Not enough kids have access to the game. Language barriers, cultural differences, and financial paywalls are leaving significant numbers of kids on the sidelines. How big is the problem and what can we do about it?
What's the Problem with Limited Access to the Game?
The obvious answer is we have fewer kids playing and a shallower pool of players to draw from for the professional leagues. Fewer kids also mean fewer teams and less revenue for local clubs. While this is all logically true, these arguments leave out some important stuff that matters.
In a study done in 2013 by Kaplan University, Duke University, and the University of California, San Diego titled Heterogeneity and Group Performance: Evaluating the Effect of Cultural Diversity in the World's Top Soccer League, the study revealed that "more diverse teams outperform less diverse ones." They put numbers to this and found that a one-standard-deviation increase in the average team's linguistic distance is associated with a .33 rise in per-game goal differential. In laymen's terms, this means that this study showed mathematically that diversity leads to more goals. The opposite must also be true: less diversity leads to fewer goals.
We could argue all day, I'm sure, about why this is is true, but an article in the New York Times publish June 2nd, 2014 titled "Diversity is good for team performance in soccer" suggests that at least some of it has to do with the "benefits of (bringing together) diverse talents, perspectives, and experiences..."
Whether you are in the camp that we need more talent, more teams for our kids to play against, more revenue to support the game, or stronger teams as a result of a wider range of problem-solving approaches, there don't seem to be any downsides to improving access to the game.
The Discussion Today Around Access to the Game
I'm not aware of all of the discussions going on around the country or around the world regarding access to the game, but I can share what's going on in a small corner of the world. The State of Maryland's Youth Sports Association invited me to participate in a road show they organized for Clubs around the State. I'm pretty sure their main agenda was to connect clubs around the state and to facilitate dialog around sharing best practices and talking through problems we all are facing. Any time groups of like-minded people come together to solve problems, interesting and often powerful things happen.
Parent education was a big topic, and will likely be the focus of a future episode. Access to the game was up there at the top of the list too. I listened as Clubs described challenges with getting marketing materials put together that will reach their community. I listened as I heard clubs lament about how cost was keeping good players from turning out. I listened as clubs talked about challenges associated with giving special needs kids access to the game, reaching and communicating with kids who speak more than one language, and finding ways to pay for kids to play without charging mom and dad a fortune.
The good news is: leaders in the industry are talking. Getting this conversation going is not easy and it's filled with land mines today. I often wish we could just wave a magic wand and make the problem go away, but it seems we still have some work to do.
The Cause(s) of the Problem
As with most things, I doubt that there is any single cause to this problem. If this were simple, we'd have the access problem solved. We need more brains combining horsepower and contributing to the solution. Which, by the way, is something you can do on our Website at TheSoccerSidelines.com, on our Facebook page at TheSoccerSidelines or on Twitter at SoccerSidelines. Soon, I am happy to announce, I will have a Patreon group established for The Soccer Sidelines community. Stay tuned for information about that in the near future.
The financial problem is a combination of politics, inflated costs, and lack of creativity when it comes to sources of capital. I suspect that greed is a contributing factor to the cost problem as it usually is at some level, but I am unable to find many people who are in the business of youth sports at the Club level for money. Most people I know are genuinely interested in helping kids. They believe in youth sports as a platform for building good things in young people's lives. They see value in terms of health benefits, fun, learning, and growth - and they're willing to make sacrifices.
Politics keeps our game fragmented in the United States. Clubs and associations simply aren't united yet around a set of goals and objectives - or even vocabulary. I doubt you or I will be able to fix that one - not on our own.
Inflated costs are influenced by greed, lack of volunteerism, and a lack of education. I frequently have coaches telling me they will work for $12,000 for a season. This for a team that wants a tournament, needs uniforms, has $1,660 in league fees, wants twice per week practices for 8 weeks, is collecting $450 per player, and has a maximum roster size of 14. The actual cost per player, in this case, would be $1,537.29. A team like this would need 38 players to cover a $12,000 coaching fee - and even with 38 players, would clear $8.61 per player or $327.14 for the team. The math needs to work and few people have done the calculus to understand that.
And what's with $450 per player? Even with a volunteer coach and a full roster, the lowest I could drop a team with this configuration, playing in this league, to would be $242.35 per player. Even that is high!
Cultural and language barriers, I have found are the result of people frankly not reaching out. It takes effort to create marketing materials in multiple languages. It takes listening to understand what a new market of families needs or wants from youth sports. It takes creativity to do things in a way we've not done them before. Most of us are struggling just to keep the lights on and the wheels turning. Fixing this is like changing a tire on a moving car.
How can we create free or extremely low-cost play situations for kids? It takes sharpening pencils and some creativity. Fundraising and sponsorships may be a way to go.
If you're interested in a fundraiser for your Club, team or youth organization, I formed a partnership with 8 to 18 and can give you a digital fundraising platform that works on your computer and smartphones that will allow you to keep 70% of the sales proceeds for every subscription you sell. A $25 sale gives your club $17, and it gives your supporters a full year of discounts to 600+ national brands and as many local brands as you can convince to come on board. Check it out at TheSoccerSidelines.com for the details and a chance to win a free setup.
Things like strategic partnerships and sponsorships can add treasure to your Club accounts and give you the freedom to open up more play opportunities to players in your area.
We can reach out to other cultural enclaves of people in our region. We can come with the intent to listen and understand what they need and want. We can make an attempt to either understand the language ourselves or enlist the help of interpreters to get the job done. It's not going to be easy, but we can do it if we put the effort in.
Maybe you have some ideas on how we can improve access to the game. I've created several venues for getting this conversation going and I am extending you a personal invitation to get it started. I definitely don't have all the answers on this one and I would love to hear your thoughts. Between the two of us, I'm sure we can come up with an idea or two.
My Recommended Solution
In the meantime, my recommended solution is to keep working on the problem. Don't sit on the sidelines. Become aware of the problems. Make your voice heard and your opinions about access to the game known. If one of my community venues are not the right fit for you, then find another one or start your own. Eventually, we'll all end up in the same place if we work on the same problem together.
I kinda like the recommendations made in The State of Play 2018 report published by the Aspen Institute. They encourage 8 "plays" including:
To download this report, visit the resources section below. This report goes into more detail on each of the 8 items above and goes on to provide some great focusing questions and discussion starters for anyone in our space interested in helping youth sports help more kids.
I hope to hear from you between now and next week, but in case I don't, please do your part in your area of the world to help us all keep our focus on the stuff that really matters.
- March 28, 20172:36PM EDTMLSsoccer staffMLSsoccer.comFollow@ mls. “MLS Once Again the Most Diverse League in North America.” MLSsoccer.com, 28 Mar. 2017, www.mlssoccer.com/post/2017/03/28/mls-once-again-most-diverse-league-north-america.
- Malesky, Edmund J., and Sebastian M. Saiegh. “Diversity Is Good for Team Performance in Soccer.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 2 June 2014, www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/06/02/diversity-is-good-for-team-performance-in-soccer/.
- Staff, DiversityInc. “The Measure of Diversity That Only One U.S. Pro Sport Meets.” DiversityInc, DiversityInc, 12 Jan. 2019, www.diversityinc.com/measure-diversity-one-u-s-pro-sport-meets/.
- Ingersoll, Keith, et al. “Heterogeneity and Group Performance: Evaluating the Effect of Cultural Diversity in the World's Top Soccer League.” SSRN, 30 Sept. 2013, papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2333289.
- “The Real Power of Diversity.” Athletes in Action, athletesinaction.org/workout/the-real-power-of-diversity#.XJZnnBNKjUI.
- “Bosman Ruling.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 28 June 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bosman_ruling.