At the end of the first basketball training session run by Maccabi Tel Aviv for children, the coach gathered the kids together. The children, aged between 7 to 9, then excitedly ran to their parents and all said pretty much the same thing. “I have to have 250 shekels ($65) for the next training session. We give it to the coach and get a kit with four things: a Maccabi Tel Aviv backpack, a Maccabi basketball, a shirt and a schedule. All that for just 250 shekels! Just the ball costs 200 shekels at the store.”
“The boy came to me glowing, as if he’d been offered the deal of a lifetime. He wasn’t asking – he felt he’d been offered a prize and if I said no, he wouldn’t stand for it,” says Kimmy (who, like the other parents interviewed here, preferred not to give her surname).
Kimmy is mother to Ofir, 16, and Noam, 7. She’s been aware of the Maccabi Tel Aviv kids’ club for years. Her older son was part of it, and now the young one wanted in. The club had always offered the kids a kit, she says, but this year something bothered her. “It was done in public,” she recounts. “How can you say no to the child in that situation? It isn’t that they’re sending an email to the parents – the coach met with the kids after the first session and simply sold them the kit.”
Many parents know that the costs won’t end with the monthly fee. They have to buy gear and clothes, and anybody familiar with competitive sports also knows that taking part in events also costs a bundle. For sports organizations, clubs for children are another source of income. But it seems that the children’s soccer and basketball clubs of Maccabi Tel Aviv – which are known brands and whose schools are considered well organized and popular – have crossed a line.
Alon, father of Eyal, 11, would probably have preferred the basketball club sales pitch to the email he received from the soccer coach at Maccabi Tel Aviv, where his boy trains. He’s still upset when he shows Haaretz the email that lists the equipment children have to bring to the afternoon activity – or “training,” as the clubs like to call their twice-weekly sessions.
“‘Under the agreement between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Adidas, all the children must come wearing Adidas clothes and bring a No. 4 Adidas ball (kindergarten to fifth grade), or a No. 5 Adidas ball (sixth to ninth grade).’ That’s what it said, no attempt at concealment,” recalls Alon. “Parents were given the opportunity to buy the equipment at a special sale held at Tel Aviv University, where they could get a kit, including a shirt, shorts, ball and socks, for 400 shekels. Alternatively, they could buy the items separately at the team’s stores.” The cost of the separate items at these stores adds up to 450 shekels (shorts, 120 shekels; shirt, 120 shekels; ball, 150 shekels; socks, 60 shekels).
That email was a step-up for the parents in spending – and demands, too. Eyal has been training with Maccabi Tel Aviv for two years and his father, a former soccer player himself, badly wants his kid to play, too. But the email left him feeling uneasy. Last year’s email hadn’t been so blatant, he recounts. “It was our first year with the club. We bought some gear, but I don’t remember anything extraordinary. The directive was, ‘Bring a yellow shirt.’ They didn’t demand a specific brand or type of shirt. This year, we got the email and realized that we’re about to finance the sponsorship deal between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Adidas.
“Maccabi apparently gets a lot of money from Adidas. The feeling now is that Adidas is covering some of its costs from the parents. They wrote it in black and white in the email, with no attempt at concealment, creating the impression that the sale at the university and the possibility of buying the kit for ‘just’ 400 shekels is a real gesture.”
Adidas and Maccabi Tel Aviv announced their three-year sponsorship deal in June 2014. Adidas won the sobriquet of being Maccabi Tel Aviv’s official kit provider for all its adult and youth teams. Sportswriters estimate that Maccabi Tel Aviv will receive some 3 million shekels in equipment and cash from Adidas. But the team isn’t the only winner in the deal, judging by the email to the parents.
The fact that Maccabi Tel Aviv is a local powerhouse clearly influences proceedings, but other Israeli clubs make demands from parents, too. The parents of children at Hapoel Tel Aviv’s clubs say they are required to pay 400 shekels as well. However, that also includes insurance, as well as the bag and clothing the children need for the training sessions, as well as shin guards. The parents pay for this upon registering.
Insurance is mandatory under the Sports Law. At Hapoel Tel Aviv’s soccer school, payment for insurance and the kit can be spread over 10 months and is collected with the monthly fee. But parents don’t have the option of not buying kit or socks. Parents are also peeved that their kid is forced to buy new stuff every year, even if the old kit is still usable.
Another source of income for Maccabi comes from inviting kids onto the field with the adult players before league games – not especially selected kids from the clubs, but kids whose parents fork over up to 1,500 shekels for the pleasure of becoming mascots for the day (the kids also get various goodies for that money).
Beitar Jerusalem and other teams around the world do much the same, but Maccabi is blazing the trail in Israel. Mihal, mother of third-grader Adam, says her son aspires to reach the top, so they abandoned the local sports club and joined Maccabi Tel Aviv instead. Her outlay jumped from 100 shekels a month to 360 shekels, and that was just the start. They didn’t have a uniform at the first club; for Maccabi, they had to come wearing the team’s Adidas kit. Since the classes are on Sunday and Tuesday, Adam needed more than one set of kit, Mihal says. And then there’s the constant cost of replacing soccer shoes.
She also cavils at the demand to buy Adidas wares, but neither she nor Alon complained. “Adidas is expensive, and why use only its ball?” she asks. Alon says he thought about making a noise, but also thought about the kid – he didn’t want his son to be marked as the one with problem parents.
Making the next Messi
Shira, mother of a fourth grader in a Maccabi club, isn’t fazed, though she agrees that requiring parents to buy a certain brand is unfair. Nor does she need the boy to complain that he’s the only one without the right kit; she understands. She also understands something about the club’s position. “They have a case, to a degree. It’s Maccabi and it’s a Maccabi class, and they can say that anybody choosing to take that class has to wear Maccabi gear. It’s like a kid going to art class – you have to buy stuff.”
It should be noted that Maccabi Tel Aviv’s basketball and soccer sides are two completely different entities, though both are in the same umbrella organization. Both are strong teams and children see belonging to them as a status symbol. Maccabi Tel Aviv rules the basketball roost in Israel, while in soccer the team won the championship for the last three years in a row – this year reaching the UEFA Champions League group stage, too.
Parents are also forced to buy special gear for judo and karate classes, ballet slippers, etc. But “weaker” sports clubs provide clothing for free upon registration, at least for the smaller kids. Or they charge less. The strong teams have very well-oiled machines.
Rachel, the mother of Idan, 15, won’t say what team he plays for, but it isn’t one of the big sides. “He started in Maccabi Tel Aviv, took a break and went back. It was very intense and competitive. You see parents counting on their boys to be the next Messi and forge a career.” Such is sports, she notes. If you’re sending a kid to Maccabi, you’re “sending him to a professional team that develops the children. They give persistent ones opportunities and talented ones can make a career of it. They start dreaming about becoming stars at a very early stage.”
She would do anything for Idan if he decided that this was his dream, including hiring a personal coach, she added. Indeed, Rachel is spending a fortune: 3,000 shekels a season to the sports club, plus the cost of a personal trainer. She would do the same if his dream was to play the violin, she notes.
And that’s exactly the attitude the teams rely on. A tiny proportion of the children will eventually turn pro, but thousands will spend hundreds of shekels a month for the Maccabi brand. You do the math.
Ronen Regev is director of the consumer watchdog Public Trust. He’s aware of the problem as a parent, notes its complexity and believes it “not completely out of the question” for clubs to offer supplementary stuff, like clothes or something that creates a sense of belonging to the group. But the potential for abuse, especially in light of peer pressure, is enormous – and dictating not only a certain type of clothing, but a certain manufacturer, crosses the line, he says.
Maccabi Tel Aviv soccer club responded, “The demand to wear a kit is a significant and integral part in the development of young soccer players. The kit they wear, and with which the youth division players play in, are offered at a lower price than demanded for the merchandise on an individual basis.”
Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club, meanwhile, said the “requirement to purchase the kit is prominently displayed and appears explicitly in all publications and in the brochure: Parents know exactly what they are paying for, and no pressure is imposed on the children. The kit is sold at an extremely fair price.”
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