Soccer

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Will the USWNT World Cup Victory Spur New Growth? Not Necessarily

24 Jul, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Change is Needed at Multiple Levels in Order to Restore 'the Beautiful Game' to its Former Glory

The USWNT is marching on, with its victory parade being captured here.

The question is, of course, what it means for youth soccer, and particularly for girls.

While it's easy to buy into the prevailing theory that little girls will hit the soccer fields by the millions in response, that’s an oversimplification – and too much of a very direct response to hope for. Soccer is an aspirational sport but it takes more than a World Cup win to create lasting change.

Back in 2015, Forbes Magazine noted that the women’s World Cup final brought in around 23 million American viewers to its Fox broadcast, significantly more than the 17+ million viewers who tuned in to watch the men’s final just a year prior to that. 

The profile of women’s soccer has gone nowhere but up since that time and of course, it’s likely to remain strong. While some pundits will likely point to firebrand Megan Rapinoe and the looming court case regarding equal pay, those are contributing factors but not the only ones in soccer's heightened pubic awareness. The sport is affordable (in that it requires few specific pieces of expensive equipment to play at a beginner level), can be played indoors and out, and it’s easy to learn. Those are factors in its favor, as they have always been.

Still, problems remain. Last year, the U.S. Soccer Foundation reported that youth sports in general have struggled to keep kids engaged in recent years.  Soccer is no exception.  Joe Drape reported in his New York Times piece that 6- to 12-year-olds playing soccer regularly dropped nearly 14 percent over the last three years and the sport has lost nearly 600,000 participants.

The article points to several reasons for the decline. They range from a ‘pay-to-play’ system, which prices too many families and children out of the sport, to increased competition and pressure at earlier ages that can drain the fun out of the game.

Throw in a few other factors – plenty of other options availabe for sports, a culture of sedentary pastimes, the availability of 24-hour television and computer distractions, the preponderance of unhealthful food options, parents’ concern over children’s safety (with concussions being top-of-mind – although other threats such as sexual abuse, create large-scale worries as well) – and it becomes obvious that a decline in participation is not directly related to any one specific thing. And that means change has to take place on multiple levels in order to be effective.

In an effort to help combat at least part of the problem, U.S. Soccer Foundation has begun offering programs such as Soccer For Success, which focused on small-side games in under-served areas. That showed a year-over-year growth rate of 39 percent.

Whether overall the effort to grow soccer – and all sports – will bear fruit remains an open question since several factors threaten growth. The upward-trending costs of sporting goods, including shoes, balls, field equipment and apparel, may push many organized sports out of reach of parents who are on the bubble as to how much they can afford for their children. The fact that school districts are slashing budgets and in some cases, cutting sports entirely, hasn’t helped either. And it’s no surprise that the lower the socioeconomic group the child hails from, the lower his or her chances of participating in an organized sports program. The fact that wealthy children have more access to sports training and coaching, as well as to travel teams and other programs that can boost their skill level (and ultimately, their appeal to high schools and colleges offering elite programs) can discourage children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds as well.

Parents who have the means are stepping up their efforts to try to develop their children as players; in fact, an increasing number are going into debt, taking second jobs and putting off retirement to fund their children’s sports. In many cases, this is done in the hope of securing a college scholarship or a pro career, however, the statistics are grimly against the potential for this to occur.

CBS News noted in 2012 that only about two percent of high school athletes win sports scholarships every year at NCAA colleges and universities. And the average scholarship isn’t that much – about $11,000 – which leaves a lot of money to be made up by parents. There are only six sports where all the scholarships are full ride. These so-called head-count sports are not soccer but instead, football, men and women's basketball, and women's gymnastics, volleyball and tennis. In these Division I sports, athletes receive a full ride or no ride. And a TD Ameritrade report found that from 2016 to 2019, the number of sports parents’ children who secured an athletic scholarship has declined by more than half (24 percent in 2016; 11 percent in 2019).

But soccer still has some aces up its sleeve –  and many of those were predicted by those who are watching the political landscape. Some organizations are trying to reposition soccer as a unifying force in times when demographics and politics are threatening to push kids apart. In Oregon, the Portland World Soccer Tournament kicked off its 10th year, at the same time the U.S. women charged onto the field to face France. Portland Parks and Recreation crews predicted their biggest tournament ever, with 31 teams squaring off over a 75-game tournament – and all players being refugees and immigrants.

“One in five Portlanders right now is foreign-born. And a great way to integrate into the United States and to Portland is through an international language, and that for us, we found, is soccer,” said Mark Ross from Portland Parks and Recreation.

It was the same principle as the Refugee Youth Soccer Camp scheduled for Landover, Maryland (near Washington, D.C.), next month.  The camp, sponsored by LACES (Life and Change Experiences through Sport) has the goal of teaching life lessons through soccer – and providing a community of acceptance and tolerance.

Another thing that can help soccer’s growth is a growing culture of acceptance, not just among ethnicities and economic groups, but among other marginalized sectors including the LGBTQ population. On the largest scale, the FIFA Women’s World Cup, the highest number of players, coaches and personnel than ever before, identified as out, and two of those individuals are an engaged couple on the USWNT.

The National Federation of State High School Association (NFHS), the governing body of high school sports, has seen soccer remain popular, year over year, with it appearing on the top-10 list of official school-sponsored sports for both boys and girls nationwide on an annual basis. On the college level, soccer as a varsity sport remains strong – although there are limited opportunities to participate in varsity programs as opposed to high schools where no-cut programs may be in effect. However, the fact that soccer is a well-attended club and intramural sport on campus does create more accessibility to students who have neither the time nor the training to commit to a varsity program. And overall, the culture of youth team sports needs to change, putting more emphasis on physical fitness, health and social interaction, and less on the aftergame of pro careers or college scholarships.

The potential for soccer’s growth is there. The secret, say those inside the sport, is not to cast blame but to find solutions to the problem. It’s easy to point to any number of factors as threats on the negative side (the Strength-Weakness-Opportunities-Threats, or SWOT, paradigm, after all, is a four-part equation) but it is harder to look for the recipe for a way of creating a sport that reaches all youth, regardless of their marginalization. Once the sport does, however, it may be able to recapture its growth trajectory.

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