The Costs of Youth Soccer

Talk to most parents with a child in competitive soccer, and you’re sure to hear about how much it costs. Just about every article written about the problems with youth development in the US will take about the barriers for many due to the high costs. When you participate in an activity that involves travel – the costs will tend to be high. Yet the ‘high-cost’ perspective in the media seems limited mostly to youth soccer, even though competitive baseball and basketball teams have been around for a long time, most affiliated with the Amateur Athletic Union.

So is soccer really as drastically expensive as the media would have you believe? Are high costs keeping a number of children out of youth soccer programs?

Competitive Soccer Costs

First, we’re going to focus on the competitive travel team a­spect, since at the Recreational level, in most areas, soccer is similar to municipal baseball and basketball programs, played on municipal facilities, using municipal equipment, or they are run through organizations like the YMCA, AYSO, local churches, etc. Even when Rec programs are run by non-profit soccer leagues, the costs are very low. You pay anywhere from $10-$75 for an entire season of activity (usually 3 months). Even when the cost is at the higher end, that usually involves the cost of a uniform to play in, etc. That’s affordable for most families as are the equipment costs. Cleats can be found for $20, shin guards for $10, and a soccer ball for $10. So barriers to the Rec level are fairly low for most families. However, the level of coaching overall is also very inexperienced since Rec programs are coached primarily by parent volunteers with very little soccer experience. So they cannot be relied upon to develop youth players beyond simple skills, though efforts to improve the education and skill of Rec coaches are gaining strength.

Where the high costs come into play is when children start playing competitive soccer, around the age of 8 or 9. At the U10-U18 competitive level, you’ll find costs that vary widely. In North Carolina, we have two levels of competitive soccer: Challenge and Classic. Other areas may only have one, which they call ‘Select’ or ‘Classic’ or something else. I’ll focus on the Classic level for apples to apples sake. These are the top level teams, with many players hoping to play in high school or college some day.

In our area, annual league costs of $500-$1500 a year to participate in Classic are common. A small portion of these fees are used for insurance, national registrations, and other administrative costs. The next chunk is allocated to referee fees, which are higher for the more competitive levels. However, the biggest chunks are reserved for paying professional trainers/coaches and sometimes, depending on the league’s situation, capital costs (debt service on soccer complexes, etc.). However, that doesn’t tell the whole story in terms of costs. The league fees are often less than half the overall cost. Most competitive teams attend a handful of tournaments each year. We’ll use five as an average, though that’s just a guess based on anecdotal evidence. Some teams many attend more or less, but 3 in the Fall and 2 in the Spring seems common.

Tournament fees are a small part of the cost of attending, though they are growing. These days, $400/team is about average in North Carolina, though many ‘local’ tournaments here are charging $495 for teams at the highest levels. Fees are usually tiered by roster size so the per player cost is around $25-$30/player. Most tournament fees have increased $25-$100/team in the last 3 years (You can get an idea on costs from the NCYSA tournament list for 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008), but they are also major fundraising events for leagues to purchase equipment, pay for fields, etc. When your team attends ‘premiere’ tournaments, fees are often $800-$1000/team. But even at those levels, the cost per player is still around $50. The real cost comes from travel expenses.

I personally live in an ideal area for soccer, since we are within driving distance of three of the larger soccer organizations in the state (Raleigh, Greensboro, and Winston-Salem), which hold many tournaments. If we stay in a hotel, it is usually because of an 8AM match time and it’s optional. For many teams, however, they have to stay in a hotel when they play in a tournament. So add another $200/player for lodging costs (Assume two night stay). These days, gas is another sizable chunk – figure most teams drive around 100 miles each way on average (another rough guess). Soccer being the sport of SUVs and Minivans, gas efficiency is not common – so you could estimate it costs people $30-$40 in gas. Then there are meals. Many families bring coolers or hit the concession stand during the day, but since it IS a trip – dinner out is all but assured Saturday night and often Friday. For a family of four, you have to figure they’ll spend $40-$60. Add in breakfast, snacks, etc. and a rough estimate of $75-$100/day is not unheard of (and eating out costs vary widely by area. Some of these values may look really low to some of you)

So you have to figure the average tournament will cost a family somewhere in the neighborhood of $400-$500 per tournament for a family of four to attend, including the player. Yes, these are VERY rough estimates, but they get us close. We’ll take $450/tournament for now. I realize that costs vary widely across the country, but I’m more familiar with costs here in North Carolina. The main point of this is relative cost.

The last expense is offseason training. Soccer camp is a rite of passage for just about every competitive soccer player, and also many recreational players, though they tend to attend camps that cost less. Local colleges are big sponsors of these events. Living near Duke, UNC Chapel Hill, NC State, and Wake Forest has it’s benefits – they all offer camps, most involving overnight stays for a week. Costs for the camps range from $200-$300 for ‘Day Campers’ to $400-$600 for overnight campers. Figure your competitive player (usually 13-18 yrs old) will spend $500 at overnight camp. Younger players spend less, but also often attend more than one camp. At least in our area, the competitive players will attend a serious skills camp at a local college and also a team camp with a profession soccer trainer to the tune of $100-$300/week. So looking at that – figure on average your summer camp/off season training costs will be at least $400/player.

We can’t forget equipment. $20 cleats and $10 shin guards won’t hold up a month for serious players. They don’t need to spend $200 on cleats, but you’ll see most competitive players spending around $75 for a solid pair of cleats that will last them a year. Shin guards are pretty cheap ($15), but the other cost comes from… Under Armour. Soccer is played in very cold weather in many parts of the country for portions of the Fall and definitely the Spring season. Most kids will have at least one UA Cold Gear shirt – $40 – as they’re essential for keeping warm on the field in uniforms designed to ‘breath’ and keep you cool in 100 degree heat. Soccer balls, equipment bags, etc. will bring the equipment costs into the $100-$200 range. $150 is not far off for most.

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  1. This is a great article with a lot of research. I am unable to comment on youth development in the US however I can comment on it from an Australian perspective. We do have similar problems however our youth systems are probably not as structured as yours. Cost to register to play in say an U14 side would be approx $120US for the season which is about 18 games. Travel is minmal as the games are generally local. Representative soccer is where the costs start to add up from $1000 upwards.
    We do need to strike a balance. We need our kids playing sport to distract them from ‘other’ things they are faced with during their growing years, additionally sport is a great outlet and is also recommended to reduce the increasing weight problems associated with our youth.
    More Federal and State Funding is required to develop our youth teams and ultimately provide those players with ability, an avenue for them to progress. However, we also need to make this game affordable for the families and the kids that just want to get out there and kick a ball and have some fun. It doesnt always have to be about producing a superstar – Make it affordable so the kids can play.

  2. I came upon your blog with aninterest in hearing what people have to say about containing costs…but do not see that discussion.

    It is my experience, from having been involved in team management within a “classic” level club that while many of those involved in the upper management of a club really do care about the children, the game and the children learning and competinig at the highest level…too many of them believe the club which they manage and/or direct is “theirs”, …like a fifedom. The have a diffciult time opening up participation of others within the club, on its boards and in its decision making processes. These clubs often their financals, even though most of them are designated by the IRS and their state governments as foundations and/or non-profits and have a responsibility to make their finances public. Since many of those who run the clubs are part of the “coaching brotherhood”…and as such their expenses, including tournaments costs and others are paid for by the families of the players, the cost of a player playing isn’t really given the scrutiny and consideration it should. Too often if it is desired or wanted by the coach(es)it is received…leaving the required payment(s) of the coaching get their wish granted to fall in to the hands of parents who may or may not be able to pay for it!

    If the US soccer world was truly concerned about opening up the world of competetve soccer to any child capable of playing at that level, then they would be seriouly considering the state of affairs when it comes to youth soccer tournaments and the rising travel costs for families and the social responsibility of driving so much, using unnecessary fuel consumption and furthering the discussion that “elite: level soccer is only for those with $$$$

  3. While I believe some leagues are run as fiefdoms, the more common problem I see is that the core group that want the league to succeed have trouble recruiting others to help. But I can absolutely see how it can be viewed as protective. In many leagues, a core group of people spend countless hours a week ensuring the league operates smoothly and succeeds. So they have a natural interest in wanting to ‘protect’ the league. I’ve seen first hand how one person on a crusade can put a league at serious risk. So in our case, we absolutely welcome additional volunteers and board members to help, we also want to ensure those that do help have the leagues best interests at heart regardless of personal agendas.

    The part about the finances is something I’ve never understood. I can’t believe soccer leagues are that worried about what people would find. Seriously – you take in money from registrations and camp fees and pay it out for referees, training/coaches, equipment, and facility maintenance. We happily will send our budget and income/expense statement to anyone who requests it. We’re a non-profit organization and we serve at the pleasure of our members – the families who participate.

    I think it can be said of MOST leagues, people aren’t getting rich off the kids. Yes, many coaches are paid. How much is always a matter of debate. But the truth of the matter for many metropolitan leagues, tournaments are a MAJOR source of income for their leagues. If the income wasn’t coming from tournaments, it would have to come from registration fees, further increasing the barriers to participation. Though I will say the inflation rate of tournament fees has been pretty drastic. It’s seemed that five years ago you were paying around $350/team and now it’s pushing $450/$500 a team.

    Yes, some teams go crazy with tournaments. But they are good experiences. My girls went to three this year, but all were local (we’re very lucky to live in a soccer hot spot in the state with large leagues and excellent tournaments within an hour or two drive) So there was an added cost of about $100 per player. But we also told the parents ahead of time that that was likely to be the case and players were not bound to participate and we also have a financial aid program available.

    I just don’t know what US Soccer can do regarding tournaments that would really have an impact. The vast majority of players and parents I’ve encountered enjoy going to them. One thing they could do – and this will seem strange – is if the state affiliates were less stingy in approving tournaments. If you have more tournaments in a given state – travel would probably be lessened somewhat. Sure the elite teams would still go to the major ones. But a vast majority of teams would probably prefer to stay more local, yet still would face tough competition.

    Clearly – leagues and coaches need to be more upfront about the true costs of youth soccer. Even our league has debated making financial aid more encompassing – ie covering tournament fees, etc in addition to the normal registration fees. But all too often smaller leagues face resistance trying to get a tournament sanctioned since there are already others going on on the same weekends – its protective (the big clubs protecting their interests and income streams), yet having more local tournaments would significantly reduce travel costs.

    I personally think it’s great for a team to make ONE hotel trip a year. They’re fun, the kids have a blast, and it’s doable for almost all the families. But the rest of the tournaments should be local. We’ll probably do five tournaments this year. None or one will require a hotel stay. The rest we can drive to. I think that’s a good thing.

  4. Hello ,
    Great article! I´m really glad that I live in Finland..My son is playing in local U-13 team (KyIF). The equipment costs are similar here too. Son´s team takes part on summer time on regional league and in winter-time they will take a part to Futsal-league and Hall-league. There will be about 6-8 tournaments on summer time.. and this wil cost about 300€ (Euros) that´s includes insurance and licences and all participate costs costs for coach and this is for whole year!

  5. Last year, me and another volunteer coach (along with our daughters) decided to put together a Select U-11 team made up of the academy players that we coached in the previous spring season. Both of us are experienced E certified coaches. We wanted to experiment and see just how affordable we could make our team. We ended up charging $265 per player (11 players) for the fall season. We played 2 friendlies and 3 tournaments, two of them included travel to neighboring cities. That $265 included uniform, bag, state registration fees, and tournament entry fees. It did not include travel expenses. We did limit the coast of the rooms to under $80 per night but that included breakfast. We were granted the use of a private soccer field so we had no expense related to practice fields. Neither the coaches or trainers took a salary but we were able to provide a great experience for some kids that might not have been able to afford Select soccer. This spring, we’ve been as competitive a team as any in our division.

    The bottom line is, soccer doesn’t have to be expensive. Spending more money does not make a kid better necessarily. I resent the way some coaches have turned soccer into a profit machine which excludes those families who can’t afford “professional” coaches.

  6. That’s excellent Joel! We try to keep costs low here as well. We charge $200 a season, which includes two uniforms, soccer bag, a ball, coaching equipment, two tournaments, the end of year State Cup/Festival, gas cards for the coaches, referee fees, registration/insurance fees, and so on. We don’t pay for hotels, since many tournaments our teams attend are local. The good news is we look to have some breathing room in our Challenge division budget to add in some skills training.

    It doesn’t have to be expensive, but like you, we don’t have field costs, which I believe can make up a sizable portion of a competitive team’s budget, in addition to paid coaches if they are used. I think paid coaches get a bad rap, when many are truly devoted to what they do and are trying to make a living doing what they enjoy. But that doesn’t mean volunteer coaches are inherently bad – I’ve never understood the vitrol from some soccer folks towards parents who coach or volunteer to coach teams without their child.

  7. I guess what bugs me is when a select team adds a marginal player to their club knowing that they have little chance of succeeding or even enjoying playing at that level. Some kids just need to stay at the rec level and enjoy it. I have 1 daughter in Select and one in rec so I’m not biased one way or the other. The only reason I can fathom that you would add a marginal player is to get their money. I’ve see it too many times. A parent signs their kid up to play for a Select team. they pay their non-refundable fee. The kid and the parents soon figure out what the coaches knew all along, the player needed to stay at rec. the kid ends up dropping out of soccer altogether. The only ones that come out ahead are the professional coaches. I’m not against paid coaches by any means. What I am against is coaches taking advantage of parents just to add a paying player to their roster.

  8. I want to put together a u15 team and see how affordiable I can make it. You still need to be part of the US Soccer Federation. Any suggestions how to proceed.

  9. A pretty good estimate that holds up today — but the real costs kick in when a team is successul enough to make the USYA regional tournaments. Those can involve thousands in travel for one tournament alone . . . My daughter’s Maine-based team costs ended up being $1150 fee; travel to two spring tournaments ($300 each); two pairs of cleats $250 (trust me, $100 cleats do NOT last for a full year, plus it helps to have two pairs for muti-day tournaments in the rain); UA top, tights and undershorts+ other equipment (about $125); and the kicker, a week-long trip to Region1 championships: hotel – $800, car rental ($450), food ($500 and that included several team dinners we cooked ourselves) and airfare (about $900) for a season total of about $5000. Could have saved a little by driving, but still a $4000+ investment for a year.

  10. Absolutely – at the higher levels when you’re competing regionally – the costs are much higher. But that was the main point here – often you read these articles and they complain about how costs to play soccer are ‘so high’ and yet that’s often the rare exception (compared to the total number of kids playing), but that’s never mentioned. The top teams absolutely pay more $$$ given how much farther they’ll travel for decent competition and exposure, but overall most teams don’t travel that far and the costs are (or can be) lower.

  11. Two main points here, one detail-oriented, one philosophy oriented:

    1. The costs to participate are low-balled. Onc eyour child is over age 6, equipment costs are $30 for cleats, $15 for shinguards, and $18 for a ball. The only truly affordable piece for soccer is the shorts ($10-20, lots of uses, and easy to hand-down). Also sport wear for practice, waterbottles, etc. ratchet the cost to play upward.

    2. The concept of “select” drains the community of model players who would still succeed if left in community ball, and the coaches that are sometimes their parents (either by coaching in select or just no longer being available and invested the community leagues). I would like to know based on the highly talented players that ultimately DO make it to college, etc., how many of them are from rural locations that don’t even have select teams as an option, as an argument AGAINST the need for select teams and organizations to even exist.

  12. A,

    Very few players select/travel players end up playing college soccer, especially from the “colder” weather regions where you are not playing outdoors all year round. But if you look at most college programs when they announce recruits, the players’ club (or ODP participation) is mentioned. In areas where school soccer is in the fall, the goal of many of these kids is simply to make their school team.

    To develop, players need both good coaching and an environment of other committed, skilled players (not including the main factor which is the self discipline to become technically proficient and physically fit outside organized training). Select/travel/premier is just a more efficient manner to do this, especially in smaller communities. I know a few “town” programs that have reached the level of forming teams competitive with premier/club programs, but they have essentially created a ‘select’ subprogram within their larger organization. Conversely, you see even more clubs/premier programs forming “academies and junior programs” at the U8/10 level that mimic what town programs do. Not only are you paying (in theory) for better coaching, but you are paying for your kid to be around other kids who take it seriously.

    At the $50-100 rec level, you accept some of the kids are there for different reasons other than just to become better soccer players and the coach may be a parent who only has basic knowledge/experience of the game. You hope the program overall is run by experience enough people that provides enough support so kids learn to love the game in a safe setting and get some basic fundamentals. And for the most part, town programs generally do a good job in that regard (or hopefully go out of business/get new leadership) and should consider the kids that go onto select/premier as well as school/ODP as a measure of their success. If you club can do the $250-500 travel teams that have some success or graduate kids at U14 and higher to more “select” programs, than that is great as well.

    And yes, there are premier clubs that take on players to make a team when they should not accept the player. It’s like any other high end “purchase” you make — due diligence is involved. What’s the club’s player development/playing time philosophy? What’s the team’s expectation for commitment to training and what are the penalties for kids who do not meet them? What are the coaches’ credentials? What facilities does the club use? What’s the return rate of existing players and where have graduates of the club ended up? Etc..(you get the point).

    And I disagree on one point — I actually think there are too many tournaments. Look at guidance for training to playing ratios and/or the guidance in the new US Soccer curriculum and you find a lot of teams end up playing way more when they should be training. I’m generally not for adding rules or restrictions, but perhaps limiting tournament participation beyond State Cup to 2 a season might help self-correct. I do appreciate many clubs need a tournament to keep team costs lower and more local tournaments reduce costs for more general select programs, but teams should be training a lot more than playing and that would keep costs (and injuries) lower.

  13. Interesting. I got to this article by way of researching the “stay to play” phenomenon that I’m seeing more and more these days. However, I just wanted to say… soccer has NOTHING on hockey. My daughter is 15 and we don’t live in a hockey hot spot. For her to play at the top level last year both travel ice and travel inline hockey during the ice off season, with tournaments across the country, gear, coaching, clinics, etc… I paid just under $14,000. And I didn’t even go with her to most of the tournaments, she travelled with other families.

    Is it worth it? Well, I’m not doing it in hopes that she gets a scholarship. She may or she may not play hockey in college and she may or may not get a hockey scholarship. I’m still planning on having to figure out how to pay for college. Let’s be honest… if you are spending a ton of money on your kid’s sport in order to save money in college by way of scholarship, that is a bad plan. The plan is hopefully hockey can give her access to a school that she might not otherwise have been able to get into, like an Ivy. From there, academics are the best chance as far as $$$.

    I bet you can’t find any family with national average income that has kids in elite hockey, because it’s just impossible. Even ice hockey at high school level where I live is about $1500 for a season, not including gear which for basic, medium quality set you will spend at least $600-700. For a house league this fall, kids age 6-16 all pay $749 ($699 if you pay in full before a deadline) for a 6 month season of one practice, one game each week. That is the cheapest ice hockey at the lowest level there is to be found in my state.

    For me, I spend the money because she loves the sport, is quite talented, and I am able to afford it with careful planning and budgeting. So for me, I read this article and I definitely wish she played soccer!

  14. The cost to have whatever is top quality is high. I run a select club, and I do charge for the knowledge I’ve acquired all my life long.
    I am 60 years old, and I’ve been involved with soccer since I was a little boy. My father used to play pro soccer, and he would spend hours working with me in my early ages. I started playing for a club when I was just 5. I had to work hard 4 times a week,and play once on weekends.
    Like any doctor, or lawyer that has prepared for his/her professional career, I’ve done the same, the difference is the area we work in.
    I charge US$100,00 fee a month from each in player my club to train them. All the other expenses are paid separately.
    I believe my experience is woth more that that, but unfortunately if I charge more, players won’t come to me.
    If you want to play recreational soccer, it is a totally different thing. Coaches are usually parents that like and study the game, but without large experience about the game.
    I don’t think costs for select soccer are high. If you aim a schorlaship in a college, you need to be very well trained to get it, and that has a cost.

  15. I think it is ridiculous for travel soccer coaches to get paid. All across the nation, Little league coaches, Pop Warner coaches, Travel baseball coaches, etc. do not get paid for the time they put in coaching kids – they do it for the love of the game and to give something back to the game – they do not do it for monetary gain. Paid youth coaches create a conflict of interest and can easily wind up using kids for their own agenda. U.S. soccer will lag behind the rest of the world until youth soccer in the U.S. becomes affordable for the lower and middle classes – currently, soccer is mainly available to the those that can afford it rather than those who love it.

  16. I think you have some good points. The problem I have is the disparity in cost between large clubs and small clubs. Due to moving, we left a small club where all coaches were volunteer to have to play at a large club where the coaches are paid and their are fees for every little thing.

    I have an E license which I paid for out of pocket and would like to get a D license. Yet while I was a challenge coach at my last club, the new club does not seem to be interested in me volunteering. Their paid coach system seems to be what they like and they will adhere to it come hell or high water. Never mind the fact that the club we just left was decently competitive at the Classic level (we played in the same league as the new club and finished with a better record) for 1/5 the price. So, if the paid coach system is working so great, where are the results?

    It also bothers me to hear the, “we’re big, so it cost more for us to operate.” argument from these bigger clubs. The club we left is privately funded through donations and fees. The club we are stuck with gets municipal help. You would think with taxpayer dollars cutting some of their overhead, they could offer a better fee schedule.

    The more I am finding out, the less I like it. The coaches tend to be school coaches as well, and it is becoming apparent to me, if you play for one of the smaller clubs in the area, you don’t have a shot of making the school team. It is starting to look like it is all an effort by the well to do in this area to make sure their kids have a lock on the opportunities that offer a path to college soccer and they have set up a system to make sure the “undesirables” don’t have a chance. Ability and skill don’t matter. It is all who you are and who you know. I hope that I am wrong, but the evidence I find the more I look is not encouraging.

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