When Karen McCormick’s son Simon decided to pursue AAU basketball at Next Level Athletics, it didn’t take her long to see the benefits. The Cony High School freshman got to pursue a sport he loved, make new friends he wouldn’t otherwise meet and build his game under the watch of coaches who function as mentors and instructors for their players.

She was just as quick to see the downside, namely the costs — time and money — and how quickly they can mount up.

“It is a huge commitment,” said Karen McCormick, who estimated Simon played basketball 10 months of last year and works on his game year-round. “I think the Next Level program is cheaper than a lot of them, but it’s still like $800 or whatever. But that doesn’t even count you’re in Providence this weekend, you’re in Albany that weekend, you’re somewhere near the Cape (in Massachusetts) this weekend, then you’re back in Providence, then you’re in Springfield.

“The travel is huge, and the expense when you travel is huge.”

Athletes who focus on a single sport participate on a variety of AAU, club and travel teams, with varying fees from one sport to the next. Ryan Copp, program director at the Edge Academy in Portland, said baseball and softball fees can run into the thousands, especially if the families pursue travel teams and private instruction.

“With a family of two kids in our organization, you could probably spend $8,000 to $10,000 quickly. That’s probably on the high end,” he said. “That’s not including strength and speed training, or anything else like that. That’s just the baseball, softball side of it.”

Basketball fees are often under $1,000, but climb into the thousands when involving travel expenses to the abundance of tournaments their teams play in. Soccer clubs, Seacoast United Maine director and coach Martyn Keen said, can charge anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 depending on the age of players — and these costs don’t include travel expenses.

“It’s a crazy thing, but it is an expensive sport to play, there’s no doubt,” he said. “This is about the only country in the world where soccer is a white collar sport.”

The expenses are higher for sports like hockey. Cony graduate Cam Wilson said tournaments can cost between $300-500, while Colby men’s hockey coach Blaise MacDonald — who had sons play youth hockey in Massachusetts — said a player can spend up to $20,000 over a 12-month period, depending on the number of camps and personalized instruction.

“It certainly puts a nice dent in your checkbook by the end of the year,” Wilson said.

Many programs make financial aid and scholarships available to players and families who struggle to afford the fees. However, those clubs are a business, and playing still comes at a cost.

“Here, it’s still darned expensive for kids to play,” Keen said. “I’m sure it’s just as expensive to play AAU basketball and I know hockey is an expensive sport to play. That’s the market we live in, I think. It’s a shame.”

The money is often a hangup for families, but the travel looms large as well, considering the time athletes often give up to pursue excellence.

Sometimes, it’s just too much. Maranacook soccer player Richard Down was invited to play for Seacoast United’s prestigious academy team in Hampton, New Hampshire, but chose to instead play for the United 16U team that practices out of Cumberland and Topsham.

Why?

“It was just too expensive and it’s too much of a commitment,” he said. “One of my friends did that for a year and had to live down in New Hampshire.”

Even for the players who do join those teams, the travel demands are just beginning. Top teams travel throughout the region looking to participate in tournaments and showcases, resulting in many weekends on the road.

“It definitely wore on me last summer, being in a hotel pretty much every weekend,” said 2017 Messalonskee graduate Josh Joy, a year-round baseball player with a Maine Lightning team that is part of the Edge Academy.

It’s a sacrifice for the families as well, who can find little time for big outings or vacations. Instead, the trips to anywhere from Portland to New York City are the vacations.

“It’s really what the family chooses to do,” said Pete Howard, whose sons Nate, a 2017 Erskine Academy graduate, and Nick also play for the Lightning out of the Edge Academy. “Some families decide that they’re going to spend $10,000 or $15,000 on a trip to Cancun. Others such as us spend, say, a few thousand dollars traveling every weekend to go play baseball. So it’s little mini vacations all summer long.”

With money and time on the line, some parents expect a return on their investment in the form of a college offer. Program directors and coaches remind them to be realistic, but some don’t hear the message.

“We certainly see both ends of it,” Copp, from Edge Academy, said. “We have some parents that I would call delusional as far as their realities go. We’re fortunate enough in our facility where we don’t see many of those people.”

“I think some parents have expectations when they’re paying all that money,” added Cony boys basketball coach T.J. Maines, a former AAU coach. “No doubt about that.”

Others, however, say the money is all going toward a cause that helps both their child and the family as a whole.

“The way we did it is, we did it as a family,” Joy’s father, Jerry, said. “You end up spending a lot more time with your son. You’re traveling to the practices, the games, the tournaments. You get to spend a lot more time with him.”

Howard agreed.

“What makes it worth it? The family time,” he said. “That’s definitely the big thing. Traveling and stuff, you can’t put a price on it, going and doing it every weekend and watching your child grow, and watching them get better every time they play.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

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Twitter: @dbonifantMTM