The War For Summer's High School Showcase Circuit
The summer showcase season has been a vital part of the elite high school player’s development for two decades. The travel team showcases have been around long enough that sons of the first wave of showcase stars are spending their summers playing in top-level events.
For much of that time, the summer showcase circuit has been derided by many as the bane of baseball. It costs too much. It creates an “everyone gets a trophy” culture. It teaches pitchers to throw hard, not to throw well.
The Tommy John epidemic of the mid-2010s was blamed on showcase ball. The degradation of baseball skills and feel for the game and the rise of recruiting of freshmen and sophomores was also blamed on summer showcases.
The industry has rightfully earned that scorn. A formerly low-cost sport has become increasingly expensive at elite levels thanks to tournament fees and travel costs. And there’s little doubt that pitchers throwing in short stints to an array of radar guns are more focused on top-end velocity than craft and feel.
It’s also a big business, and one that keeps getting bigger. Perfect Game and Prep Baseball Report have received significant investments recently that helped provide funding for expansion. They are by no means the only players in the space. Between Wilson Premier, East Coast Pro Showcase, Area Code Games, Baseball Factory and others, an elite player has a wide array of choices for how he will spend his summer.
There’s rarely a week during the summer that doesn’t feature a major showcase event. Often two or three are going on at the same time.
But now a relatively mature industry has gotten both bigger and more introspective. There have been efforts to reduce or eliminate many of the excesses that cause some of the biggest issues. Major League Baseball has worked hard to increase opportunities for lower-income players with cost-free events that attract players, college recruiters and scouts.
Some travel team coaches around the country still sacrifice pitchers’ elbows in pursuit of trophies, but Pitch Smart regulations have largely become the law of the land. Nowadays, better education and regulation have helped many players, families and travel team coaches realize the folly of asking too much from a teenage pitcher.
And for all the ills that have been blamed on the summer showcase season, it’s also true that summer ball has helped players improve and get noticed in ways that were much more difficult 30 years ago. Scouts and college coaches get to see top hitters face top pitchers repeatedly over the summer. A player in a cold-weather state has the opportunity to play top competition despite not having any in his own backyard.
In 2019, the showcase circuit underwent a number of significant changes when USA Baseball, Perfect Game and Prep Baseball Report announced moves that will affect amateur players’ summer plans for much of the next decade.
When USA Baseball and MLB jointly announced the development of the Prospect Development Pipeline League in November 2018, it was accompanied by an underlying message.
Summer baseball was missing something, and two of baseball’s most influential guiding bodies wanted to make the necessary fixes.
“The development of the elite athlete—the athlete who aspires to play collegiately or professionally—and the way they are developed, largely was something we identified as a gap area for our sport,” said Rick Riccobono, USA Baseball’s Chief Development Officer at the time.
Now, with the summer of 2019 fading away and the first year of the PDP League in the books, the summer landscape has changed—at least for 80 of the top high school baseball players who were invited to spend four weeks at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and were coached by former major league players.
Before this year, a similar number of players were invited to USA Baseball’s Tournament of Stars. That event was much shorter and did not have the same emphasis on player development and off-field education.
“There are a lot of reasons behind (the origin of the PDP League),” Riccobono said. “One of the pieces of feedback that we have heard and continue to hear—in not only the professional ranks but even college coaches who are graduating high school kids to become freshmen on campus is just the lack of times of development these kids get while they are of high school age.
“A lot of that gets attributed to the idea that there has been a premium put on showcases. As an athlete, I have to bounce from one event to the next, weekend after weekend. And the question therein becomes: When are these guys taking time to develop either technical abilities or baseball I.Q. more broadly? When is that happening and is there enough attention being put on, not only their natural development, but other ideas like health and safety, and wear and tear, and team concepts and character development—a lot of those things.”
Those goals are at the core of the PDP League. The perception that the previous landscape of summer baseball wasn’t meeting those goals was the reason that USA Baseball and MLB designed a four-week program—which serves as the identifier for USA Baseball’s 18U National Team—in which players could spend time getting coached by former major league veterans and taking their game to the next level.
But in the scheme of summer baseball as a whole, those 80 elite players are just a fraction of a percentage of the population. It isn’t possible for the PDP League model to be replicated at the scale necessary to serve the entire population of players looking to play baseball when the high school season ends and travel ball begins.
Riccobono understands that.
“We need to be humble enough to realize that just because we’re not the ones doing the developing, doesn’t mean it’s not good for the athlete,” he said. “And inherently, if part of our influence is just that—influencing other organizations to place that sort of emphasis on player development—that’s a positive thing and I think that helps also fulfill our role as the National Governing Body (for amateur baseball).
“Some people talk about the showcase circuit or even travel ball clubs in somewhat of a negative light. And I don’t really subscribe to that. I think that’s a dangerous thing to do. We know these guys and interact with them and a lot of these guys do a fantastic job. It’s not an accident that some of the same clubs continue to produce some of the best amateurs. They aren’t just the luckiest guys in the world. There are organizations out there that are doing it really, really well.”
For much of the past 20 years, Perfect Game has been the biggest operator in the summer showcase space. What started as a midwest operation has grown into a company that runs tournaments around the country virtually year-round.
As Perfect Game sees it, they are helping to grow the game.
“The best place for me to start is probably that the whole proliferation of travel baseball fits well with our mission of growing the game,” Perfect Game CEO Brad Clement said, “by running high-quality events that allow players to get to whatever their next level may be and ultimately become lifelong fans. I really think it goes along with when commissioner Rob Manfred took over the first day, talking about the youth and growing the game.”
Perfect Game is the biggest summer baseball event company in the country and its showcases and tournaments largely dictate the summer schedule for high school players and major league scouts alike. Their National Showcase at the start of the summer gives the top 300 or so rising seniors a stage in front of major league teams directly after the previous year’s draft.
The company has tournaments and showcases that are routinely must-see events on the scouting calendar, culminating with World Wood Bat Association World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., in the fall—the biggest amateur baseball tournament in the country.
The company continues to grow and continues to add events. In April, it announced plans for an $800 million facility in Hutto, Texas that will feature 24 turf fields and immediately become the largest baseball complex in the country.
“I think first of all it allows us to grow not only in Texas but all over the country,” Clement said. “Because our plan was to develop a national event location . . . But that’s only the beginning. We’re not going anywhere from the southeast and with the events that we run there. We also are growing in the midwest. There is significant growth in our company out west and that will continue to happen in the northeast and mid-Atlantic states as well. What (Hutto) will allow us to do is have a central national event location in a great area where players and families can get to from all over the country pretty easily.”
With the continued expansion of Perfect Game, the company is confident it will be able to bring more opportunities to those players looking to play outside of their high school.
“We recognize that you only get 25-40 games (with your high school),” Clement said. “And they want to play during the summer. What the players and parents tell us consistently is it’s not just what happens between the lines, but the camaraderie with their teams and getting to know others. The big deal is they get to play against higher quality competition week in and week out and that makes them better.”
And the demand for travel and summer baseball has been such that Perfect Game isn’t worried about USA Baseball and the PDP League entering the landscape and pulling 80 elite players out of the market for a month in the middle of the summer. While the top-end talent at Perfect Game’s 17U World Wood Bat Association tournament in Atlanta was down because of the PDP League, that only gave other players a chance to stand out more.
“Obviously (the PDP League) was going on during the 17U WWBA,” Perfect Game VP of Operations Taylor McCollough said. “Those PDP players weren’t in Atlanta, but what it really did was give other players the opportunity to take the big stage and get the exposure that some of those other players who are down in Bradenton would take. And there were a lot of really, really good players down in Atlanta who we found and were able to get them out there through what we do.”
Perfect Game isn’t alone in running events, however, and as it continues to grow, so does Prep Baseball Report, a company that was launched in 2005 with the goal of bringing hyper-local high school baseball information to the state of Illinois.
“No one really covered [prep] baseball, so I just decided I’m going to go out and know more about Illinois high school baseball than anyone else,” Prep Baseball Report president Sean Duncan said.
Duncan was looking to create an outlet that would give exposure to the players who weren’t going to be targets for the draft and the top Power 5 schools in college—players who today wouldn’t be invited to the PDP League.
“Ninety-nine percent of amateur baseball is not the draft,” Duncan said. “But yet, everyone focuses on the draft. But there are a lot of good players who aren’t draft players and then there’s a lot of players who are good high school players who can find a home somewhere at the college level.
“Whether that’s NAIA, JUCO, D-II, D- III. So really, we wanted to cater to all levels of baseball. We believe—I still believe we provide a really important service to players at the state level and the college coaches. When we run an unsigned senior showcase, we’ll get 80-100 small schools there. And those guys get recruited by some schools that probably some people have never heard of before.”
Since 2005, PBR has expanded its coverage into 41 different states and Canada, with directors in each region responsible for covering high school baseball and putting on showcase events that will provide opportunities for exposure at all college levels. Helped by a significant investment by Rimrock Capital, the company has added a national brand that complements its local, state-by-state events and moved into the LakePoint facility in Atlanta.
“To me that is the most high-end level baseball facility in the country,” Duncan said. “So that just enables us to see more players and have more information on players. Collect more information and hopefully help a lot of players and colleges. We’re not going to lose our identity. We are hyper-local. But now we take that hyper-local and we’re building out more of a national brand—and entire unit.
With PBR’s expansion comes more showcases and travel ball opportunities like the Future Games, which puts the spotlight on uncommitted juniors and sophomores.
“Look, kids play,” Duncan said. “There is a need for it because competition isn’t always evenly matched in high school during the spring. You might have a really good player facing not so good players and that’s just the nature of mass population. So in summer ball, it’s more evenly matched with competition and that’s how you can really disseminate talent. Good play vs. good player. But it’s not always focusing on a good player. It’s probably not fair for the No. 8 hitter on a small high school team facing a kid in his conference who is 90-94—he’s probably not going to have a good day at the plate.
“So everything is just more even. People are playing summer ball to get better. You only get better by playing better competition. You only get better by playing more. I mean, people wonder, is it too much?”
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With summer baseball becoming almost necessary for improvement or simply getting seen by college recruiters and scouts, it does raise concerns that players are being priced out of opportunities.
“Is it a rich kid’s sport?” said Duncan. “What sport doesn’t cost money? Really, what sport is free? I don’t know a thing about hockey but I’m told equipment is really expensive. I don’t think it’s a rich kid’s sport. I think it’s a sport that requires a lot of practice to be adequate in.
“I’m just looking through my lens, I know what we charge for our showcases and I know what we do for organizations that don’t have a lot of means. And inner-cities, just to give kids opportunities and stuff like that . . . There are some travel costs if you are playing a national travel schedule, yeah. But you don’t have to. You could still find plenty of options locally.”
Jeff Petty, the president and CEO of Canes Baseball—one of the most successful travel ball teams in the country—said some kids have no problems funding their summer schedule with the team, while others have to get creative.
“You know, my dad wouldn’t have paid $4,000 or $2,000 for me to play summer baseball,” Petty said. “But my dad would have said, ‘Hey if you want to do it, go sell those dang tickets.’
“I think there’s a spot for everybody. You can get aggressive with your fundraising. I mean, we do a raffle ticket sale for our national team. We pay for the kids’ meals and we’ll even put kids up on the road (if they need it). We have a central fund that every kid has to be involved in . . . Some kids’ parents can write the check. No problem—don’t bat an eye. Other kids need fundraising. And is the travel team willing to help them?”
There are undoubtedly bad actors in the travel ball space: those simply looking to create a website, throw a logo on a jersey and open a bank account.
“There’s several (organizations) down the road in our area and all over, where they just make the next team,” Petty said. “Make C Team, make D Team, make E Team and F Team. And it’s just, ‘I don’t give a crap who’s coaching them, I’m going to make them pay an inordinate amount of money. I’m going to put one coach at third base and I’m going to have a kid at first base with a helmet on and I don’t give a crap because they paid me X, Y and Z.’”
That’s an area where parents and families will have to be informed and make the best choices. Over time, there’s enough competition and demand to weed out the bad actors. But parents and players have to enter into the marketplace with a buyer beware approach.
“I think that’s where we get this muddled version of travel baseball or showcase baseball,” Riccobono said. “Because some of them are doing it really well and do provide great opportunity and others less so. And that’s where there’s that gray area.
“I think the question becomes: As those clubs grow to greater prominence and more opportunity gets created, are other individuals occupying the space and delivering the same value? And I think that’s an honest question that any parent should ask. Whether it’s time or actual finances, are the costs associated to what you’re putting into all of this, do they live up to the quality of the experience of your kid? And that’s not a yes answer every single time.”
That issue will continue to be addressed and evaluated at the level of travel ball teams, and the event organizers who bring those teams into tournaments—which have their own fees.
“It’s a topic that we spend a lot of time working with players, families and organizations to assist with,” Clement said. “Because we want the barrier for entry to play this great game—and play it a long time—to be as low as possible. And that’s one of the reasons why, for a certain segment of the population, our relationship with MLB is so important. Because we work closely with their player development side and the Breakthrough Series and the youth academies.
“Beyond that, my own take from observing it is travel baseball actually helps some of the higher quality prospects who may come from more disadvantaged backgrounds because the travel teams themselves make sure they are available to play with them. So they just wouldn’t have that opportunity without travel baseball. That’s one side of it.
“The other side is we’re always looking at ways that we can make it more accessible to all players. There’s always room for improvement there . . . It’s a great question. I think we are making inroads into that and there’s always more progress to be made.”
That seems to be the overall sense of the current landscape of summer ball. There are problems still to address, but the space has improved dramatically since the early 2000s.
“I’ve thought about this quite a bit,” Riccobono said. “This is a healthy space. There is without question room for improvement. I think what encourages me is you do have people who are motivated to deliver a better experience for athletes who are willing to listen and pay attention to things like the Pitch Smart program and others that are like it . . .
“There are things going on out there that I think people are paying attention to that the right folks want to draw from and incorporate into their curriculum and help players get better. That’s not to say we are going to fully eradicate actors who are really only interested in volume as a source of monetization of amateurs. That goes on in every sport. That’s not a baseball-specific problem. But the more we can shine a light on the folks who are doing it really well, I think we can continue to move the needle in the right direction.
“We’re encouraged by where we’re at, but simultaneously we are very motivated to continue to improve the marketplace for everyone.”