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Rising gas prices keeping youth teams away from summer events

Like most men with a teenage daughter who plays sports, Guy Hobbs will load up the family truck next week and drive to a tournament.

Or will he?

Gas prices have risen so high so quickly that Hobbs isn't sure the interstate is the most economical means of traversing the 330 miles from his home in Las Vegas to a soccer tournament in San Diego.

"It's probably a coin flip to decide whether it's cheaper to fly or drive," Hobbs said.

Hobbs understands better than most. As the president of the Nevada Youth Soccer Association, Hobbs has heard plenty of horror stories this year from parents whose wallets have suffered as their children travel for tournaments. Soccer moms and dads aren't the only ones suffering. Parents of every type of young athlete have been forced to dig deeper -- or they've been forced to break the news to their children that it's just too expensive to play in certain tournaments.

Elite events such as this weekend's Nike Peach Jam in North Augusta, S.C., haven't seen a drop-off in participation. Neither have most AAU national championships, AAU sports director James Parker said. But, Parker said, the number of parents traveling with teams seems to have declined. Meanwhile, teams have pulled out of plenty of lower-level events because of economic factors.

Rachelle Baker, the director of the AAU's west Texas district, said a recent 9-and-under girls basketball tournament in Kenner, La., drew 28 teams last year and only 19 this year. Baker also said a girls basketball team based in Lubbock, Texas, had to pull out of a trip to a tournament in Norman, Okla., for economic reasons. And if that team had trouble traveling to Norman, 397 miles away, things could get worse next year when tournaments are not as close. "That's about as close as it gets," Baker said.

AAU and other youth sports organizations typically choose tournament sites several years in advance. A parent who learned the location of 2008 tournament sites in 2006 likely budgeted based on 2006 prices. Back then, the national average for a gallon of unleaded gas was $2.62. This week, the average is about $4.10 a gallon.

The cost of fuel also has grounded teams that had planned to fly to tournaments. Hobbs said two of his state's championship teams had to miss a trip to Hawaii for a regional tournament because of hefty airline charges. Hobbs said several teams banded together to charter a flight. They were quoted a price of about $700 per passenger. A few days before the flight, Hobbs said, the charter company said rising costs had forced it to tack on an additional $500 a passenger. Hobbs said that the tournament site had been set two years earlier. He said that if anyone could have predicted the price hike, the tournament probably would have been scheduled on the mainland.

"Most people," he said, "couldn't foresee what would happen with the price of a barrel of oil."

The AAU's Parker said that in spite of the rising prices, several sports -- including wrestling and volleyball -- actually had an increase in teams participating in national tournaments. The dip in fan attendance, Parker said, indicates that parents will do what it takes to get their children to tournaments, even if they can't afford to come with them. "The kids are the last to feel [the crunch]," Parker said.

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