Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series exploring the rising costs of youth sports and college sports opportunities.

Most parents want to sit in the stands and watch with pride as their child hits the winning basket or scores the go-ahead goal. They want to lean over to the person sitting next to them and say, "That's my boy who just had the game-winning RBI." It may be what parents dream of, but at what cost?

The days of signing a child up for Little League, buying him a bat, ball, glove and cleats and then watching him play once or twice a week are over. So is signing him up for baseball in the spring, soccer in the fall and basketball in the winter, at least if you want your child to be among the elite. If excellence on the diamond, pitch or hard court is in your child's future, be prepared to not only dip into the wallet but perhaps take out a second mortgage. The cost of high-level sports, even at the little league level, can exceed $7,000 per year, and is possibly much more.

Specialization is the name of the game. Year-round training, extra camps, more coaching and traveling to face other top athletes in the country are all part of making your child the best of the best. And don't think it can wait until they begin playing in high school.

"My son that is in high school is much easier than my 12-year-old," said Jim Teahan, who has a son, Sam, who recently graduated from Alta High and played both football and baseball for the Hawks, and 12-year-old Nathan, who plays baseball for a little league all-star team. "Sam had some 7-on-7 camps and stuff for football, or he practiced baseball, but it was nothing like it has been for Nathan. He is playing, practicing, working out or going to some type of camp or clinic almost every day, it seems."

It is a reality that many parents are facing when it comes to their children playing sports. Want your child to get a college scholarship? Be prepared to ante up. Even if your child does excel at the game, there are only so many scholarships to go around. Playing competitive sports isn't cheap. And there isn't really any end in sight.

"It just keeps getting more and more expensive every year," said Travis Allen, whose 14-year-old son, David, plays on a competitive soccer team. "From club dues, to needing to have the next and greatest new equipment, to travel costs for tournaments, pretty soon you may see some of the average Joes priced right out of having their kids play at the higher levels."

Certainly, there are still the recreation leagues out there for pure enjoyment, but they are shrinking. Recreation soccer leagues are jam-packed for beginners and youngsters. There are plenty of participants, coaches, venues and referees. But once players reach around age 12 and up, the options shrink, participation is down, and some rec leagues can't even field enough teams to play a full schedule.

Why is this? Once a player reaches that age, playing purely for fun is almost out of the equation. If a player isn't on a competition team by then, it may be too late.

"All of David's friends got together and decided they were going to try out for a certain club," said Allen. "There were a couple that didn't make it, and to be honest, David doesn't seem to see them as much. He is always with his friends from the team."

Making the jump from simply being on a Jr. Jazz basketball team to playing on an Amateur Athletic Union traveling team requires a concerted effort, both by the player and the parents. The time and money are going to increase, sometimes by as much as 10, 20 or even 100 times.

Bill Paulos' son Nicholas plays for an AAU basketball team named Pump N Run. The club has a sponsorship deal with adidas, which means that equipment such as shoes, uniforms, travel bags and tournament entry fees are all donated by the athletic-company juggernaut. But that doesn't mean that it is a free ride.

"It is nice that adidas pays for all that," said Paulos. "But with them traveling all over, I estimate it costs a couple of thousand dollars per year to have your kid play."

Pump N Run played in a tournament in Las Vegas last Easter weekend — it lost in the semifinals to a team from California sponsored by Tyson Chandler, now with the New Orleans Hornets, that had its own tour bus — one of four to six tournaments the team attends over the year. It has been playing together since most players were 11-year-olds. Paulos estimates that every player on the team spends 50 weeks out of the year concentrating on basketball.

"They take a week or so off after the high school basketball season is over, but then it is right back at it practicing three or four times a week and then lifting weights or doing conditioning on other days."

Most of the costs are measurable, but what about the time needed away from work to take kids to practice, or travel to a tournament or watch them play? How much does it take away from the parents' ability to earn a living? Where is the happy medium? For parents who are hoping to offset all the costs with a college scholarship, there may be a harsh reality coming.

"I think that with all the money we spend on Nathan for baseball, that if we just invested it, when it came time for college we would be way better off than if we are banking on him getting a full-ride scholarship to some university," said Teahan. "The truth is, there just aren't that many players that are offered full-ride scholarships."

Of course, spending thousands of dollars per year on sports isn't done by every parent in hopes of it becoming an investment.

"We have Nicholas playing with these guys because we think it is a tremendous opportunity for him," said Paulos. "We aren't doing it so he can get a scholarship. If that happens, great. But how many kids get a chance to be taught by some great coaches, travel the country and see what life is like for other people? We are letting him play because we think it benefits him as a person, not just as an athlete."


E-mail: mblack@desnews.com