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Entrepreneurship: Travel Agents for Youth Sports Teams? Not All See It as a Perk

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“It’s become a tournament requirement in recent years to work with these companies,” said Ashley Hammond, the owner and president of Soccer Domain Football Club in Montclair, N.J. “They’ve gotten to be a part of almost every event we go to.”

His soccer club dispatches its approximately 500 eight- to 18-year-old players and their parents to competitions in destinations as far as Las Vegas, three or four times in a typical season.

Mr. Hammond, speaking from his car while driving home in a convoy with his club’s team of 14-year-olds from a tournament in Richmond, Va., said he preferred the do-it-yourself model, one he had gotten used to during more than 30 years of coaching.

“What I especially resent is that, if you do want to figure out your own travel, you have to buy your way out of it,” Mr. Hammond said, adding that tournaments will typically charge $500 or $750 to clubs that want to opt out.

For the tournament in Richmond, the Jefferson Cup, Mr. Hammond and his team of 25 players complied with the rules by staying at a Homewood Suites in downtown Richmond that he said didn’t offer perfect arrangements.

“Parking was a nightmare — and expensive,” Mr. Hammond said.

According to the National Association of Sports Commissions, a nonprofit that tracks the business of traveling to watch or participate in a sport, about $10.5 billion was spent in 2016 on amateur sports-related travel, an increase of 10 percent over 2015.

The size of that number has helped entrepreneurs like Shannon Barrows, the owner of Travel Team USA, thrive in an era when arrangements can be made easily online. Her company, started in 2004, booked travel for two million people to more than 1,500 youth tournaments last year, in events like football, cheerleading and cup-stacking competitions.

Services like hers are typically free to the sports clubs, but not to the hotels she books — which tend to be part of big chains like Best Western, Hyatt and Hilton.

“Hotels hate sports teams, but they’ve become a necessary evil,” Ms. Barrows said.

In exchange for the steady stream of bookings, hotels must be willing to let slide infractions like parents drinking beer in the hallways, a constant depletion of bacon at the breakfast buffet and muddy cleats everywhere. There is also the occasional vandalism — like broken lights and doors ripped off bathrooms stalls — that tends to accompany youthful exuberance (or a big win or loss for the team).

Ms. Barrows tends to use the powers of persuasion to offset these inevitable headaches. “I tell the hotel, if you’re going to take on 10 teams of 12-year-olds for the weekend, that’s just sheer numbers,” she said. “You have to be willing to have the security to manage it well.”

Some hotels do court the youth sports team business, which can be lucrative. And they often prefer to work with professional travel agents rather than parents and team managers, since the middlemen can add a layer of accountability and reliability.

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Shannon Barrows, the owner of Travel Team USA. Her company booked travel for two million people to more than 1,500 youth tournaments last year, in events like football and cheerleading competitions. Credit Will Vragovic for The New York Times

“There are so many teams traveling now across the U.S. that tournament hosts almost have to have somebody handling travel arrangements, just to take the burden off themselves,” said Justin Arsenault, national sales manager at SARec Sports Travel, a four-year-old company in Orlando, Fla., that books tournament stays across the country for youth baseball, softball, lacrosse and soccer teams.

The business of youth sports travel has ballooned so much that nearly every American community of 50,000 people or more now has a dedicated sports tourism division in its convention and visitors bureau, said David King, founder of Triple Crown Sports, a tournament sponsor based in Colorado. His company owns and operates 100 baseball, softball, fastball and volleyball tournaments throughout the United States and in Mexico.

“It’s a red-hot space,” Mr. King said of the team travel business, “And the lodging component is the largest.”

Three of Mr. King’s 60 employees recently left Triple Crown to work for what he called third-party hotel-booking companies like Ms. Barrows’s and Mr. Arsenault’s. Each of those companies was looking for new hires with a background in sports travel, he said.

Another reason tournament hosts retain companies like SARec and Travel Team USA is the trend toward “stay to play” events, where participants who live more than a certain distance away — usually 100 miles — have to stay at prepicked hotels as part of their eligibility to compete. These guarantees help ensure that the host makes money on its investment in a town’s fields, rinks or arenas.

It’s a convoluted system: Hosts get rebates, or money funneled back to the tournament, by the hotel whose rooms they have helped fill. The going rate is $10 to $15 a room per night, but can be as high as $25 to $30 a room, according to Don Schumacher, executive director of the National Association of Sports Commissions.

Tournaments need that kind of outside revenue, Ms. Barrows said, because without it registration fees would skyrocket. “The cost of venues typically eats up the registration fees,” she said. “Then you have insurance and staff to pay, and trophies to buy, refs to hire. One missing piece can kill a tournament.”

Players who want to opt out, as Mr. Hammond’s sometimes do, may be subjected to a fine or not invited back to compete the following year.

David Hollander, a clinical assistant professor at the Tisch Institute for Sports Management, Media and Business at New York University, said he thought the role of travel consultants in tournaments reflected the unfortunate commercialization of youth sports.

“What’s happened in the last six or seven years is, people have looked at these numbers showing that there are billions of dollars being spent on what they call youth sports tourism, and they’ve said, ‘Why don’t we take our little town, like Elizabethtown, Ky., or Attleboro, Mass., and why don’t we get a bond and build a youth sports complex that will attract these dollars to our hotels and restaurants and museums?’” Mr. Hollander said. “It’s top-to-bottom connected.”

Sometimes the tournament rules can seem stacked against the players, said Kyle Haddock, president of the Morris County Youth Soccer Association, a 700-team club in Randolph, N.J. At a recent tournament in Baltimore, he was required to check his 14-year-old players into a local hotel for a two-night minimum stay. “Our first game was at three in the afternoon, so we could have just put our sleepy teenagers in the car that morning” and driven down, he said. “But they made us stay over the night before.”

On the plus side, Mr. Haddock said, some of his 16-year-old players have taken advantage of the down time during tournaments to tour local colleges.

“We’ve learned to do what you’re encouraged to do, which is take advantage of what’s happening locally,” he said.

Financial disparities also come into play. Some teams prefer to stay in nicer hotels than the mandatory Hiltons and Hyatts, while other teams, with less deep pockets, cannot afford the room rates, often $100 or more a night, secured by consultants, said Mr. Hammond, the soccer club owner from Montclair.

He also perceives preferential treatment for clubs that bring the most players. “It seems like if you’re a club taking 1,000 rooms a year versus 50 rooms a year, you get hotels that are closer to the field,” Mr. Hammond said. (Tournament sponsors say that teams are booked on a first-come, first-served basis.)

Mr. Hammond said he had spent too much time staying in mandatory rooms that were an hour’s drive or more to the soccer field. “When you’ve got an 8 o’clock game, it can be brutal,” he said.

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