BANGOR, Maine — Baxter Cole, the young son of Charles Cole of Bangor, repeatedly told his father he wanted to play youth hockey.
The cost of such an undertaking can be daunting for youth sports that involve a lot of potentially expensive equipment.
“To be honest, we stayed away from it for a couple of years because of the financial obligation,” Charles Cole said.
Baxter kept asking, though, and last fall Cole relented.
“I try to give kids all the opportunity to try whatever they’re interested in,” said Cole, who grew up playing hockey in Bangor in the 1970s. “His friends were playing, so he wanted to play.”
Cole registered Baxter, now 8, in Bangor Youth Hockey’s mites program for children ages 6 to 8 years old.
What Cole found was that there are a number of ways that youth sports groups help parents cover or reduce their costs.
And parents find ways to help each other through carpooling to tournaments and getting together to swap equipment that has the potential to be expensive.
“Baxter’s skates, he’s probably the third person to use them,” said Cole. “We’ll probably pass them on to someone else. That saves a lot.”
Cole added, “It’s not just the wealthy few who are playing hockey.”
A mother of four, Lee’Ann Wells of Bangor knew she wanted to involve her children in activities outside the home.
Wells and her now ex-husband started their sons DeAndre, now 14, and Dillan, 10, and daughters Isabella, 12, and Julia, 6, in gymnastics at 18 months.
After a couple of years, they were old enough to look into other sports.
“On military bases, you can start playing team sports at 4 years old,” she said.
The Wellses are both soccer enthusiasts, so it was natural to steer the kids that way, she said.
Since then, DeAndre has also started studying mixed martial arts, Isabella has picked up horseback riding and piano and Julia is also a swimmer. Only Dillan is just playing soccer.
Costs can be daunting
When the Wells family arrived in Bangor four years ago, the children started joining Bangor Soccer Club, a nonprofit recreational organization for children from age 4 through eighth grade.
The cost for the six-week Bangor Soccer Club spring program is $40 for residents and $45 for nonresidents.
A set of travel programs divided according to age and ability is conducted by Blackbear United Football Club, based in Bangor. Some Bangor Soccer Club participants, including the Wellses, gravitate toward Blackbear United for the higher level of competition.
A full Blackbear program such as High School Academy is $225 per eight-week session. When a child registers for all three sessions, the cost drops to $600.
The top Blackbear program, Premier, is $775 for the session, which started its season Dec. 6 and runs through June 14.
“We didn’t even consider travel soccer. We thought it was way too expensive,” Wells said.
Cole said his re-introduction to hockey was “a bit of an eye-opener.”
“The [cost of the] uniform, the price of skates, then you add in the cost of travel, hotel stays and food,” said Cole.
The total ice hockey equipment that families are responsible for consists of skates, a helmet with face cage, shin guards, elbow pads, gloves, hockey pants, shoulder pads and jock shorts plus the bag to carry it all and a stick.
Local sporting goods retailers are sensitive to families’ initial shock. Gunn’s Sport Shop in Brewer offers a package to youngsters in Learn-to-Skate programs. If they or their parents buy any five of those items, including the bag, they qualify for a 25 percent discount.
“It’s $225 [tax included] for the whole package,” said Mike Merritt, manager of Gunn’s.
Gunn’s carries mostly entry-level to mid-level new equipment, according to Merritt. And they might be able to order equipment they don’t regularly carry. Gunn’s also sells some used equipment on consignment, and allows old skates to be traded in toward new ones.
Cole found that football, which Baxter also plays, doesn’t cost as much as hockey.
“The majority of the equipment is owned by Bangor Youth Football,” said Cole. The family is responsible for the cleats, a mouthguard and other personal gear.
And the fee for Baxter to play flag football was $30. Full-contact football is $75. His hockey registration was $300 with another $250 for the Mighty Mites travel program.
For Little League baseball, costs are on a par with football.
Travel adds to the burden
Traveling is a major cost in sports such as soccer, ice hockey and basketball, with weekend trips for in-state matches as well as in-state and out-of-state tournaments.
“You’re easily talking on a trip to, say, Kents Hill, it’s $40 to $50 for gas, probably, and by the time the day’s over, it’s close to $75 to $100,” said Cole.
That’s one of the shorter trips. And it’s not just once.
“That’s every other weekend,” said Cole. “It adds up over the course of a season.”
Other hockey trips can be more far flung, including Presque Isle, Canada and Massachusetts.
“Through the year, you continually get advice from parents where to eat, where to get the cheapest gas and the best hotel for the price,” said Cole.
Paying for it all
Youth organizations offer supplemental funding opportunities as a way of reducing costs and increasing participation.
Scott Bussiere, fundraising coordinator for the former Auburn Youth Hockey (it’s merging with Lewiston Area Youth Hockey League for next season), said calendars have been their biggest moneymaker.
Half of the $10 sale price for each calendar goes to the association and half goes toward the player’s assessment, said Bussiere. Their annual fee for mites is $650; for squirts (ages 9-10), peewees (11-12) and bantams (13-14), it’s $700.
“Parents know if they sell 100 [calendars], they get $500 back off their assessment,” he said.
They can also win prizes donated by local businesses.
The Maine Coast Skaters Association out of Rockport has the Hat Trick Auction Dinner as its big fundraiser, which it puts on with the Camden Hills Windjammers’ high school team and the Midcoast Ice Cats. That dinner raised more than $130,000 in its first six years and now has an annual goal of $30,000.
Cole is excited by his son’s fundraising opportunities.
“I think [Baxter] paid off his entire Mighty Mites bill through selling wreaths,” said Cole.
Scholarships are often available, also, and many, if not all, youth sports groups offer some form of financial aid.
Wells also volunteers at Blackbear United for partial payment of her bill and referees, too.
“[Cost] is an issue, but we work it out,” Wells said.
Is it worth it?
Wells guesses that the cost for her kids’ participation in soccer runs $1,500-$1,700 a year.
“That’s uniforms, shoes. … And that’s not including any volunteer work I may do,” she said.
When her children want something extra, they have to do a chore over and above what they already do.
Cole said of his family’s expenses, not including what Baxter earned through fundraising, “It’s easily over $1,000 and that’s being pretty thrifty.”
It’s a lot, but then they look at what they get for their money.
“[Baxter] needs that outlet, that physical activity,” said Cole.
Wells sees other benefits as well.
“I love that they know they’re not going to get something for free,” she said. “It’s good life lessons all the way around.”