, pitching and fielding in a fun an easy-going environment (except for the occasional parent that takes their coaching position overboard).
Overall, Little League fits the classic stereotype of youth baseball: kids having fun playing the greatest game in the world, without much pressure or focus on player development.
Back in the day, Little League would feed into middle school and high school programs, which carried the bulk of the weight when it came to getting payers ready for college and the pros. But today, the reality is that it’s almost impossible to get the coaching and skill development you need by participating only Little league or other rec ball programs.
That’s especially true when it comes to the gap between “Majors” Little League (12-and-under) and high school. Few middle schools still have baseball programs, and those programs that do exist tend not to be very good. Likewise, while Little League offers both a Junior division (12-14) and a Senior division (14-16), those leagues tend to pale in comparison to the coaching and competition offered by travel ball.
So, if your son or daughter is serious about playing baseball at a high level, it’s especially important to focus on the transition to travel ball at around the age of 11 or 12.
Travel Baseball Pros and Cons
There are positives and negatives when it comes to travel baseball. Here are a few of each.
- Better competition: Players are more serious about the game and more driven to improve. This higher level of competition will help push your son or daughter to improve their own skills.
- Better coaching: Travel baseball coaches tend to be better qualified, more knowledgeable, and better-connected. At the highest levels of travel ball, teams often employ former professional coaches.
- More exposure: Aside from high school baseball, travel ball is the primary means of exposure to college coaches and pro scouts. Plus, travel teams often attend showcase tournaments and camps.
- More games played: Travel teams play significantly more games per year than rec ball teams.
- Facilitates travel: Sometimes seen as an ancillary benefit, the travel itself can be a valuable and eye-opening experience for players. Many kids don’t have an opportunity to travel out of their own area or state, and travel baseball can provide that.
- Encourages character development: Because travel teams are more serious, there’s a greater emphasis put on things like being on time, demonstrating maximum effort, and having a good attitude.
- Cost: Travel baseball is expensive — sometimes absurdly so. Families often spend around $2,500 per year, but the costs can be even higher.
- Time commitment: Even a moderately competitive travel team can consume an entire summer’s worth of weekends.
- Ultra-competitive: On most travel teams, there’s a balance between player development and winning. What you won’t often find is an “everybody plays” approach. For the most part, the best players will play the most, which makes for a highly-competitive environment.
- Tougher workouts: This can be a pro or a con, depending on the player’s perspective and goals. Tougher workouts can lead to better outcomes, but they can also be mentally and physically taxing if the player isn’t fully invested.
- Lack of diversity: Because travel baseball is expensive, it has often been criticized for a lack of socioeconomic and racial diversity.
Criticisms and Controversy
Travel baseball provides many benefits and can be a valuable opportunity for players who are serious about the game and committed to playing at the highest possible level. However, it’s not without its share of criticism and controversy.
In an essay titled “Left Out,” MLB superstar Andrew McCutchen wrote about how kids like him, who grow up in low-income families, are often excluded from travel baseball and thus systematically disadvantaged when it comes to development and exposure:
“When you’re a kid from a low-income family who has talent, how do you get recognized? Now, you have to pay thousands of dollars for the chance to be noticed in showcase tournaments in big cities. My parents loved me, but they had to work hard to put food on the table, and there wasn’t much left over. They didn’t have the option of skipping a shift to take me to a tournament over the weekend. […] 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.
[…] If you’re a poor kid with raw ability, it’s not enough.”
McCutchen was lucky: an AAU coach “discovered” him at the age of 13 and covered his travel ball expenses. But most kids from similar situations aren’t so fortunate.
Why is this important for you, the parent of a child thinking about joining a travel team?
On one hand, it’s important to be aware of how the systems we participate in affect our society. But on a much more specific level, you should know that your child will be entering a largely homogenous environment.
On top of that, kids from lower-income families can often feel out of place in travel ball — especially if they don’t come to the ballpark with the latest, top-quality gear like their teammates. This social dynamic can have a powerful impact on your child’s experience.
Additionally, travel baseball means that both your family and your child will be spending less time within your own community.
There’s been a lot written in recent years about how travel baseball may be contributing to the erosion of communities, because it pulls families out of local baseball programs that once served as important civic institutions.
This is evidenced by the sharply declining participation in Little League. In the organization’s Southeast Region (a hotbed for a travel baseball), the number of Little League players has plunged by nearly 50% since 2007.
Is Travel Baseball Worth It?
So we’ve come to the biggest question: Is travel ball worth it?
If you want to improve your skills and have the best chance to play in college or the pros, travel baseball is the way to go. But remember: there is a range of cost and time commitment within travel baseball. Your son or daughter doesn’t necessarily have to opt for the most expensive travel team in order to be sufficiently challenged (and later on, to get noticed by college coaches).
Your goal in evaluating teams should be to find the right balance of:
- Financial commitment
- Time commitment
- Intangible sacrifices (school events, community involvement, etc.)
- Baseball goals
After reading this article, you should have a very solid understanding of what Little League and travel baseball have in common, their differences, and what you should be looking for in a club.
Remember, this is your child’s choice to. Help them see the pros and cons of each option. And although we stated it earlier, we cannot stress this enough: you cannot dictate your son or daughter’s commitment to the game of baseball. It’s up to them. So, support them in whatever capacity they want to participate. If you do, they’ll never regret or forget the amazing experiences, friends, and lessons learned playing this great game.