Financial Aid ProgramsÂ
There is no question, the costs for a player to participate in competitive soccer up through age 18 can be significant. From age 9 through 18, you can pay more than it costs to send them to a public college! Even though we used wildly rough estimates in this article, annual costs of thousands of dollars are common. So how can children from all walks of life gain access to that? The quickly growing Hispanic population represents a major influx of potential soccer players, but some of them may struggle with the high costs to compete at the highest level. They, of course, are not the only ones. So what can be done?
Many people feel the costs of soccer have gotten out of control. However, many of the costs are semi-optional. Players don’t HAVE to attend tournaments to develop, but teams likely would not tolerate losing players from a roster for them (even when guest players are allowed). League costs may seem high, but as a league administrator, I know firsthand the many costs involved with running a league. Leagues aren’t raking in money and blowing it on frivolous things. Most paid coaches are not driving around in Jaguars – they do what they do out of a love for the game and live moderately. Referee costs are amazingly low considering the abuse they put up with on a daily basis. So calls to reduce costs in soccer will likely be met by reality – some costs can be trimmed, but not many. Sure there are likely excessive cases out there (teams renting RVs for tournaments, etc.), but overall, the structured costs are being spent on much needed infrastructure and coaching.
So the answer to the barriers question usually turns to financial aid. Many leagues have financial aid programs, though they may not always be a priority. Other leagues have large programs that can pay many of the costs for a sizable portion of their population. Many use tournament income to feed their financial aid funds. Others rely on corporate sponsors. However, those programs will often take care of the league costs and sometimes equipment, but will usually leave a family still facing tournament costs. Larger leagues can often cover parts of those costs too, but not enough do. So how can the financial aid programs nationwide be strengthened? Unfortunately, it will likely require some pressure from up above. It is probably time for the USSF or USYSA/US Club to consider some sort of financial aid mandate for larger leagues. If a league exceeds a certain threshold in size, it should be fairly easy to come up with a formula that takes into account their fees and area population to come up with a percentage or number of ‘spots’ they should be expected to set aside each year for financial aid. Note I say fairly easy, because areas are different. But this would place a higher priority on the need for making financial aid available to a league’s residents. I know many bristle at the thought of interference or mandates ‘from above’, especially when it comes to money. But soccer leagues are notoriously monopolistic. Once a league has established itself in a given area, it is very hard for another league to gain a foothold. Some do, but the bigger leagues usually enjoy a monopoly on youth soccer. In some ways that helps funnel the best players onto the most competitive teams. But with that comes a responsibility to their area, so a little regulation from the USSF or USYSA stipulating financial aid levels is fair. I say this as a league president too. I know the impacts that a league could face, but given the 6-7 figure budgets of most soccer clubs, any financial aid mandate would likely be a small portion of their annual budget. Yet on a macro level nationwide, it could have a marked effect.
The USSF is also trying to come up with some new programs to help develop the top players in the country. The formation of new national academies at some of the countries largest soccer leagues is bringing USSF coaching and expertise to teams that now compete on a national stage. There are still costs involved, but the USSF is trying to absorb some of them (I’ll be writing about that more later). Most of the donations made at the USSF level are targeted towards facilities upgrades in urban areas (hundreds of thousands were sent to the Louisiana/Mississippi areas after Katrina to replace fields and equipment). Another growing influence in development at the highest levels are MLS teams. The MLS recently mandated a youth development program for it’s member clubs after they failed to develop many on their own. So many large cities will have youth academies tied to their local MLS teams, giving even more development options. The key question is cost, though one would expect as MLS teams become more financially secure, their youth development academies will become less expensive, with some picking up all costs (where allowed and not running afoul of the NCAA)
Many purists feel the US needs to model foreign success where kids play pickup matches and learn the game on their own instead of participating in structured soccer programs. They will say we over organize soccer and take the fun out of it, stifling the nature discovery that goes into the development of a good soccer player. That may be true (and may be fixable without throwing out the entire setup). But today’s society is not going to allow kids running to parks to play pickup. People don’t let their kids run around on their own anymore. So a more structured program is going to be the norm and we have to figure out how to keep it accessible to all.
There are many issues impacting youth development in the US. Clearly cost is one of them, though in comparison, it is not abnormally high considering what is involved. Just hoping it’ll take care of itself seems naive at best. If we want our national teams to truly be representative, we need to continue to come up with ways to make top level youth development accessible to all. So a little bit of carrot AND stick from up above is probably called for to ensure the local organizations our youth soccer programs rely on try to keep their programs accessible to all, even at the highest levels of play. Combine that with the growing influence and popularity of the MLS, the growing involvement of the national organizations in assessing their current programs and expending them, and we might just get there. Someday.
How would you address the problem? How can we make soccer more accessible to our growing population?