The state of American youth soccer participation dovetails with a narrative of American social fragmentation. In general, the United States lacks a robust culture of pick-up sports, common in other countries and more common domestically in the mid-1900s when friends in a neighborhood would play stickball or basketball in the streets. Such local games were instrumental for fostering social cohesion and trust.
Today, the trends not only show a scarce pick-up culture but also point to declining levels of participation in youth recreational soccer leagues, such as those sponsored by local YMCA’s. According to one study, youth soccer participation declined by about 14 percent among six to 12-year-olds between 2015 and 2018. According to the Sports & Industry Fitness Association, the number of children who touched a soccer ball once during organized play significantly fell during this three-year period.
Low-pressure rec leagues, where competition emphasizes values such as sportsmanship and camaraderie have had to fold. An American Youth Soccer Organization representative gave a particularly troubling example. A rec league in Evanston, Illinois charged families $190 with financial aid available for kids to compete in a 16-game season. Yet, between 2016 and 2018, the league lost 250 players (or 19 percent of its players). Some tried other sports, while others joined the closest travel team, where parents paid roughly $2500 annually. As the representative noted, “We put them in tryout and team situations before they are psychologically and emotionally ready. So if you can’t make a travel team, some kids may say, ‘what’s the point’ and quit playing altogether.”
Declining participation in rec leagues, and the overall drop in youth participation generally, has solidified soccer’s reputation as a sport for upper-middle-class suburbanites. As U.S. Women’s goalkeeper Hope Solo noted, “My family would not have been able to put me in soccer if I was a young kid today. That obviously alienates so many communities including Hispanic communities, the black communities, the rural communities, and underrepresented communities. Soccer right now has become a rich, white-kid sport.”
Youth soccer participation appears indicative of broader trends of inequality in America. Travel team opportunities—the way in which most young players can access the sport—are increasingly prohibitive. According to a survey from the National Sporting Goods Association, more than a third of those playing soccer in the United States come from families who earn over $100,000. This figure is over three times the number of players who come from families who earn less than $25,000. Predictably, such wealth disparities mean that those in low-income neighborhoods, especially African Americans and Latinos, are unable to take advantage of these leagues.
While declining youth participation is unique to soccer, the astronomical costs of playing on a club or travel team are not. From purchasing equipment to traveling across the country, families sacrifice time and money to put kids through travel sports, with families paying as much as $150,000 per year for their kids to play in tournaments—which occur virtually every weekend. According to some estimates, $9 billion are spent per year on travel expenses for youth sports. The burgeoning youth sports industry means that most of the time families spend together is at travel sports events. “Tourna-cations,” where families travel together to a sporting event replace more traditional family vacations. Towns such as Westfield, Indiana have been transformed from rural communities to the host of one of the largest sports facilities in the world, where travel soccer, baseball, and basketball tournaments are played.
While interviews with parents show that some derive more joy from chauffeuring their kids than others—and despite the increased time together—traveling frequently for sporting events may have adverse effects on family health. In addition to negative physical health impacts associated with playing one sport during the full year, there are potential psychological effects. In taking a toll—in terms of time and money—on parents, youth hypercompetitive travel teams can send an unhealthy message to kids and families and set a poor example for children to follow. According to Madeline Levine, author of The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids, “We have become so child-centered that what kids have to look forward to [when they become adults] is diddling with a cellphone and sitting passively, not being an active participant.”
Travel soccer and selective clubs can also impede a sense of community. Since many clubs prohibit players from playing on their high school teams, they may inadvertently pull kids away from their high school communities at a time when forming such bonds is important for development. A recent rule change from the U.S. Soccer Federation exacerbates this trend. As of 2017, club teams need to be organized by birth year rather than academic year. While this rule was designed to make the United States team competitive for the 17U World Cup in Peru the following year, it ended up splitting up teams made up of longtime friends. Soccer is heavily commercialized, and unlike sports like basketball, where coaches can scout players at high school games, much of college scouting for soccer takes place at a few showcase tournaments, which disincentivizes youth participation in school leagues that can help root young players in their local communities.
Despite declining participation in recreational and high school leagues, there are recent initiatives, including one launched by the U.S. Soccer Federation. Between 2015 and 2018, Soccer for Success has engaged over 100,000 children nationally in community-level play. This pilot program is an after-school program that consists of small-scale games and practices at or near schools and are free. In 2017, 58 percent of participants were introduced to the sport for the first time through the program and 76 percent said they liked soccer more after participating. The U.S. Soccer Federation has helped build hundreds of mini-pitches across cities such as New York, Chicago, and Newark.
It is no coincidence that rec league soccer participation has declined at the same time as fewer Americans report participating in organizations from churches to labor unions to local civic associations. Hopefully, creative programs from the U.S. Soccer Federation and initiatives from local bodies can use sports like soccer to bring communities together in a way that transcends differences that increasingly divide Americans.