Youth Soccer and the Economy - An OTP Series
In these difficult economic times, many of us are worrying about how to make ends meet. Even though the price of gasoline has (thankfully) gone off a cliff, our economy is still in the middle of a significant recession. While youth soccer can be one of the most inexpensive sports to participate in, it can also be one of the more expensive. It all depends on the leagues available in your area and what level your child participates at. Yet even at the Recreational level, the costs can be a significant expense for families living paycheck to paycheck as it is.
So what can soccer players and their families do to make ends meet and still participate? If your family is blessed with a steady income that mets your needs, what can you do to help other soccer families that aren’t as fortunate? Here are some ideas…
Financial Aid – Many soccer leagues have financial aid programs, though they aren’t always well publicized. It can be tough to ask for help, but you do what you have to do. Check your league website to see if they have information available, otherwise email a league officer, like the treasurer, to ask. Some programs cover just travel programs, just registration fees, or have other restrictions. Some may cover more things like helping with equipment costs (cleats, etc.) – so be sure to ask about that. Like many non-profit organizations, aid programs are always under funded, so if your league does have a program, apply as soon as possible to get in line if it’s first come first served. Be honest about your income level as there may be many other families in greater need than yours. Some civic organizations may also have programs where they ‘sponsor’ families in need including an activity for the children. We’ve had players attend summer camps on church group sponsorship. It can be awkward to ask around trying to find out about programs like this, but many are out there. Just be prepared to be turned away as demand for these types of programs will skyrocket in tough times.
If you are making ends meet comfortably and are looking for some philanthropic outlets, consider a gift to your league’s financial aid fund. Like any no-profit they should be able to provide you with details on how the money is managed, awarded, and the percentage that ends up making it to players. Ask. Also see if your company has a matching gifts program that will match your deductible donation.
Cleats Don’t Make The Player – If you pay more than $50 for cleats, you’re paying too much. Especially for younger players who grow out of their cleats quickly, there is no reason to pay $75-$150 for a pair of cleats. A $35 pair will probably do just fine and for the youngest players, you can often find decent rubber stud cleats for $20 at local sporting goods stores or even WalMart. Sure, if you have a teenager playing at the highest level, it may be worth paying a little more for cleats, but even then, anything over $75 is probably a waste of money. If they are comfortable and grip the turf well, that’s all you can ask for. I’ve had my son’s feet torn up by expensive cleats while he wore out cheaper cleats that ‘felt good’. As a coach, I prefer the Adidas cleats compared to other manufacturers in the same price range because they tend to be more flexible than others, which can be like hard molded plastic boots. But cleat designs change constantly, so pick what feels best to your child. The same goes for shin guards and soccer balls. A good practice ball can be had for $15, but make sure you compare them as you can buy truly awful balls with very slick plastic coverings for the same price. I prefer Nike’s low to mid range ($20-$35) soccer balls over the Adidas offerings at the same price. The Nike First2 Club Team balls were great, but unfortunately aren’t made anymore.
Many leagues may also have equipment swaps where they collect used cleats and shin guards and make them available for other families. Again, it never hurts to ask.
If you find yourself with a closet full of old cleats and shin guards that your children grew out of before they wore out, look to see if your league has an equipment donation program you can give them to, or find a local PassBack program. They will be put to a great use!
Carpool – Even with gas dropping down to well below $2/gallon, it can still be expensive to travel to practices every week, away matches, and tournaments if you’re on a travel team. Even for Recreational players, depending on where you live, you could be looking at 120-180 miles a week if the fields are 20-30 miles away. That can add up in a hurry when gas is expensive. So look into carpooling. Talk to your team manager to see if anyone lives near you and get to know that family. They might appreciate the help as well. If your travel team doesn’t carpool to away matches, encourage your coach or team manager to help organize it or offer to do so yourself. Many leagues use team management software that can make arranging carpools easy. If your team travels to far away tournaments and you don’t think you can afford hotel stays for all of them, find a family on your team that you trust and see if your child can bunk with them if they go. Offer to pay a portion of the room and you’ll both get a significant benefit. This can be tricky as your child also has to be good with money so you can give them a set amount to feed themselves, etc.
Eat Out Less – One of the great ironies of youth soccer is that it leads many families, mine included, to unhealthy eating habits. When you’re at the soccer fields two to three times a week (or more if you have multiple kids playing) it can almost be a necessity to grab dinner to go. This can get expensive in a hurry. A going joke between parents of larger families in our league was that soccer season meant throwing $100/week out the window at drive through windows. Obviously this is about convenience and not the haute cuisine offered at your local fast food restaurant. However, with a little advance planning, you can try to prepare meals ahead of time, or start using recipes designed for quick preparation. Campbell’s Soup had a neat mini cookbook called Homemade Meals in 20 Minutes with a number of easy to prepare meals. Their current website has collections for quick preparation and meals for under $10. Many other food producers have similar recipe collections and there are MANY recipe websites online. Even if you have a daytime game, throwing some sandwiches, drinks, and snacks into a cooler can save you money AND help you and your family eat healthier. Just pay attention to what you buy. Things like ‘Lunachables’ don’t qualify as healthy OR cheap!
Coach A Team – I would never advocate coaching a team just to help with soccer costs. You have to be very good with kids, really want to do it, and learn how to be good at it. However, many leagues will forgive annual registration fees for parents who coach. So if you’ve thought about coaching, but never took the leap, think about doing so. Many leagues will pay for coaches to take certification courses, so sign up for a coaching course and coach a team, even if it’s not your own child’s team. Talk with your league DOC or treasurer to see if they have a program like this to forgive player fees for coach’s children and/or reimburse coaches who take classes.
Save Up – Remeber the old Christmas Club accounts where you saved a little bit each week and got a check, with interest, in November? Not many banks offer these accounts anymore, but a number of credit unions offer types of short term ‘installment savings’ accounts, often with very competitive interest rates. Most credit unions offer savings accounts with minimums as low as $5 or $25. Start an account and put a small amount away every week, in prep for the soccer season. You need to sit down and honestly estimate what you’ll spend on soccer in a year, between registration fees, equipment, travel, and even meals/lodging. This will give you a target and help you set the weekly or monthly amount you put away. It can seem silly to have a separate account for this, but mentally it can help protect that money and help you save. Some banks or credit unions will setup auto drafts that will transfer the money for you, or you can make the deposits yourself. The latter takes some serious commitment to ensure the deposits get made on a regular basis. Then you’ll have an account to draw on over time to pay soccer expenses.
Become a Referee – This is an option for you as a parent or even your child if they are 13 or older. Many leagues will subsidize the cost of the Grade 8 referee course for you to get certified to officiate most youth soccer matches. Referees get paid anywhere between $10 and $50 a match. Most leagues are clamoring for more referees to handle the growth in youth soccer, but this is a task not to be taken lightly. Referees endure a lot of verbal abuse from parents and coaches – this can be especially jarring for teenagers. Even in Recreational matches, some parents lose perspective and can berate kids for bad calls, despite the league’s best efforts. Like the suggestion of coaching above, consider this suggestion only if you are serious about doing it right. Take the certification course and then do everything you can to learn from experienced referees. As you slowly gain experience, your local assignor will likely start to assign you more and more matches, especially the older ones that pay more. In areas where soccer is popular, you can eventually get to where many regional assignors will add you to ‘their list’ and offer you matches at tournaments, festivals, and local leagues. Adult leagues are also a possibility once you have enough experience. The use of online tools make it easy for you to block out times you can’t officiate (like your own child’s match times).
In a busy tournament weekend, you can easily make a few hundred dollars, which can go a long way towards helping with soccer costs. If your older child officiates, they may not earn as much since they’ll only work games with kids younger than they are (which pay less). However, it can still help and give them a sense of satisfaction knowing they’re helping earn the money to pay for their own soccer experience.
Avoid Costly Concessions – This can seem like an obvious one, but I’ve seen kids every practice going to the concession stand to buy Gatorade or water instead of bringing it with them. Those dollars can add up over time. Now, to be fair, many concession stands are run by the leagues themselves and they can be a significant income source to help fund programs. But in hard economic times, you need to worry about your finances first. You can buy water for 15 cents a bottle or Gatorade for 75 cents a large bottle at many large warehouse stores or close to that at WalMart. And, of course, a reusable water bottle with ice and water from home always works. Just stay away from Nalgene bottles.
Work Out A Payment Plan – Most leagues require payment upfront, or in large portions. Talk to the league treasurer about some type of payment plan where you can pay a portion of the fee every couple of months. Many leagues try to avoid this because of the added overhead in tracking it, but others will often work with you if you are struggling. Just remember that they may still ask for a sizable chunk at first to help cover the many up front costs like uniforms and state registration fees.
Step Back – This is obviously a last resort, but things could be so bad that youth sports can’t compete for what little there is in the family budget. If your child is on a travel team and there’s simply no way the expenses can be met this year, they may have to step back a bit. There may be other area leagues with cheaper fees that still will offer them a solid experience and decent coaching. However, changing teams can be a traumatic experience. If the financial pressures are severe, they may have to drop down to Rec soccer for a year. Yes, that can seem extreme, but it keeps them playing. The trouble is, many Rec programs can still cost $50 to $100 a year. If even that amount presents a problem, investigate other area leagues that may have less expensive programs, or ask about financial aid as some leagues will have separate fund for Recreation and Travel awards. If you do switch leagues, be aware of any increase in fuel costs due to longer travel – it most likely would far exceed any savings.
The main goal is to keep your child playing if they really enjoy the sport. If they have to step back from organized soccer for a year, then do what you can to help them stay involved in it. Talk with their coach about things they can do during an ‘off year’ to continue to develop. Drills they can do at home, pickup games that may happen in local parks, stuff like that. It is only a sport, but to many kids, soccer is a passion, and having to step back from it would be very hard. As a parent, you can try to ease that some and keep them active and learning.
Economic downturns come and go, but this one seems to be one we’ll remember for a while. Hopefully these tips can help keep more chldren playing the sport they love. If you’ve got other ideas, by all means post them in the comments!