HOFFMAN ESTATES - Chris Labeots' fledgling basketball career might well have been saved by an installment plan. The Hoffman Estates eighth-grader is built like a bouncer, but his game is more finesse than muscle.
With high school ball in the hyper-competitive northwest suburbs less than a year away, he figured he needed a summer with a travel team to improve his skills.
But Labeots' dad, Jim, is without full-time work and couldn't manage the $875 fee. So team director Tony Reibel extended an offer he's been making a lot lately: He let the family pay in affordable chunks.
"Chris wouldn't be able to play without that," Jim Labeots said.
Sports are practically a birthright for kids in Chicago's suburbs, where playing fields, swimming pools and gymnasiums teem year-round with young athletes. But as the recession tightens its chokehold, parents are being forced to consider a bitter sacrifice.
From baseball to soccer to hockey, many organizations are reporting a significant drop in the number of participants as families slash their discretionary spending. Some parents have lost jobs; others worry they'll be next.
"People were scared before, but now they're really scared," said Stephie Arkus of the Glenview Stars Hockey Association, which was anticipating a small decline in registrations.
People are also reading…
Creative ways to keep costs down
In response, youth teams are coming up with creative ways to keep costs down and help out the newly broke, hoping to keep children active even when their parents' finances crumble.
"One of the worst things we could do is pull kids away from sports to save money," said coach Jon Cabel, whose St. Charles Swim Team is trying to establish a payment plan. "It's an organization's duty to find a way to keep kids involved."
Even in the best of times parents sacrifice for their kids' athletic endeavors. The price tag of a season in a recreational league often surpasses $100, while elite travel squads can cost thousands.
When a family's fortunes decline, the spending can be hard to justify.
"Daily, I would say, people walk into our office with stories of hardship. Yesterday, one mom said to me, 'I can't pay the fees. I'm out of work,'" said Lisa McClellan of the Aurora-based Wheatland Athletic Association, which has seen registrations for its spring soccer league drop by 17 percent.
The Libertyville Girls Softball Association is hiring teenage umpires who charge less than adults. The Flying High gym in Countryside is being judicious with its thermostat.
Teams also are finding new ways to hold down costs. A season with Frankfort's Ultimate Volleyball Club can cost up to $1,700, but this year director Erin Lorenz started a $175 training academy where kids practice two hours a week for 10 weeks.
That spares them the expense of tournament travel but still offers the sophisticated coaching they'll need to improve, she said.
"This is in direct response to what we heard from parents … who wanted to put their child in volleyball but simply couldn't afford it," she said. "I had so many of those calls, I thought there had to be a way to make this affordable."
Others clubs are letting parents pay by credit card, allowing teens to work off fees and relying on video rather than appearances at distant competitions to highlight athletes for college recruiters.
Some kids just going without
Despite such efforts, some kids are going without.
Courtney Wolf, 12, hadn't been much of an athlete before 4th grade, when she discovered basketball at Immanuel Lutheran School in Palatine. For two years she was a tenacious, defense-minded guard, but in September, just before she was to begin her 6th-grade season, her father, Christopher, lost his customer-service job.
The fee for basketball was about $400, Christopher Wolf said. The school probably would have helped with that, he said, but because it had already cut Courtney's tuition by more than half, he wasn't comfortable asking for more.
"We didn't want to burn anyone else," he said.
Some organizations are encouraging parents to seek aid. The Palatine Park District has long offered scholarships for children who couldn't afford its fees, but it hadn't publicized the program. This year, when sign-ups for its youth baseball and softball teams were down by almost 30 percent, it contacted parents to tell them help was available.
Registrations shot up and so did scholarship appeals, but Keith Williams, the district's superintendent of recreation, said that so far it has been able to meet all requests.
"When kids get involved in these programs, it's not just learning baseball -it's the social aspect of making new friends, the development of social skills," Williams said. "It's tough if all of a sudden you can't do it this year because mom or dad is out of a job."
A child doesn't have to be devastated if he or she is forced to sit out. Dr. Matthew Parvin, a Plainfield child psychiatrist, said parents can rebuild their kids' sense of fulfillment by playing catch with them, forming casual neighborhood teams or finding other activities to pursue.
The families he worries about, he said, are the ones that relied on intense participation in sports to avoid engaging with each other.
"If all their ego is based on this sport, and they don't have anything else to fall back on and there's more stress … there's a chance the kid could get depressed or maybe turn to drugs or other things that could cause problems," he said.
Chris Labeots, the 14-year-old basketball player, wasn't worried about such grim consequences. Had he been unable to play, he said, the worst thing would have been "sitting on my butt on the couch every day, not doing anything."
But his dad, knowing how quickly the glory of youth passes by, saw it differently.
"I just want him to be the best he can be," Jim Labeots said. "I just want him to enjoy it, as long as he enjoys it."