Connecting Tomorrow’s All-Stars With Private Coaches

Citi Field  in New York

Photograph by Mike Coppola/Getty Images

Citi Field in New York

Some parents hire violin teachers or SAT tutors to help their kids get ahead. When Ryan Riddle was growing up in Bedford, Tex., his parents hired a private baseball coach to sharpen his game. It worked. Riddle won an athletic scholarship to attend the University of Texas-Arlington and played in the St. Louis Cardinals’ minor league system. Now that his playing days are over, Riddle works as a private coach. He sees about 30 clients on a weekly basis, charging $50 an hour to hone baseball skills, physical fitness, and nutrition.

His experience is increasingly common. “Once you get to the higher levels, most players have probably paid for private coaching at some point,” says Riddle. That includes the big leaguers suiting up for baseball’s All-Star Game tomorrow night. It’s not just future pros that get sports tutoring. Parents hoping to give their kids get a leg up in basketball, football, soccer, tennis, and most any other sport are paying experts to teach kids the finer points of the game. That’s helped make sports coaching, including one-on-one tutoring as well as sports camps and academies, a $6.3 billion industry in the U.S. in 2013, according to an estimate from IBISWorld.

Like participants in other markets for specialized services, private coaches and parents can have a hard time finding suitable partners. Coaches, most of whom are self-employed, are usually better equipped to teach a jump shot or a tennis serve than to manage a website or market themselves. Parents depend on word of mouth to hire and don’t always know whether a coach knows his or her stuff.

The situation is ripe for abuse, says Rick Wolff, a former psychology coach for the Cleveland Indians who hosts a weekly radio show, The Sports Edge, focused on issues facing the parents of youth athletes. A high school or middle school coach is going to be a trained educator who has probably undergone CPR training and a background check. That’s not a given for private coaches, Wolff says. Meanwhile, parents are often encouraged to pay for private instruction by their high school or traveling teams, making private lessons feel like a prerequisite for playing time. “I’ve heard lots of horror stories from people who paid a lot of money for lessons and wound up really unhappy,” he says.

To solve some of those problems, Jordan Fliegel launched CoachUp, a Boston startup in 2011 that’s like an Angie’s List (ANGI) for jocks. Fliegel’s company handles background checks and encourages coaches to post profile pages on its website, where parents and kids look for coaches and leave reviews.

Today the company has more than 8,000 coaches on the platform, including Riddle, who listed himself a year ago and says about one-third of his clients come from the site. Fliegel expects more than $1 million in revenue this year and has raised $2.7 million in funding from investors, including General Catalyst Partners and Breakaway Ventures, as well as Boston Bruins president Cam Neely and former Boston Red Sox outfielder Gabe Kapler.

The 20-employee company makes money by charging a commission to parents who use the site to book sessions. A recent search for baseball coaches in the Sunnyside neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., yielded three names, with prices ranging from $26 to $94 an hour. That’s not much for a borough of more than 2 million people, though there are other coaches in nearby locales.

In addition to matching coaches with kids, Fliegel says he’s aiming to relieve the administrative headaches he experienced when he was giving private basketball lessons while attending business school. That includes providing coaches with liability insurance and helping them deal with credit card payments—skills Fliegel didn’t learn during his own professional basketball career, which took him as far as the Israeli Premier League.

Fliegel says CoachUp, like other marketplace companies, is in the efficiency business. “I look around the country, and there are so many former athletes who’ve spent a lot of time developing expertise,” he says. “And there are tons of kids who want to get better. We’re bringing those two things together.”

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