Youth Soccer and the Economy - An OTP Series
With the economy in trouble for multiple years now, tax revenues have been falling sharply. Coupled with citizens and governments that refuse to accept tax increases as a solution, local governments are often facing severe budget shortfalls. Many cities are enacting severe cuts in what are viewed as ‘non-essential’ services to make ends meet. Parks and Recreation Departments are often the first to get hit and the results can have huge impacts for soccer leagues that rely on the use of municipal parks. Take the case of Colorado Springs:
The steep parks and recreation cuts mean a radical reshifting of resources from more than 100 neighborhood parks to a few popular regional parks. The city cut watering drastically in 2009 but “got lucky” with weekly summer rains, said parks maintenance manager Kurt Schroeder. With even more watering cuts, “if we repeat the weather of 2008, we’re at risk of losing every bit of turf we have in our neighborhood parks,” Schroeder said. Six city greenhouses are shut down. The city spent $19.6 million on parks in 2007; this year it will spend $3.1 million.
We’re not just talking reduced hours or maintenance and upgrades. These are cuts so severe that the turf may die out due to lack of watering. Once that happens, you’re talking about a significant expense to repair – something that is unlikely for some time.
So as the economy continues to struggle, what can leagues do to help local governments in times of severe stress?
The first thing to do is get your head out of the sand. Some municipalities still have solid balance sheets, but many are struggling. Talk to your parks director to try and get a feel for what they are facing and what impacts it may have on field availability and condition. Be prepared that someone in that position may try to make things sound better than they are (it’s a natural reaction when faced with what could be drastic reductions in one’s own program/department). Go to city budget planning sessions and see what is being discussed. These sessions can often be tricky to find out about, but they should be open (except when salaries are discussed). Talk to members of the city council and see what they have to say. Be prepared for people to treat your inquiries as if they are minor all things considered. That may be true, but to your organization it can have a huge impact. Get informed.
If you are told or suspect that cuts are on the way, don’t wait for the ax to fall. Start preparing now to try and mitigate the effects.
Be prepared to stand up for yourself. Sometimes cuts come across the board, but other times people can try to save the bulk of their program through drastic cuts in one area where the perceived impacts are low OR where some believe the burden can be borne by others. Soccer is seen as a rich kids sport. It’s not out of the realm of possibility to see severe cuts made in upkeep of soccer fields or the elimination of any city financial support to a soccer program because they can ‘afford it’. Advocate that cuts be broadly distributed and be prepared with data showing that your program serves a broad spectrum of the population.
Offer To Help. Many soccer programs get free or very low cost of fields that are maintained by the city. Offer to help with field maintenance, whatever that may be or that they may be willing to allow. Turf maintenance, mowing, equipment/net upkeep, etc. If it allows them to reduce or reallocate their staff, that can help them meet budget. Yes, you’re talking about possibly helping someone lose their job, but know that may happen regardless. Helping is easier said than done. Issues like equipment training, liability, etc. will come into play. Talk with your state office about the extent of coverage your league employees/volunteers have in situations like this. Most likely you’ll be covered and can provide your Rec Dept with certification of that.
Offer To Contribute. Offer to contribute some amount of $$$ to the city. Obviously you can’t cover any sizable portion of a municipal budget shortfall from your soccer budget, but it’s more of a gesture. You’re offering to ‘do your part’ and that can go a long way. It can be a direct payment, buying equipment like goals, nets, paint, etc. If your budget can’t handle an added expense like that, you may need to raise your fees a bit. People pay for soccer programs because they ‘get something’. While they may not tolerate a tax increase that adds up to $25/year, they might accept an increase in soccer fees if it means the program survives. Why? Because they are getting something. That’s the way it is. We help our fees at the same level for a number of years, and especially last year because people were struggling. But we raised our Rec fees 20% this year with no uproar or complaint. We might see a few more financial aid requests, but overall it’s helping us pay for field use.
Explore Alternative Locations. The worst thing that could happen is to lose a field you rely on right before the season with no backup plan. Start to investigate alternative locations for practices and/or games. This isn’t a time to be picky. If it’s a relatively flat field with fescue and dirt patches on it, that’s better than no field at all. Try to work out a reasonably long term agreement with the owners and see if you can include accommodation for you to do field upkeep and improvement. That way you can put some sweat equity into improving a field and reap some of the benefits. You may also be able to lower the financial outlay by including the upkeep as part of the ‘payment’ for use.
You may need to get creative. Many land owners are facing years before they can sell their land. I’m not talking about the lot right next to the commercial district, but lots a mile or more away that are already zoned commercial. The owners may welcome ANY monthly income, even just a few hundred dollars, to help offset their loan costs. Ask that they allow you to grade the land and seed it, but ensure them it will be temporary. See if you can get the grading donated or done at cost. A metal shed, portable bathrooms, some gravel for parking, and you have a soccer field. Ask for a minimum notification period, even of just a couple months if possible. Don’t get attached to it – it could be gone in a year or a decade. But it can be an inexpensive way to find additional playing space. You may even be able to do something similar for some indoor space. There are a TON of vacant warehouses right now. Many have no columns and flat cement floors. Owners may welcome temporary tenants, even if those tenants bring in netting, padding, and temporary artificial turf (yes it exists). Again, it won’t be perfect and you may have to vacate on short notice, but it can represent an opportunity.
Other options can include working with municipalities or school districts who are holding onto land. They will often buy land for new buildings far in advance to lock in a good deal knowing they cannot start construction for years. You may be able to used that land until then.
Prepare your members for cuts. If you can’t avoid cuts, then be prepared to handle them. If it means cutting a practice slot each week for teams, let them know EARLY. They may be able to arrange alternative practice space if they have decent notice. Don’t blame the city – you need them as partners now and in the future. Explain that cuts are being made city wide and your soccer program certainly can’t expect to be exempt. Times are tough – people will get it. Blaming the city will only build resentment towards you league. Discourage members from directly contacting city hall and instead ask that the league be allowed to work with the city on make the cuts as palatable as possible. This can payoff for you once things improve.
Actively Explore Grants. You should be doing this anyway – but there are grants available to help with field construction or upgrades as part of urban renewal projects. apply for every one you can find. Who knows – you might get one and that will have a huge benefit down the road. Don’t just blindly hand it over to the city though. If you can use it to build renew fields you control – that’s a no brainer. But if you want to apply it to a municipal field, use the timing of the grant to get better terms in your field use agreement with the city. Fair is fair and asking for SOME type of consideration after identifying $$$ to help in their time of need is not uncalled for. It can help reduce the impacts the next time things get rough.
Offer to help even if you get no benefit. This is not some bleeding heart sentiment. But if you happen to be lucky enough to have your own soccer complex and don’t rely on the local municipality, make an investment in the future. Offer to contribute, even a token amount in whatever form you can (financial, sweat equity, etc), to help the city Rec Dept. in these rough times. You never know when you’ll outgrow your space and need more. If the city has or builds a sports complex down the road, the good will generated by your help in tough times can go a long way towards building a better relationship with your municipality. Have a long term vision.
Now there are some risks to many of the suggestions above relating to offers of help. They will tend to become permanent, even when things improve. If your league is saving the Rec Dept ‘X’ thousand dollars a year by helping with field maintenance, when their budget starts to grow again, that’s ‘X’ thousand they can spend elsewhere. Be prepared for this or make clear it’s a temporary agreement. You can even consider a written agreement calling for the support to end once the Rec budget returns to a certain level.
These are extraordinary times. But by being proactive and creative, you can help avoid drastic impacts to your program and probably improve your working relationship with your local municipality.
What type of impact is your league seeing from cuts in municipal budgets. What things have you tried to do to mitigate the impacts and help out? Did they work?