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.