SBJ/20090817/SBJ In-Depth

Sports camps move beyond teaching the fundamentals

Given all of the year-round instruction that’s offered for youth baseball players, is there even a place for the summer camp anymore?

Cal Ripken believes there is.

“I hope so,” said Major League Baseball’s ironman. “We’re in the camp business.”

Weekly baseball camps through the summer are central to Ripken’s youth baseball enterprise, which also includes leagues and tournaments.

At $495 for the week, parents are paying for more than just fundamental instruction. The camps include a practice inside Camden Yards, visits to local aquariums and science centers, and of course a meet-and-greet with the hall of famer. It’s less a camp and more an “experience.”

Parents pay $495 for their youngsters to attend
Cal Ripken’s weeklong baseball camp.

“The experience we’re trying to give is the same experience big leaguers have when they walk into a big league park for the first time,” Ripken said. “We try to make it as much about fun and build our activities around baseball. We even go to the Ravens stadium and play flag football.”

The more traditional camps are still around, offered by the local college or high school coach, as well as the many camps run by instructional centers. The purpose of these camps, however, has expanded beyond the mere offering of fundamentals.

At the college level, camps are about recruiting and identifying talent, no matter the sport. Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski recently created an “elite” camp for the top high school prospects to get them on campus. Many other college programs, basketball and otherwise, offer similar camps that give top recruits the chance to compete against each other, while also fostering a relationship between coach and players.

For baseball-oriented instructional centers, camps serve as a brand extension, a way to establish relationships with families that they hope will turn into private lessons that often cost $100 an hour or more. Many of these instructional centers now field their own spring and summer select teams with professional coaches for ages as young as 9.

“I don’t think youth baseball has ever been better, in terms of the instruction that’s offered,” said Mississippi State coach John Cohen, who offers a team camp, a pitching/catching camp and all-skills camps on the school’s campus, with proceeds going back into the baseball team’s budget. “With the Internet and the information that’s available, youth baseball has really become an industry.”

But with the evolution of the industry comes additional cost for young people to play baseball at the highest levels.

When Ripken came along, he played for the West Asheville (N.C.) Little League, or wherever his dad was managing at the time. Now it’s not uncommon for investments of $2,000 or more to be required for a season on an instructional center’s branded team with paid coaches.

“These centers are as common as the local gym now,” Cohen said. “But as things get more expensive, it’s becoming more and more like golf or tennis, where there might be certain demographics that become excluded. But if you want instruction at practically any age, you can get it.”

The summer camps carry on, even if many of them don’t look much like the camps that introduced kids to sports years ago.

“We know practice isn’t always fun,” Ripken said. “What we’re looking to do is make it a good value and keep it fun for the kids. We know that some of the numbers show fewer kids are playing the game than 10 years ago, but the ones who are playing are playing more of it.”

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