How can a 15 year vet not know what is going on?

I am embarrassed.

For over 15 years I’ve been working in the business of youth basketball. I’ve coached teams. I have written about players and tournaments. I even help run popular basketball events.

And yet, through it all, I am still in the dark.

The true meaning of a “travel ball team” or “shoe sponsored tournament”? I have to admit that I’ve never been totally clear on those. They mean different things to different people.

Now don’t misunderstand. I know what zone defense and backdoor cuts are. I can recognize the difference between a pick and roll player vs. a pick and pop stretch four.

But when I’m talking to parents and coaches there is always this unspoken misunderstanding of certain terms. It makes communication hard.

I finished reading the book Legacy on the recommendation of one of our coaches. There was a section dedicated to the power of language. The words we use and the way we use them does matter.

And that’s the basis of the following definitions. Not so much to finally define their meaning. More so to get us on the same page. From an agreed starting point we can have a real conversation. Know what I mean?

How accurate are these definitions?

Below are some of the most misunderstood terms in my world. I’ve laid them out the way I define them.

But I want to know how you define them.

Are these on or off? And what changes would you make?

I honestly don’t care if you agree or disagree. But as an industry veteran, I don’t want to be sheepish when I speak or write. I don’t want to hedge my language. I’d rather be a humbled communicator. I think we all would.

Type of team or program

Shoe sponsored team

Shoe sponsored teams receive significant financial compensation from a shoe brand. There may be other benefits as well. This compensation can range from a few thousand dollars to a full compensation package. In exchange, these teams agree to play in some or all that shoe brand’s tournaments. They will also wear their branded gear including jerseys and shoes. The big three are Nike, adidas, and Under Armour.

Non-shoe sponsored team

These teams receive no financial compensation from a shoe brand. They may have a “soft” relationship with a brand but are not one of their “official” teams. Non-shoe sponsored teams might receive a discount on their team’s gear. But this discount is usually offered to anyone. Typically, these teams have the freedom to play in the tournaments that they choose. Some even wear multiple brands.

AAU ball/AAU teams

“AAU” is the default term in this industry to mean non-school teams, even if the team has no AAU affiliation. The term can often be interchanged with “club team” and “travel team”. “AAU” is similar to Kleenex (tissue paper) or Google (internet search). The brand has become the casual language. To be clear, there are “true” AAU teams which buy AAU cards for insurance and play in sanctioned AAU events.

Club ball/Club teams

With clubs, families will pay monthly dues to be a part of them. In return, they are usually guaranteed a certain amount of practice time and games per month.

Travel Teams/Travel Programs

These teams are created to travel. The term is pretty straightforward.  They may or may not need AAU cards and/or monthly dues to be a part of them. Generally, they are more independent and have a set price structure for a set period of time.

Team vs. Program

A team refers to a single group of players and a coach. A program refers to all the pieces that make up that program. This includes teams, administration, and other functions. A program can have several teams. A team can only belong to one program. Or, if it is the only team, may not belong to a program at all.

Program vs. Organization

These terms are often interchangeable. However, an organization may run separate programs that are distinct from each other. For example, an organization may have a fall, spring, and summer program. Or a youth and elite program. They are separate in their design but part of the same organization.

Nonprofit team/organization

The team or organization is a registered 501(c)(3) with the IRS. They are exempt from some taxes as an organization. There is no ownership of a non-profit. The owners are the public at large and a board of directors guide the organization.

Type of tournament

Shoe brand leagues/circuits

Brands host leagues and circuits that are invitational only. Currently, the main leagues are the Nike EYBL, adidas Gauntlet and the Under Armour Association. They play a pre-determined schedule over three weekends in the spring. The top teams from these leagues will then compete in the league’s finals. Seeding for the finals is based on how teams performed in the spring. The structure will vary from year to year.


In the cities where shoe brand leagues are hosting their weekend games, side-tourneys are often held to pick up the non-invited teams. The bigger shoe sponsored teams often have younger teams that want to compete. These sub-tourneys allow them to compete in the same city. This attracts other non-sponsored teams to take part.

Independent circuits

There has been an emergence of non-shoe sponsored circuits that teams can join. Similar to the shoe leagues, they are in different locations and teams can sign up to play in all of them. There is generally some kind of end of year championship for the top teams.

Shoe brand tournaments

Shoe brands sponsor individual tournaments. But they are separate from the shoe brand leagues. The most popular time of the year for these tournaments is the final NCAA evaluation period in July. The shoe leagues are done and these tournaments are open to anyone.

Independent tournaments

Tournament directors run tournaments that are independent of a shoe brand. Though a shoe brand may put some sponsorship behind it, it is not considered a shoe company tournament.

NCAA certified tournaments

These tournaments have very specific requirements as set by the NCAA. These are the only tournaments that Division I coaches may  attend in person in the spring and the summer. These tournaments receive certification by meeting very specific requirements. These include verifying team paperwork and separating college coaches from everyone else.

What terms confuse you? Where am I off?

To me, these are the most confussing terms. Do these definitions make sense to you? Where are they off? You can include your thoughts in the comments below.

What terms are missing? Is there any term that you hear a lot but seems to get confused?

Here is why we are confused

There is a legitimate information gap between parents, players, and operators. Sometimes the operators don’t understand what is going on. Other times they understand but don’t explain.

The truth is, youth basketball is an unregulated industry outside of school systems. There are very few rules. And there is very little enforcement of the few rules we have.

This gives individuals the ability to act with freedom. It also leaves a gap between what’s real and what is an illusion.

Shoe sponsored confusion

This is one I see a lot. Teams wear a brand of jersey and then claim to be a shoe team. Wearing a brand means you are wearing a brand. That’s it. Unless the team is recieving financial contributions (the brand sends them a check) they are not a sponsored team. At least by our definition above.

Why is being a shoe team such a big deal? The value is in the mind of the beholder. To some, shoe teams equate to better coaching, more benefits, better tournaments and guaranteed success. This is purely an individual’s opinion.

Keep in mind sponsored teams are not obligated to provide the players on the team anything. The team will play a schedule as they see fit. They hold no power over which college coaches want to watch them play. There are no coaching qualifications to lead a team.

The arrangement comes down to what the brand, the coach and families agree on.

The solution: ask the coach questions. Carefully, consider their answers. Get all the information so you know the reality. And so that you don’t look foolish making false claims.

No, we are not an AAU team

It is common for people to interchange the terms AAU, club team and travel teams. In some parts of the country this could be a good ting. In other places this association is bad. AAU is still incredibly popular around the USA. For a lot of teams, it may be the best way to get affordable insurance. But to be an AAU team players must buy an AAU card.

The solution: ask the coach questions. Carefully, consider their answers. The easiest question is “Coach, do I need an AAU card?”


Running your business to not make any money is not the same as being a registered 501(c)(3) company. Registered 501(c)(3) companies have tax benefits. Running a business to not make money is a strategy, not a tax benefit. And that strategy may not be the real intent.

The solution: ask the coach questions. Carefully, consider their answers. Why are they telling you this and why does it matter to you?