Oh, boy. Talk about a buzz kill. US Soccer has released its return-to-play guidelines for youth soccer, recommending a phased-in approach and the sports event industry may not be happy about them. The guidelines encourage individual and small-group trainings to start – but no travel tournaments in different regions, even once games can resume.
If the governing bodies of youth team sports follow, it could be a long and silent summer. The trouble is, it seems, even soccer's governing bodies can't agree on it.
“We can’t get this wrong,” said Dr. George Champas, US Soccer’s chief medical officer. “There’s no room for mistakes.”
Chiampas told Aspen that U.S. Soccer created the recommendations based off various sources, including the federation’s safety education platforms, guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Education and World Health Organization, recommendations by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, and the Aspen Institute’s Project Play resources.
And those recommendations include no travel to multi-day youth soccer tournaments that require overnight stays in different regions. The rationale is that such events often involve children sharing rooms, going to meals and on recreational outings together and using shared transportation for extended periods of time, making them “a larger risk and a significant risk than single-day matches where you can go play a match and come home and be in your home environment,” Chiampas said.
Soccer parents appear to be more cautious than other sports parents on what return to play should entail. A recent survey by North Carolina State University, in partnership with the Aspen Institute, found that only 50 percent of soccer parents say they feel comfortable with their child returning to travel sports outside of their city or county when restrictions are lifted. That’s a lower comfort level than hs been expressed by parents in basketball (59 percent) and baseball (57 percent).
But US Soccer’s views are not necessarily shared and at the end of the day, its guidelines (including the one relating to travel tournaments) are just that: guidelines. There is no enforcement mechanism of any kind. And travel tournaments are historically a significant revenue generator for organizers and local communities. For instance, the US Youth Soccer tournament database currently lists 22 tournaments for the month of June, located in Texas, Indiana, Maryland, Colorado, New York, Virginia, New Jersey and Utah.
US Youth Soccer CEO Skip Gilbert, whose organization released its own guidelines in mid-May, said the U.S. Soccer recommendations are a “thoughtful, logical projection of return to play.” However, US Youth Soccer is not taking the same position that clubs should restrict from traveling to overnight tournaments, citing the varying rates of COVID-19 cases in different communities.
“From a logical progression, it makes all the sense in the world (to restrict travel) if safety is the absolute priority,” Gilbert told Aspen. “I think from a guideline perspective, every club is going to make up their mind on what’s in the best interest of their kids. … If I’m in Connecticut and want to travel to a tournament in Massachusetts, fine, let’s go. You can’t really say no to that. At some point, this country has to start getting back to normal, unless there’s a medical reason why we can’t. Every organization is going to have a different spin on it. We have 55 different state soccer associations and 55 different levels of return to play.”
It's not just US Youth Soccer, either. The North American Sand Soccer Championships, another large travel event, is on for August 7-9 in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Last year, that event, one of SDM's Champions of Economic Impact in Sports Tourism, used 3,000 room nights and brought in nearly $15 million in economic impact. It is one of the largest beach soccer tournaments in the world and is heavily attended.
“We understand the economics of sport, but it starts with the health and safety,” Chiampas said. “If for the next eight to 12 months this is what we have to do – travel for a day and come back, with no multi-day tournaments so kids and parents don’t die – I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to follow this.”
In some cases, organizations have tried to schedule tournaments but encountered pushback. AAU had planned to host its Junior Volleyball National Championships in Orlando in mid-June; however, within a week of scheduling that event, it had to back off. The event has since been rescheduled for mid-July. (It should also be noted this is an indoor event; soccer events take place outside which might make parents feel there is less of a health threat).
Other team sports, including some at the high school level, are returning to play as well. Ripken Baseball has noted its athletes will take the field in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in mid-June. Little League Baseball, following the cancellation of its World Series and its Regional Qualifiers, has announced its return-to-play protocols, as well as some suggested events like a home run derby and Sandlot Fun Days. It has also noted that there can be tournament opportunities at the district, section and state levels as determined by each state's district administrators, and if it state guidelines allow. US Lacrosse has already released its own return to play protocols; it outlines a five-stage process with the fifth stage being large tournaments with teams from various geographic regions. The organization notes, "There is no evidence or guidance on how to hold large-scale events safely at this time."
Soccer may have a lowered risk compared to some other sports. According to US Soccer, new research suggests that there is minimal risk of dangerously close contact during a match. And while coaches and administrators can emphasize social distancing, hand washing, wearing masks (though not during play) and not sharing personal items like water bottles, it’s likely that the younger the athlete is, the harder the lesson will be to teach.
For his part, Chiampas views COVID-19 guidelines as the new heading restrictions. When U.S. Soccer banned head balls for kids 10 and under in 2015, surveys showed that more than 90 percent of organizations nationally followed the guideline, he said.
“At the beginning, there’s going to be non-compliance (of COVID-19 guidelines) or young kids that just forget their mask or don’t come the way they’re asked,” Chiampas said. “That’s OK, but we should stop and educate. If we do that, I think parents are going to appreciate it and move forward with us.”