What Are the Odds?

Pondering the nature of open tryouts, the back-door way for some athletes into the professional leagues. Do you have what it takes to make a go for it?

Hey all, Ernie here with a piece from Andrew Egan, who decided to use the one moment where professional sports are completely shut down to think about becoming an athlete.

Today in Tedium: It took eight days. When I, along with much of the rest of America, was furloughed to my apartment last week, I took solace in the fact I could finally catch up on all the shows and movies I had yet to watch. I had been preparing for this day since the beginning of the content explosion. I thought I easily had two months of stuff to watch. Nope. It only took eight days. So as I now meander through a list of mid-’90s comedies I vaguely remember as funny, I find myself daydreaming like I’m back in AP Lit. And despite being in my 30s, I keep thinking of what my professional baseball career would be like. Today’s Tedium is going to indulge in a little cabin fever induced optimism and look at the role open tryouts play in modern professional sports. — Andrew @ Tedium

Today’s GIF is from an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia in which The Gang tried out for the Philadelphia Eagles.

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1000 to 1

The odds that a varsity high school football player from Georgia, Louisiana, or Florida will play professionally. This actually represents a much better chance of success compared to a state like Texas where only 2.7 percent of football players end up with a Division 1 college scholarship (an indicator of whether or not a player is likely to play professionally). According to a 2013 study by the NCAA, 1.6 percent of seniors playing college football are drafted into the NFL.

0310 baseball

A picture of a sport you’re likely not watching pro players play right now. (Pixabay)

Playing a professional sport is really, really hard

Lately, I’ve become Tedium’s sports guy. (So far this has included pieces on cornhole, paramotoring, baseball stat technology, and updates to NFL record books.) I don’t mind, but it certainly wasn’t intentional because I’m not really a “sports guy”. I absolutely love watching college football and my mood during the season depends on the success of the Texas Longhorns. But I would struggle to name more than a few key players on the roster. I went to three Mets games last year but my girlfriend bought the tickets and she has an intuitive understanding of the game that I swear utilizes some type of voodoo.

Sports are interesting not just for the diversions they bring (and are sorely missed now) but for what they say about the values of any given society. Over the years, most of my friends have tended to take David Mitchell’s view on athletes, which is to say they don’t think much of them or understand the fuss around sports. But any given sport performed at a professional level should be appreciated because it’s really hard to do.

To become a professional athlete takes a combination of luck, skill, and genetic gifts. Some sports cater to genetics more than others. Some 17 percent of American men between 20 and 40 years of age that are over 7 feet tall play in the NBA. Despite genetic favoritism, basketball is often considered to require the most skill of the major sports.

The path an athlete takes to becoming a professional depends on the sport and a wide variety of circumstances. To get to the NFL, players almost universally have to play college football. Baseball players are going to spend some indeterminate period of time in the minor leagues before ever joining an MLB organization. Of course, there are some exceptions. The college basketball player turned Pro Bowl tight end. The pitcher that skipped the minors.

These exceptions are so few and far between as to be folklore to fans in their respective sports. Even casual sports fans are aware of the general process to become a pro. The one and done rule in basketball has made for hours of punditry on ESPN as players choose between a token year in college or a tour to an overseas league. I don’t even watch basketball and I’m aware of the Lonzo Ball drama.

For every pro that managed to follow the conventional path, there are literally thousands that were overlooked. Convinced they have what it takes, they turn to a time honored tradition in professional sports. One that still plays a vital role in identifying potential professional athletes. Or at the very least, a vital role in fan service.

$70.3M

The amount in millions that the Katy Independent School District spent on their most recent football stadium in 2017. The 12,000 seat stadium includes a 1,500 inch HD scoreboard, among other amenities. Amateur athletics can generate millions of revenue for local schools.

The film Invincible, which inspired the “Always Sunny” episode we referenced above, was based on the real-life story of Vince Papale.

Open tryouts made sense until they didn’t

Tryouts are a fact of life for most competitive athletes. In youth, this usually means trying out for a spot on a competitive club or school team. Tryout season is a tense time for parents in a $15 billion youth sports industry in America. In my Texas youth, it seemed basketball, baseball, and soccer were the sports you had to try out for. There were only so many spots on the team. Football needed all the bodies they could get so… I played Division I soccer as a bench warmer and sub-varsity football, also as a bench warmer.

Tryouts have been a part of American sports for about as long as American sports have been around. The concept of an open tryout is so fundamental that it’s difficult to determine when the practice even started in American sports. For example, the earliest reference I could find was in 1901 though the practice was clearly well established by then. One sociologist links the earliest competitive youth sports teams to the establishment of mandatory schooling in Massachusetts in 1852. Though a loose system of tryouts developed in baseball, and later with collegiate football, most players still found their way to clubs via their own personal networks.

Open tryouts played a small role in the history of professional sports throughout the 20th century. Success was rare for the athletes that made their way to a paycheck via an open tryout. When they did make an impact, movies were the end result. See Vince Papale and Invincible or Jim Morris and The Rookie. Though Hollywood made good use of the open tryout/underdog trope, professional sports teams still needed players. It turns out, the traditional methods just don’t find enough players.

10

Number of pitches a prospective pitcher gets to earn the attention of major league scouts during an open tryout, according to an NBC News story. Baseball tryouts, regardless of the level, are big draws for aspiring players not quite ready to give up their professional aspirations. Soccer, basketball, and football all hold open tryouts with an occasional gem making its way to the big time.

The XFL held mass tryouts last summer.

If you build it, they will come

YouTube is full of niche communities, one of the most fervent is dedicated to aspiring professional athletes. There is no shortage of advice for how to get to “the next level”, whether that’s varsity, college, or some semblance of professional. Videos covering work out tips and diet advice abound. But there are still the weary and worn, those that spent some time in collegiate or amateur levels without a professional path, looking for the chance at a chance.

That’s who shows up to open tryouts for professional teams. One brutal-but-honest HuffPo piece broke down attendees for MLB camps into less than flattering categories, like “The Dreamers”. Every major American sport uses open tryouts to identify talent or simply generate moderate fan interest. For $275, any NFL fan can attend a regional tryout in front of scouts from their favorite teams. (Attending the Steelers fantasy camp costs $799 but you do get a throwback replica jersey and a $10 pro shop gift card.)

One amazing recent use of the open tryout has helped develop independent leagues. The resurgent (and possibly retired) XFL brought in scores of hopefuls looking to extend their professional careers from open tryouts. MLS clubs have opened their ranks slightly by allowing open tryouts for their development teams. Some XFL players performed well enough in their short season to pick up contracts with the NFL.

Still, there is nothing like the modern tryout system for professional baseball. There’s a romanticism to the persistence that baseball necessitates. Even the coverage from small town newspapers on open tryouts are kind of sweet. Players in these leagues occasionally make it to the major leagues though not often.

The Corpus Christi Caller Times has a great little video on the hopefuls that tried to enter the Houston Astros farm system in 2015. Of the 300 ball players that showed up for the tryout, Astros scouts identified 10 minor league prospects and 5 high school prospects. None were signed.

Don’t get too down, because some athletes manage to go from open tryout to professional contract. Rinku Singh, before his career in the WWE, managed a few seasons with the PIttsburgh Pirates after gaining attention on a reality show. Damon Sheehy-Guiseppi made his way through the modern NFL tryout system. And Kent Hrbek was notoriously identified by the head of the Minnesota Twins concessions after a few failed tryouts.

A thousand to one isn’t much when thousands of tryouts happen every year.

There’s a lot to snicker at when people talk about their dreams of sports stardom. Even being a serviceable professional athlete is tough enough. Just being the person who is worthy of a paycheck and doesn’t ruin the performance of the stars is enough. Some people make a solid living doing it though.

It’s unlikely the average person can make the throw from right field to home. Or make a 50-yard field goal. Or sink a fade away three over a seven foot defender. Lord help you if you think you can play soccer/football. In any case, there’s a chance you can train just hard enough to keep a place on a professional team for a little while. Maybe … for like a week.

Whenever life gets back to some semblance of normal, sports will likely make their comeback. And if you’ve been training through your quarantine, you might just be ready. Tryouts are likely to come back and maybe, just maybe, you’re ready for your shot at glory.

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Andrew Egan

Your time was just wasted by Andrew Egan

Andrew Egan is yet another writer living in New York City. He’s previously written for Forbes Magazine and ABC News. You can find his terrible website at CrimesInProgress.com.

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