SportsBiz: Going Solo
600,000 fewer kids are spending time on the soccer field than they were three years ago – Why?
Saturdays in fall outside Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City are a blur of action: Kids in bright uniforms. Coaches shouting commands from the sideline. Parents doling out orange slices at halftime.
But behind the scenes, there are signs of trouble around a sport that has captivated American families for decades.
Basically, not as many kids are playing soccer. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), the pool of players age 6 to 12 has dropped nearly 14 percent over the past three years. That’s more than a statistical hiccup. It means about 600,000 fewer kids are spending time on the field. No other youth sport (not even football, despite rising concern about injuries) has seen a drop-off so steep.
Soccer people think the reasons run a wide gamut: everything to the siren song of video games to rising interest in other sports (lacrosse is a big winner here) to a disturbing trend toward poor sideline behavior from over-excited parents.
But the goaltender from the 2015 World Cup Champion team thinks she knows the biggest reason the numbers are down: Playing soccer costs too much.
Hope Solo’s complaint, voiced at a conference this summer, will ring familiar to any Colorado family with a child who’s got the chops to play competitively at the club level. Here, geography is the enemy. Matching up against the best players often requires boarding airplanes on a Thursday afternoon for a packed weekend of tournaments in distant cities. Unlike the Northeastern U.S. or Southern California, where the population is packed into metroplexes a bus ride away, Colorado suffers from relative isolation, distance-wise. Participating in club tournaments often means flying a team to Seattle, Phoenix or somewhere beyond the reach of a chartered motor coach. Unless families are willing to digest annual expenses that can easily hit five figures, there’s not much opportunity to elevate a player’s visibility in front of college coaches and scouts who show up at only a handful of regional tournaments. The reality is underscored by SFIA statistics showing 35 percent of youth soccer players live in homes with $100,000-plus in annual income. (That compares with 14 percent of all U.S. households.)
Who cares? Solo does. She said her family wouldn’t have been able to afford today’s costs for supporting her as a competitive player. That translates to competitive imbalance: Solo blames the absence of the U.S. from this past summer’s FIFA World Cup on economics, not a lack of talent.
To people involved in youth soccer, these points are widely understood. “This is the topic of conversation everywhere,” says Dave Thomas, executive director of the Fort Collins Soccer Club. His Arsenal Colorado organization has seen a modest decline in total registrations, to less than 5,000, after a population-fueled growth surge several years ago. Thomas and peers are looking to apply remedies that include raising and distributing need-determined grant and scholarship funds, and ensuring that less expensive alternatives to travel-centric teams remain available. The Colorado Rapids Major League Soccer organization also is devoting resources to the cause by supporting an instructional league that encourages players of varying skill levels.
There’s a technology angle, too. A handful of Denver-area companies produce sports videos players and families can distribute to college coaches. If you can’t make the tournament in Portland, at least you can hit “send” on a digital video compilation.
At the high school level, Colorado soccer is showing some strains. About 16,000 students signed up to play during the current school year, according to the Colorado High School Activities Association. That’s roughly even with the 2016-2017 year, but it lags the nearly 4 percent year-over-year increase in total high school enrollment CHSAA has reported.
How Solo’s public criticism will impact the soccer world is uncertain. But at least she’s ringing the bell. The challenge for organized soccer is responding to what’s now a widely accepted truth. “It’s easy to say the pay-to-play model isn’t the best model, but you need to have a good solution in place,” Thomas says. In other words, soccer organizers need to do what great scorers often do when the ball’s in the air: Use their head.