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VOL. 10 | NO. 4 | Saturday, January 21, 2017

Youth Sports Boost Players’ Skills, Benefit Memphis’ Bottom Line

BY LANCE WIEDOWER, Special to The Daily News

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The baseball fields in January are relatively quiet, at least compared to March. That’s when 60 to 65 teams begin to make their way every weekend to the Gameday Baseball complex in Cordova, where tournaments are in high gear from March through October.

But even during the winter months, youth sports complexes like Gameday are busy with competitive teams renting fields for practices. And gyms across the city are filled with basketball teams of every competitive level, not to mention the vast number of soccer teams gearing up for the season ahead.

Youth sports is a big business in Memphis, with thousands of teams that bring players and family members to town for tournaments in baseball, soccer and basketball, not to mention golf, tennis, hockey and every other sport imaginable.

Gameday Baseball and Southaven’s Snowden Grove are the only United States Specialty Sports Association Baseball complexes in the Memphis area. That means a lot of teams travel to the community, bringing people needing hotel rooms and restaurants.

During 2016, Gameday drew 155,000 people to the park over the course of 20 events. That included 1,240 teams comprising some 18,600 players and coaches.

Gameday president Andrew Stark said that equates to a $13.5 million financial impact on the Memphis economy, just from his one facility.

The impact goes beyond the families who travel to Memphis to compete in tournaments and leagues. Locally, children of all ages play for teams at a variety of competitive levels. And it’s trending younger, with more options for children well before they hit high school.

“It used to be that at a much higher competitive level it was always there, but really when kids got to high school, that is where it became ultra-competitive,” Stark said. “When kids finished with their high school seasons, the next week they went to competitive showcases all over the country. That’s what they did for the summer. Nowadays, it’s evolved past the high school level all the way down to 12-, 10- and 8-year-olds on a much greater competitive level.”

Not all youth sports are on competitive levels. Church leagues, community recreational leagues and organizations such as Memphis Athletic Ministries and the YMCA offer a variety of opportunities. But even with those options available, the founders of M33M Basketball saw a need when they started a team in 2005.

Then-Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Miller and his cousin, Ernie Kuyper, founded M33M as another way to showcase the skills of some of the city’s rich basketball talent. It started as one competitive basketball team for high school boys. That team traveled to other cities to compete in tournaments, and Kuyper said he realized there was potential in Memphis to build on what already existed in the city.

“I thought there is another market that was needed in this city,” he said, referring to the need for more youth tournaments that could bring traveling teams to the Bluff City.

That also eventually led to the creation of the year-round Jack Jones League – named for Jack Jones, a longtime Memphis basketball fan and former owner of The Daily News Publishing Co.

The youth league is open to all teams in the region, not just M33M teams. Kuyper said he saw a need for more organization with quality officials. There are two winter leagues as well as spring, summer and fall leagues, drawing a total of about 5,000 annual participants.

Soccer’s heartbeat in the Memphis area, meanwhile, is arguably at the Mike Rose Soccer Complex. When it opened in 1998, it brought 16 high-quality fields to Southeast Shelby County that could host a variety of games and tournaments. It was completed in 2001 with the opening of the stadium, which houses University of Memphis soccer teams among others.

The complex not only makes an economic impact on that specific part of Shelby County with hotel stays and restaurant visits, but also impacts the overall quality of soccer played in the community. The Memphis area now has more than 10 competitive soccer organizations, from Collierville Soccer Association and Germantown Legends to Soccer Ole and Midsouth Futbol Club.

There are a variety of reasons families choose to place a child in competitive sports, including trained coaches, higher level of play and more games. It is an investment for parents. Team fees are in the hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars, not to mention equipment and travel costs.

Kuyper said M33M tries to minimize that financial burden by making scholarships available so more kids can participate.

He said he believes even with the number of leagues and tournaments in the Memphis area, there’s room for more. He has a couple of projects in the works that could include future tournaments. One is the Memphis in May Invitational that will bring teams from other communities in all age ranges, starting at third grade.

Kuyper said running tournaments is the next phase for M33M.

“It’s how you can impact the city with hotels and food spending,” he said. “We’ve been traveling to tournaments with the older teams. When I saw those tournaments go younger, I knew I wanted to do this. I want to build like the soccer complex. Start off doing a couple of tournaments and make sure it’s a win-win, and then slowly grow it and make sure we do it correctly.”

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