Youth Soccer and the Economy - An OTP Series

The Troubled EconomyAs we continue our series, it’s time to focus on the how youth soccer coaches will be impacted by the worsening economy. Coaches not only have to worry about their own financial well being, they have an entire team to worry about. While some families will be able to weather the current downturn with ease, others may struggle, and a coach needs to be prepared for that. At worst, family stress can cause team stress or the loss of a player – at best, you could have one very unhappy player, so doing what you can to anticipate and, if possible, help, will pay off in the long run.

First, let’s talk about you as a coach. Coaches come from all walks of life, and some may be better off than others. So here are some ideas for ensuring you can continue coaching during a severe economic downturn and provide the best environment for developing your players.

Save Up For Gas – Gasoline prices have thankfully fallen to more manageable levels, but it still can cost a fair amount if you coach a travel team or if you live a fair distance away from your local soccer complex. Between one travel team, a Rec team, and league business, I put approximately 2,000 miles on my vehicle. Even for the most fuel efficient vehicle, that can add up in a hurry. Since coaches often haul equipment (and players) around with them, they tend to drive trucks, SUVs, or minivans. So your gasoline expenses can add up during the season. Consider putting some money away during the off season (stop laughing!) to purchase gasoline. The trick is how? One possibility is to use a ‘prepaid’ gasoline card from a popular gas station company – one that has numerous locations in your region. Keep the card tucked away somewhere (i.e. NOT in your wallet) and put a little bit into the card each week/month. When soccer season rolls around, use the card, which will help balance your cash flow.

Obviously you should continue to do things to maintain your vehicles top fuel economy – proper tire inflation, regular oil/air filter changes, etc.

Shop For Cheap Equipment – Soccer is a great sport for kids to participate in because it’s cost of entry is relatively cheap. All you need are cleats, shinguards, and a soccer ball. Yes, soccer costs a LOT of money at higher levels, but that’s another post. Coaching soccer has an even cheaper level of entry. Some cones and a clipboard are about all you really need. But coach soccer long enough, and you find that other equipment can come in handy for helping your players develop. Cones and pinnies in multiple colors, practice balls, agility equipment, ball pump (and MANY needles), first aid supplies, books, training videos, etc., plus a bag to carry it all in, can add up in a hurry. Most coaches will accumulate their equipment over time, but even then, stuff wears out. You can never have enough practice balls, and of all your equipment, these wear out (or get lost) the fastest.

Shopping at some of the larger online soccer equipment vendors means you are often paying close to list price or you will see little difference in price between them because many are owned by the same company. So be sure to shop around. Many smaller vendors may offer shipping discounts if you buy a certain amount or if you touch base with them ahead of time about a multi-item order. eBay is always an option, though buyer beware, especially when it comes to shipping fees. I have found some amazing deals on soccer equipment at Amazon, of all places. Many smaller vendors list their inventory through Amazon, and many are agreeing to participate in Amazon’s well known free shipping offer. Also – many larger leagues will have contracts and standing agreements with major soccer vendors, which may provide for discounted equipment purchases – be sure to ask about that.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask coaches who hang up their cleats if you can have or purchase some of their equipment. Even if they’re still coaching, there are still milestones in their coaching careers that will mean they have extra stuff lying around the garage. When a coach moves up to an age that requires a new size soccer ball (U10 and then U13), they may not want their old practice balls.

Utilize League Reimbursements – While many leagues utilize paid coaches for their top travel teams, the bulk of any league’s coaching staff is usually volunteer. Many leagues try to take that into account and will offer some financial benefits for coaches. The problem is, many may not be publicized well, so be sure to ask. Some common benefits include:

  • Discounted or free participation for your children
  • A stipend or fuel/food subsidy for travel
  • Free or discounted coaching equipment and apparel.
  • Subsidized coaching education.
  • Book/DVD libraries where you can check out items for a period of time.

The idea here is not to always ‘take advantage’ of existing programs that are, of course, paid for by the parents of participating children. If you don’t need to utilize a discount or subsidy, save it for someone else who does. But we all have our own families and homes to keep up with, so the added expense of volunteer efforts like coaching can affect a family’s bottom line. Existing league programs were meant to help make that less of an impact while ensuring coaches have a ‘baseline’ of equipment and education.

When you coach a team, of course, you suddenly take on responsibility for a number of children and their families, at least when it comes to them playing soccer. While many coaches view coaching as something they do in relative isolation, truly successful coaches work to foster a positive team atmosphere for their players and parents. Financial stress on any team families will make this more challenging. As a coach, you have to keep an eye out for warning signs and do what you can to try and alleviate the impacts. Here are some tips on helping your team weather the current economic storm.

Use Your Team Manager As Your Eyes/Ears – I could not coach my teams without my team managers. They handle so much of the administrative overhead, allowing me to focus on coaching and developing the players. However, your team manager is more than just someone who collects money and sets a snack schedule. They are the one person available to you who can probably tell you more than you want to know about every familiy on the team. When you are over on the team sideline, they are on the parent sideline, hearing much of what is being said. They communicate with your parents often, probably more than you do. So if you want to keep tabs on how things are going with your players and their families, your team manager is one of the best ways to do that. But you still have to be careful, as they will not want to betray a sense of trust with the parents. That said, they can be excellent sources of information for providing you with early warnings of potential trouble related to the tough economic times. Job loss, trouble making payments, etc. Of course, this line of communications can be useful for many other reasons. I use my team manager as a sounding board for things all the time.

Know Your League’s Financial Aid Program – Many soccer leagues have financial aid programs available to their members. Make sure you know what they are and how someone applies for them. Have your team manager print out a few copies of the financial aid application and share the information about the program with your entire team. Talking about or acknowledging financial difficulties is extremely uncomfortable to most people, so you or your manager will have to learn to develop a sense of when it’s worth mentioning programs like this. A team parent may be more comfortable talking to you instead of an anonymous league official, or they may prefer the relative anonymity of a mailed in application. Regardless, be sure you know enough to answer a parent’s questions in the event they feel comfortable enough to ask you.

Look Into Equipment Swaps – While some players wear their cleats out over the course of a season, some grow out of them long before they wear out. Some leagues have established equipment swap programs while others do not or they are more informal, run by volunteer parents. Share the information with ALL your parents instead of singling out specific parents. This way nobody feels singled out and those that need the information will get it. Publicize the program to your parents so those who have extra equipment can help out those who need it in your league.

Work Out Sensible Payment Plans – This applies mainly to travel teams with larger fees. Some clubs require payment up front, while others will allow for regular payments to be made over the course of a year. If you have families who can’t make the up front payment, talk with your league treasurer to see if a payment plan can be worked out. In addition to league fees, many teams will have their own fees to pay for coach travel, snacks on trips, warmups, etc. These can add up quickly. If they are substantial, try to work out a reasonable payment plan for parents and make sure it syncs up with any league payment plan. Since tournaments tend to be packed into the pre and post season, these costs can hit all at once and often right when league payments are due. The downside is that regular payment plans provide more opportunities for people NOT to pay. Make sure you have league backing to bench a player whose family has repeatedly not paid, despite efforts to help them make ends meet. You don’t want to penalize a family in need, but you also will run into people who are just taking advantage of things. You have to be willing to put your foot down.

Tournaments – Attending tournaments is, in my opinion, what makes travel soccer so fun for kids and adults alike. While some teams take it to the extreme, many attend a couple tournaments a season to give the players a chance to face new teams in new environments. The team bonding that often happens during tournaments can help a team during it’s regular season. The problem is that many tournaments happen together before or after the regular season, so those costs bundle up. Our team ran into a situation where we had payments for two post season tournaments plus one of our league’s regular fee payments all due the month before Christmas. Not good. So we try to work out a payment schedule with parents ahead of time so they can pay for the tournament costs ahead of time and in a more even and consistent manner. This takes a LOT of tracking by your team manager, but if they’re up for it – this can help.

Also consider the cost of the tournaments you plan to attend. Do you really need to travel so far to find quality competition? A number of teams are already scaling back some travel plans, so you might be surprised at the level of competition at your local tournaments. Don’t be afraid to ask fellow coaches what they plan to do to get a feel for where they plan to go. Nobody wants to attend a tournament where they are a fish out of water, but this year and next, you probably won’t have to travel as far to find new and solid competition.

Fundraising – Team fundraising is always difficult. It’s hard to find time in often busy schedules and recruiting volunteers to ‘help’ the players is never easy. In this economy, things will be worse, since most fundraisers revolve around ‘extra’ purchases (food sales, carwashes, etc.). Tried and true fundraisers may not generate as much money as in the past. Here’s an interesting look at school fundraising in a weak economy with the suggestion that you ‘reduce your noise’. One or two well planned fundraisers can earn far more than a bunch of smaller ones. That may only be true for large scale efforts, but it’s something to consider, even for a team fundraiser. I am still amazed that product sales continue to generate the best return given how most people LOATHE them when their kids bring home the forms. 

Get creative and consider working with other teams to band together for a larger fundraiser. Coordinating with other teams can help ‘reduce your noise’. Just be sure you all agree up front as to how much work each group has to do and how the money will be split.

Corporate Matching Grants – In tough economic times, community relations budgets often get wiped out quickly in the corporate world, but not always. Many companies have long standing ‘Volunteer Grant’ programs that will make donations to non-profit groups that employees volunteer for. Most youth soccer leagues are non-profit – so if you coach, you may qualify. It can often be as simple as filling out a form describing your volunteer efforts along with information about the organization you volunteer for. The money will go to your league, but if you ask that the money be allocated to financial aid or coaching equipment, etc. – your team will still see some benefit from it. Even if it doesn’t – this can be one of the easiest ways to help your league out doing what you already enjoy that will help other kids in need.

Like it or not, the tough economy will affect many people if it hasn’t already. Things may seem like they’re going along fine with your team, but things could get difficult in a hurry, so it helps to be prepared. Soccer teams are small communities that often develop tight bonds. As a coach, you’re the defacto leader of that community, like it or not, and taking the time to stay informed, watch for warning signs, and doing what you can to smooth out the rough edges will pay off in the long run.

The bad economy isn’t ‘new news’, so many of you are likely already facing some of the things I’ve written about. What types of things are you doing as parents and coaches to help your team ride out the storm?

Youth Soccer and the Economy - An On The Pitch Series

  1. Youth Soccer and the Economy
  2. Youth Soccer Players and the Economy
  3. Youth Soccer Coaches and the Economy
  4. Dealing With Municipal Budget Cuts