AJ Alaimo wasn't having good at-bats. With too many strikeouts and not enough hits, there was no joy in baseball for him. Then he started working with a private hitting coach, and after a couple of sessions, he was smacking solid line drives into the outfield.
"No one expects me to hit that hard. It's so cool," he recently crowed to his mom.
"He's small for his age," she explained, describing her 9-year-old Little Leaguer who weighs in at all of 50 pounds.
Christine Alaimo, a paralegal in Las Vegas, isn't "one of those" youth sports parents who believe their kid is going to land a full-ride college scholarship to a Division I powerhouse, get drafted into the pros, make multimillions and star in SportsCenter highlights on ESPN.
Rather, she and her husband simply reacted to AJ's frustration and decided to invest $300 for a package of five private lessons from an experienced baseball coach they found on Boston-based CoachUp, a two-year-old Internet marketplace that matches private coaches with athletes online, a sort of Angie's List for the sports training world.
The Alaimos subsequently signed up their only child for another package and are committed to that coaching track for the time being. "It was something I never thought I'd do, but I've seen the results myself," Christine said.
Private coaching for young athletes, from age 6 through high school, is the latest trend in America's evolution of sports for kids. Sports coaching, including one-on-one tutoring for kids, was a $6.3 billion industry in the U.S. in 2013, according to an estimate from IBIS World.
While the industry keeps growing, so too do concerns that this is another have and have-nots scenario, where kids whose families can afford private lessons will have an advantage over those who can't.
"Over that last two to three decades, we've seen the professionalization of youth sports," said Dan Gould, director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University. "It used to be a neighborhood, local, informal thing. Now it's modeled after what you see in professional leagues, with travel teams, more practices, and younger kids specializing in just one sport. Kids see players on the Yankees or the Patriots with personal coaches and say, 'So why don't I have one?'"
That's not what inspired 28-year-old Jordan Fliegel, CEO and founder of CoachUp, to launch his burgeoning venture, though he declares that "personal coaching changed my life" when he was growing up in Boston, loving to play basketball but not being very good.
"A coach offered to work with me one-on-one. I made the varsity team as a sophomore in high school and got better every year." He made the team at Bowdoin College, rising from backup player to team MVP his senior year, then played professionally in Israel and Europe.
It worked so well, Fliegel became a private hoops coach himself, teaching kids and adults part-time for eight years while working—for an online marketplace, no less—and eventually going to business school. His entrepreneurial lightbulb switched on after he created a personal website to market his services but found it difficult to manage sessions, payments, reviews and other business tasks while trying to focus on his primary coaching duties.
Pondering a solution, Fliegel noticed the huge population of former collegiate and pro players who didn't retire with millions yet did possess potentially marketable coaching skills.
"If only they had a way to make it simple to build a website, market their services and manage their business," he recalled of his brainstorm—and neatly outlined the basic services provided to CoachUp's current roster of 12,000 coaches across the country, each vetted with background checks and credential verifications.
The way CoachUp works, you type in your Zip code, choose a sport, and up pops a list of coaches, pictured alongside brief IDs and how much they charge per session, which generally ranges from $30 to $120, reflecting the breadth of the coaches' résumés. When you click on one, the site takes you to the coach's homepage for details and contact information.
Once the two parties link and a coaching package is selected, payment goes to CoachUp, which collects a one-time $15 connection fee and 6 percent on top of the coach's fee to offset insurance and processing expenses. Coaches pay the company fees, unspecified by Fliegel, who said only that they vary on how many sessions the coach has booked, their rating from clients' required feedback, and experience, such as playing professionally.
Private coaching is hardly new to youth sports. For generations, kids have learned the fundamentals of tennis, golf and swimming from country club pros and instructors. Sport-specific camps and clinics have flourished for years, but they have recently proliferated as legions of budding jocks opt to play one sport exclusively.
That's given rise to hundreds of privately run clubs and academies—predominantly for baseball, football, basketball, soccer and hockey—small businesses owned and staffed by coaches that drill and field elite travel teams.
Nearly 4,000 such organizations nationwide are the target clients of Bookacoach, differentiating it from CoachUp. "We're a training and marketing automation platform start-up," said founder and CEO Kevin MacCauley, who opened shop a year ago in Indianapolis.
"The sole focus of our business-to-business model is to help academy and club programs run their training operations," he said. "We connect parents to those organizations and help them navigate within them.
"Parents spend a couple thousand dollars to join an academy or club," MacCauley, 30, added, "but many are so large and have so many coaches, rarely does that academy do a good job educating parents about the different coaches."
Filling that void is Bookacoach's value proposition to parents, along with coach vetting and online support tools, for which they pay a 10 percent fee built into the coaching charge. The company distributes payments to the academies and clubs, though doesn't charge for the management services.
MacCauley was coaching Little League a few years ago, and as parents kept asking whether he offered private instruction or knew of places that did, the idea for Bookacoach germinated. "I discovered a huge gap that parents have in knowing about the sports network in their communities," he said.
Bookacoach didn't exist yet but might have come in handy when Mike Savino started researching various private baseball programs for his son near their home in Cheshire, Connecticut, a few years ago.
He'd coached Tommy's Little League team until Tommy turned 12 and ran out of age eligibility. "I didn't know enough about coaching beyond that point," Savino admitted. "He was one of the better players in his age group in our town, so he tried out for the Connecticut Bombers in Hamden and made the team."
Noting that Tommy indicated he wanted to play baseball in high school and college, Savino said he had three criteria when choosing a private program: instruction, competition and exposure. After two years with the Bombers as well the Cheshire High team, he's confident all three marks have been hit and that the thousands of dollars he's spent thus far are worth it.
Between the two squads, Tommy, a junior, has practices and games up to five days a week for about 10 months a year, including nearly 130 seven-inning games—not much less than the 162 games the major leaguers play in a regular season. "It's a tremendous investment in time and money," Savino said, breaking the money part down to upward of $7,000 a year on the Bombers, family travel to tournaments and other private hitting and catching lessons.
Bob Turcio, owner and head coach of the 25-year-old Bombers program, is well regarded among and connected to college teams, whose scouts regularly attend games. More than 80 college scouts will be on hand when Tommy and dozens of other hopefuls play in the Showball Tournament in Fort Myers, Florida, later this month.
Today this all is a good investment, Savino said. "If baseball allows him to get into a school that otherwise he couldn't get into, that would be great. I have no expectation of him getting a scholarship, and if I have to pay full amount for college, I'll have no regrets. Baseball has given him other characteristics he might not have gotten from other programs or activities."
Gould and other youth sports experts agree on the positives that kids gain from sports. But they also worry about the potential physical, psychological and emotional strain, either self-imposed or from overbearing parents and coaches caught up in our society's outsized glorification of athletes and the desire to develop them.
"The difference between private coaching a generation ago and today is that now it is about getting a competitive edge," said Rick Wolff, a longtime adviser on sports parenting and host of The Sports Edge weekly talk show on WFAN sports radio in New York. The last time he checked NCAA statistics, Wolff said, the college sports body reported that less than 4 percent of all high school varsity athletes were good enough to make a Division I, II or III roster. "That's just to make the team, not to be a starter," he added. "That's how competitive it is."
Fred Engh, president of the National Alliance for Youth Sports and author of "Why Johnny Hates Sports," warned against parents getting blindsided by unrealistic motivations. "I call it the weakness of parents," he stated, "who see their child having this athletic talent or hoping he or she does, bringing in big dollars in the future. They spend an enormous amount of money, and the odds are so far against that happening, it becomes kind of ludicrous."
Even if the kid is talented enough to get a scholarship, Gould said, "if the parents put the money they spent on sports into a college savings account," they might reap a better return on their investment. "The literature is pretty clear," he said. "If you get your child an academic tutor, there is more scholarship money for academics than for sports." Parents need to be informed consumers, he counseled, and not make decisions based on emotions.
Meanwhile, AJ Alaimo's Little League team took second place in the Double A division playoffs. "I spoke to one parent who commented about AJ coming into his own," his mom said. "Her boy is inconsistent, she said, so I gave her the coach's information." And so the evolution continues.