Let me begin by saying that I am a huge fan of soccer. I’ve played since I was 10 years old, coached kids as young as five all the way up through high school, and been a referee as well. I’ve seen the game from every angle. But after 30 years of watching and enjoying the sport, I see a giant problem emerging in the way youth leagues are now being run and how children are exposed to playing.
I remember the days when my teammates and I fumbled around a field wearing simple matching T-shirts with the name of some local car dealership or chiropractor printed in the back. Everyone had different colored socks and shorts. The coaches were volunteers. Not everyone had their own soccer ball. There was no pressure. We just played.
Now as I watch my daughter falling in love with soccer, it’s very hard to like what youth programs have become. No longer simple after-school outlets for fun—current leagues treat players as investments and encourage parents to do so as well. Club programs are focused on acquiring new talent and winning tournaments in order to become the best in the area and to do so, they upsell players and parents who are lured in with promises of player development and potential college scholarships. The result is that recreational, non-competitive soccer is nearly nonexistent by the time a child is 10 years old.
Rather than dividing talent so there are two or three good players on each team who help other kids practice and learn, those players are recruited to separate academy programs to play on teams together—essentially leaving lower level players on their own. The idea of creating a more competitive learning environment is not bad in and of itself as we should be encouraging and developing skilled players, but the focus on these programs has all but eliminated the options for average kids.
As early as eight years old, players with “talent” are recruited from recreational teams to join more competitive academies. This leaves entire teams of lesser talented players; some teams end up not even having enough kids to field a full roster. To compensate, younger players are sometimes asked to “play up” an age group, diluting the talent level even further. Of course, players who end up frustrated by the poor quality of play on these teams are encouraged to pay to move up to the academy teams, and thus continues the cycle.
For the club, however, this means higher registration fees and bigger profits. Eventually, by the age of 10, it’s nearly impossible to play at a simple recreational level, so parents have to choose between forcing their child to give up playing altogether or fork over an insane amount of money and time to play up on these academy teams—which are even further categorized with names like “premier” and “elite” in order to encourage players and parents to bump their kids up the ladder.
What this means is that kids who aren’t very good, who just like to play for fun, or who can’t afford the registration fees, are basically left with no option. Maybe that isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but playing youth sports is good for kids. So to have all playing options off the table before a kid is even in middle school is ridiculous.
For my daughter to play, we drive 30 to 45 minutes to her practices, and sometimes even further for games. On top of the huge amount of time we have to commit, playing also comes with a huge price tag, right around $800. Yes, $800 for a 10-year-old to play soccer. And that doesn’t include the cost of shoes and equipment, plus several hidden costs that you don’t find out about until after you sign up, like the $300 uniform fee, $300 more for what I would describe as nearly professional-quality Nike uniforms, with three different color combinations, a matching warm-up jacket and pants (even though it’s Florida and there is almost never a need for them) plus a matching ball and a water bottle. In all, my daughter’s youth team is more decked out than my college team was.
All told, with the added tournament fees and travel expenses, we’ve invested nearly $2,000 for my daughter to play soccer just this year. I know she loves it, so I keep paying, but there are other kids out there who love it as well, and their families simply can’t afford to let them play. And why should they have to anyway? Youth sports are supposed to be fun. Keeping kids interested and engaged is 90 percent of the purpose. But that purpose has been replaced with profit. Based on tax records, I found that my daughter’s club brought in more than $1 million last year. For a youth soccer league, that seems insane to me. I’ve spoken to other parents who feel the same, but with no other options for our kids, what choice do we have but to continue to pay?
Dad submitted this anonymously so as to not adversely affect his child’s playing time when members of her club read this. (Yes, they penalize kids for things like this.)