I happened across a post at Random Thoughts of a Soccer Guy, a soccer blog written by Marcus Cole, a league administrator (and coach and referee – sound familiar? :) ). He notes that numbers at area clubs are going down, even though his club’s numbers are up:

As President of my club, Im overjoyed that my clubs membership has grown 22% in the last yearespecially when membership has decreased at most of the other clubs in the Charleston area.

Im not happy that these other clubs are having number issues. I want everyones memberships to go up. If membership is up everywhere.that means more kids are playing soccer. And, that should be our goal.right?

Now I have no insight or knowledge into youth soccer in Charleston, WV – but it sounds like a successful club is gaining players and probably taking some away from the other clubs that aren’t marketing themselves as hard. But that’s a guess. In the bigger picture, it’s hard to get hard numbers on youth soccer participation. Most surveys on the subject cost money and the main USSF affiliates don’t always seem to publish their membership numbers in a reliable fashion. The other problem is that kids dual card a lot. But word among various state youth soccer people I’ve spoken with is that numbers are down a bit.

It’s hard to compare with our local situation because we are a new club in a growing town. We see record registration numbers every year, though we expect that to level out at some point. But it hasn’t yet. We went from 793 registrations last fall to 916 this year. We’ve gone from one level of soccer (Recreation) in 2002, to five (Recreation, U9 Select, Challenge, Classic, and TopSoccer) this year.

So I’m curious what other more established clubs are seeing in terms of registration numbers. Are they going down? Are players migrating from one affiliate to another (say USYSA/US Club to SAY/AYSO)? If they are, what is your club doing to better advertise and promote youth soccer?

Marcus has an idea for his area:

I’m thinking there needs to be a better, more organized effort between all of the 10 recreation clubs in the Charleston area to better market the sport of soccer to families.

There is an argument for economies of scale where you could do a joint advertising push for youth soccer in general. However I have found that youth soccer clubs are notoriously territorial, at least they are here in North Carolina. So beyond the joint concept, what can individual clubs do to boost their membership?

First, I want to state this up front. Recruiting is wrong. They’re kids and clubs should not directly entice families to play at their club. Especially mid season when the upheaval of players transferring clubs can be significant, on new and old teams alike. If you build a strong and vibrant program, they will come. So there is a fine line between advertising and recruiting.

But I absolutely think clubs should advertise and promote their program. Do you ever feel like you’re the only one doing any work for your league? Get more kids playing and your potential volunteer base grows. Believe it or not, administrative overhead of a soccer league is not linear. Once you have systems in place to handle a couple hundred players, it should scale as you grow with minimal additional effort. The main constraining factor is fields – but that’s another post.

So what can you do to promote your club? Here are some ideas we’ve done locally and others I’ve seen or heard of:

  • Banners – If your municipality allows it and your area has a heavy traffic point, banners can be useful. However they are expensive ($50-$150) and disappear a lot. So if you get some – make sure they get put somewhere where they will stay put.
  • Signs – These are a better option than banners in my opinion and they are much cheaper. When you visit a sign store and ask what one sign will cost, keep in mind you are paying for a custom made sign done on site with custom cut adhesive film. But if you order a certain quantity (20 or so), they can have the signs screened at a factory for much less money per sign. Stick to one print color to further reduce your costs.
  • Newspaper Ads – Some papers will publish registration announcements for free in the sports section. A number of clubs use newspaper ads to advertise tryouts for travel teams, since they bring in significant funds. But paying for an ad for Recreation soccer may not bring a solid return on your investment.
  • Websites – Make sure your website has proper keywords set to help the site come up during searches for sports in your area. If your webmaster knows what SEO is – then they can take care of it. If they don’t – find one that does :)
  • School Fliers – A number of leagues distribute fliers to schools, but I’m not sure how effective they are. They can certainly attract new players, but word of mouth from existing players at school is probably better than fliers. We did them for a couple years, then stopped. We didn’t notice a huge difference in signups. Other clubs in nearby cities use them to advertise tryouts in May for travel teams – in our local schools :) That’s probably effective so better players know there are other options. We may return the favor next year.
  • Public Service Announcements – Radio and TV stations will sometimes do public service announcements. Another indirect method? Register with your local TV and radio stations to participate in their inclement weather program. When bad weather hits, you can publicize match/practice cancellations and that gets your name out to a wide audience.
  • Community Events – We have various community events including a Spring festival. Sponsorship or at least having a table with fliers and a couple of coaches can be a great community outreach tool. It may not be a big recruitment tool, but it helps with community relations. Soccer skill demonstrations at fairs or festivals can also be a huge hit. Younger kids love to see that and may convince their parents they want to play.
  • Fliers/Posters in Businesses – If your league has local business sponsors, many will be willing to put up posters in their windows or put fliers on their counters. Can’t hurt to ask.
  • Internet Advertising – Google AdWords provides a way to target ads at people who search for your city/area. Great for people looking to move to your area, but it’s not cheap. Each click may cost upwards of $1. We did it for a while, limiting the expenditures per month to $20 or so. I never had time to use Google’s tracking code in our registration system to show if any ad clicks led to registrations, but it’s certainly possible.

What other neat things has your club done to boost membership? For us currently, word of mouth, real estate type signs, and posters at local businesses have been the best – but we’re a small city (under 10,000), so what works for us certainly may not work in other areas. Share your ideas in the comments! What worked? What didn’t? What creative methods have you used or seen?