Sometimes other parents joked about it, but Rich Lamberti didn’t care.
The loaf of bread and jars of peanut butter and jelly were always in the car. Lamberti and his wife, Kathy, would have pretzels and fruit to round out the meal. The Cary couple learned as soon as their eldest daughter, Lauren, began playing club volleyball for Crystal Lake-based Sky High that they needed to budget.
“I had many, many conversations with parents and club directors about how expensive it was getting,” said Lamberti of the travel costs he and Kathy incurred in the 10 years Lauren and youngest daughter, Kelly, played for Sky High.
“But you sacrifice for your kid. You find a way to make it work.”
Families who send daughters through Sky High or Marengo-based Club Fusion often lose track of the thousands they spend on playing fees, uniforms, out-of-town tournaments and miscellaneous expenses. Some families estimate they spent upward of $100,000 for three daughters during a decade of elite club play.
Despite the sometimes exorbitant costs, club volleyball is viewed by many parents as an investment. They are willing to add club volleyball into annual budgets now for potential future rewards such as full-ride college scholarships, spots on local high school teams and friendships.
But there are moments – balancing checkbooks, dark morning drives to far-flung facilities, poring over pages of practice and match schedules, or spending every Saturday talking over thousands of screaming young girls – when the enormity of the commitment is overwhelming.
Travel sports and money have always been synonymous. According to its 2010 tax forms, which are public record for nonprofit organizations, Sky High spent all but about $43,000 of the $1.75 million it generated in revenues that year. Club President Scott Harris said that simply is the cost of doing business. It's a stark difference from 10 years ago, when Sky High spent just more than $322,000.
As the club's costs have risen, so has the amount families pay. Those writing annual checks, though, do so with certain expectations.
"They want the best coaching, they want one of the better facilities, they want the best equipment and it costs money for that," Harris said. "If we want to continue to be successful (as a club), we have to provide those things."
Both Sky High and Fusion's membership grows annually – as does the amount they have to spend to keep their clubs on top. Fusion is a privately-owned family business and it's finances are not public record. Fusion executive director Bill Milborn declined to specify exact financial figures, but noted there are significant costs associated with owning property rather than leasing spaces.
Fusion leases three satellite locations, rents three more, but owns the Fusion Sports Center and the property it sits on in Marengo. Sky High leases its current space – a 35,000 square-foot training training center and it will also lease a new 50,000 square foot facility across the street from its current location when the club moves this fall, Harris said. Sky High rents space in its satellite locations.
Pay-to-play fees at both local volleyball clubs range from $1,200 for younger players to between $2,000 and $2,300 at higher levels. It typically is more expensive to play on a top-tier team than a lower-tier team, in part because there is more travel and hotels, food, airfare and incidentals must be factored in for out-of-town tournaments.
Parents are on their own, so families get creative to save.
Outside the Great Lakes Center in Aurora on a sunny June afternoon, parents popped the trunks of SUVs and passed out cookies and chips. A few parents pulled out small grills to cook hot dogs and burgers.
It's the same money-saving theory Lamberti used to take when faced with paying up to $11 at a convention center for a tuna sandwich, cup of coffee and chips.
When breakfast wasn’t included at the hotel, the Lambertis grabbed a bagel and a cup of coffee. If they didn’t eat out of the car, they often skipped lunch.
Other parents on Lauren’s and Kelly’s teams had the same frugal mentality.
“We always said you’re better off being on a team where everyone on the team is poor, or everyone has a lot of money,” Lamberti said. “When you have a team with both, it’s really hard because then you’re looking at the tab and you’re going, gosh, I didn’t want to spend that much.
“We never complained about it because it was good for the kids."
Lamberti’s daughters received Division I scholarships, Lauren to the University of Connecticut and Kelly to Ohio University, where she will be a junior. The girls weren’t playing for Sky High at the same time for more than a year, which helped keep the Lambertis' budget in check.
Other families with multiple daughters playing haven’t had much respite.
When Mike and Marie Meyers' eldest daughter, Marissa, started playing volleyball in middle school, money was the first big obstacle. When Marissa decided to continue playing for Fusion, her three sisters followed. The pens and paper came out, and the budget was overhauled, rearranged, and overhauled again.
To offset costs, Marie chaperones Fusion tournaments, which means generally her hotel and some other travel expenses are covered. Marie also works the concession stand during weekend tournaments at Fusion's Marengo facility. Sometimes she and Mike work at the Rockford facility, one of Fusion's satellite locations.
They believe the investments have paid off. Marissa played at West Virginia, and the Meyers' second daughter, Aly, played at the University of Chicago.
Like the Lambertis, the Meyers family never discuss their financial sacrifices with their daughters or their son, Matthew, who plays club basketball.
"We know how hard it is, but we want to give them this opportunity," Marie said. "We will try to figure out how to give (it to) them and have the club career.”
Bubba Smith and his wife, Krista, also did everything they could to put three daughters through Sky High’s program – for a few years, all at the same time.
Smith’s twins, Breanna and Danielle, and middle daughter, Colleen, played for Sky High for about a decade. Smith, who lives in Cary and teaches and coaches football at Stevenson High School, realized early that the family would need to "pick up extra time at work."
The Smiths also went on a payment plan, which he said Harris accommodated by dividing payments over the seven-month season. As long as the family paid in full by the national tournament in late June, Harris and his wife, Sherry – Sky High's treasurer – were OK with a pay-as-you-go model that often required monthly payments of a few hundred dollars.
The twins, now in their early 20s, secured scholarships to McHenry County College. Colleen received a full-ride to Indiana, but now plays at DePaul after a rare illness sidelined her during her freshman season and the Hoosiers pulled her scholarship.
“It was tough with the travel expenses,” Bubba Smith said. “We had three membership fees, three (sets of) travel expenses. Put it this way: we’re just now starting to catch up.”
Smith said weekend out-of-town tournament expenses often ran about $500 for each daughter. Girls ages 16 to 18 on elite club volleyball teams often travel to six out-of-town tournaments each season.
Using six tournaments over three years as the benchmark, a family such as the Smiths may spend as much as $20,000 – about $6,000 each season – for two daughters to stay in hotel rooms, play at convention centers and have the club experience.
For the trip to Disney World for AAU Junior Nationals each year in Orlando, Smith paid about $800 per daughter. When he added in costs for the rest of his family, he estimates he spent $4,000.
Smith estimates that by the end of a season, families like his probably spent between $5,000 and $10,000. All told, it’s feasible to estimate a decade of club volleyball for three daughters playing at the elite level costs as much as $100,000.
“It was definitely worth it,” Smith said. “I got two years of the (twins’ college) paid for and I got Colleen paid for for four. And the other parents were wonderful. Being around the parents every weekend and traveling with them, there were a lot of emotional attachments (you formed). You’ll be friends forever.”
Owners at both Sky High and Fusion understand their brand is pricey, which intensifies the need to ensure families get what they pay for.
“When you think of culture, you think of family and belief structure,” Milborn said. “What causes you to pick Fusion? Is it the winning or is it word of mouth from happy moms and dads who have had a good experience here? I think it’s more of that.”
The more loyal families become, the more clubs explore options for those who need to offset costs or receive aid. They also work to enhance their brand in an economy that challenges club volleyball’s sustainability.
Much of the club dues and other revenue is used to maintain facilities. At Fusion, which spent $1.5 million on its Marengo training facility, monthly bills to just keep the building operating could be as much as $20,000, general manager Eric Schulze said.
Scott Harris said Sky High has established a scholarship foundation for families who can prove they need assistance. Sometimes alumni and other community members have made donations to ease financial burdens, and payment plans are an option too.
When the economy took a turn in 2008, Harris braced for a steady decline in participation. Instead, the number of kids playing on Sky High teams increased.
"I was shocked," said Harris, who said Sky High has raised its rates every other year during the past decade. "We froze our fees for three years to make things a little easier for people. But what we found is, even when things get tight, the last thing most families want to give up is extracurricular activities for their children."
Schulze said as many as 80 percent of the families at Fusion may need assistance from time to time. Most families faithfully pay, but a small number fall behind.
Fusion offers discounts for families with more than one daughter playing, Schulze said. And for travel costs, Fusion adopted a three-payment system instead of asking families to pay per tournament. Families pay three installments totaling $1,500 each season; that includes players' hotels and airfare for coaches, but not the players' airfare or any of the parents' costs.
"We try to be as accommodating as possible because there is no doubt it's expensive," he said.
The price players and their families pay to participate isn't limited to their bank accounts: The time sacrifices can take a toll too.
Aly Clark is a dying breed of high school athlete who refuses to choose one sport. While Clark’s volleyball teammates leave the high school season and dive right into seven months of club volleyball, she plays basketball and softball at Prairie Ridge.
Clark cannot imagine if she had thrown club volleyball into the mix last winter.
“I would have been so exhausted,” said Clark, a sophomore. “I would never have had time to do homework or hang out with friends and be social. In a way, I think it may have set me back from being as knowledgeable about the game. But skill-wise, I feel like I’m still right up there with them.”
Most club volleyball players stress their education comes before their time on the court, but admit they must find quiet moments to take care of academic obligations.
By the end of this season, recent St. Charles East graduate Emma Johnson thought little of being awake at 3 a.m. with a textbook in hand.
A vision of a college volleyball scholarship faded about a year ago when Johnson started having hip problems. She focused on an Ivy League education, but kept playing for Fusion anyway.
Volleyball was a significant part of the daily routine Johnson had constructed: school, homework, practices and a social life. Although her club volleyball journey didn't follow the same path as many of her Fusion teammates, Johnson wouldn't change a thing.
“It’s a big sacrifice because now my parents are going to pay $58,000 a year (for college),” said Johnson, who will attend Colgate University in New York this fall. “(A scholarship) is why they wanted me to play for so long, but they knew how much I loved it."
On the sidelines inside the Minneapolis Convention Center in late April, Toni and Dave Ehrhardt watched their daughter, Alyssa, play one of her final out-of-state tournaments of her club volleyball career. A seven-hour drive from the Ehrhardt’s home in Algonquin, the Northern Lights Qualifier is one of the more cost-effective tournaments.
Not that the Ehrhardts obsess about the money. Like most club volleyball families, the costs have to be secondary.
“There’s nowhere else we’d rather be,” Dave said.
Alyssa Ehrhardt, who recently graduated from Jacobs and earned a full-ride volleyball scholarship to Toledo, said her parents really never discussed the financial sacrifices they made with her. Like most players, Ehrhardt understood club volleyball wasn’t free. In her next to last season at Sky High, Ehrhardt's parents estimate they spent more than $6,000 on club fees and travel costs for their daughter to attend six out-of-state tournaments.
Now heading to college, Ehrhardt appreciates what her parents gave up so she could become one of the area’s top high school players.
While she concedes she may have not enjoyed a typical teenage existence – sacrificing dances, football games, a social life, family vacations and even her eighth-grade graduation – while playing club volleyball for eight years, Ehrhardt wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I mean, I miss a lot of things but to me, those things aren’t worth it,” she said. “Volleyball is everything and those things I miss, it’s fine, I’ll make them up in life. I’ll get over it. Those things I miss from being a teenager, that’s OK. At least we grew up a little bit earlier.”