Soccer Development: For Love or Money

Soccer people often complain en masse about how we don’t have the quality of players that we should, but I just had a coach “offer to train” my little superstar for $500 over the next few months over and above his club requirements. Never fear—help is on the way!!! Or I wonder—is it because his potential is that good or because someone needs to make their rent or car payment. Of course the two aren’t mutually exclusive, but left unchecked could lead to poor outcomes.

While parents are not pristine examples of behavior, they are far the central issue here. Grown-ups are monetizing children’s participation in the sport at an increasing rate for their gain over the love of the activity and the kids themselves. Adults are earning a living or strong part of their income from coaching 12-year-olds and if someone’s car payment depends on what kids can participate—we have a huge problem in youth soccer. We clearly want to improve on moments like last night…so it’s time to ask the youth development apparatus—are we about the love of the game or the money we can make from it?

Pay to play is a problem—and maybe the primary one. Here’s what we mean…

There are too many middle and upper-class white kids in youth soccer in America. The activity is exclusionary from a financial point of view. On ESPN last night I heard them say club soccer can cost up to $3500 per year. I wish. We spent $1200 in one weekend at the CASL Showcase. And the Disney College Showcase is more than most family vacations over a 4-day stretch. $3500—maybe if your kid plays on a local, not really competitive club team and is 11. If you have a higher-level team (Regional League, National League, ECNL, State Cup challenger) you are paying upwards of $10,000 and beyond PER KID. If a household earns less than $100,000 per year and has 2 kids—they will struggle to afford club soccer.

Now, let’s take a look at the median family income of the 5-star football recruits. Or the 5-star kids touring Duke and Kentucky for basketball. Do you think their parents could swing $10,000 per year per kid from age 8 to 18? Yet somehow these kids play ball at a high level during those years and become the best players in the world. So, what is soccer missing here?

The intent of ensuring quality training through coach certification has laid a foundation of unintended financial consequences. Club coaches are pushed to attain higher and higher licenses where the courses alone can cost $4000 and of course, they have to be renewed (for a fee) after a few years. But it flows downhill from there with club coaches making from $4000 to $10,000 or more coaching a club team. Tournaments are about money first. A 3 game showcase happens over 4 days—that’s about the hotel rebate the hosts get and downtime spending money. They’ll tell you it’s about helping the colleges see the kids—it’s not. Colleges leave in droves after Saturday’s games and rarely attend Thursday games well. The push for “private training” over and above club activities is enormous and accounts for a few hundred bucks to thousands if you have a goalkeeper.  Soccer facilities are very poor in many areas compared to the other “big 3” American sports so people have to pay for private facility use. And on and on…

Now we have the National Leagues du Jour. The elite of the elite. Take a look at the cost–it’s more expensive. Sure, that’ll fix the problem. We will never move this forward unless we say what is happening out loud. Adults are preying (mostly unintentionally) on the naïve ambitions of uninformed parents for a financial motive. The kids are mostly chess pieces.

Wait—isn’t it their game? To change this you have to change an economic food chain of people benefiting from a cash flow stream. And as long as middle and upper-class parents are paying—good luck with that. The sad part is that the explosion of AAU basketball, Club baseball, 5-star football camps is rapidly driving the other sports to where soccer has been for some time. And where there is money driving access, there will be unintended consequences for kids. I wonder how long until they become exclusionary like soccer?

I think there is an honest desire to do better. I just wonder if the culture of US youth soccer would consider fewer adult “revenue opportunities” in order to make that happen.


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