Every World Cup season, the same conversation starts among the U.S. media … Is it time for soccer to explode in the U.S.?
People asking that question are looking at the sport from international event press boxes vs. local soccer fields. For those of us on the ground as parents and youth sports marketers, we know that day is already here.
The U.S. media fixation on soccer’s “arrival” tends to be focused on pro leagues. Major League Soccer is growing and the National Women’s Soccer League coming into its own. Soccer is constantly being compared to MLB, NHL and more. Why do we define a sport’s success based solely on whether it has a professional league?
At the grassroots level, soccer is kicking. Youth soccer participation (1-25 times per year*) is …
• 2.5x greater than tackle football
• 6x ice hockey
• 7x lacrosse
• 1.2x baseball & softball combined
• 5.5x team swimming
Here are 13 reasons developmental youth soccer is poised to continue its growth (which is interchangeable with 10 reasons why other sports need to wake up and get the message):
- World Cup – Many sports have the Olympics, but the World Cup is a single-sport event and doesn’t share the stage with any sport during that time period.
- The Olympics – Yep, soccer has that too, in addition to the World Cup.
- Jerseys – the sport lends itself well to merchandise and branding of athletes, logos and jersey sales, unlike many other Olympic sports. (In fact, the International Olympic Committee doesn’t even allow National Governing Bodies to have their logo on Olympic uniforms or technical equipment).
- Accessibility – soccer fields are ubiquitous and relatively easy to maintain. In fact, a regulation field isn’t even needed to just play.
- Multicultural – it’s a global game and already draws from all cultures, whereas other sports are actively working to become more diverse in the future.
- Low(er) Cost – in the spectrum of youth sports, it’s less expensive at the developmental level and has a low barrier to entry. For example, my family’s dues for the Spring development soccer league in Colorado was $100 for 8 games and practice two days per week.
- Gender Equality – it isn’t known as a “boys sports” or a “girls sport” and attracts all.
- High Activity – at the developmental level, it’s a high activity sport and doesn’t have much idle time, which parents love.
- Time Certain – the developmental games are done in one hour. Period.
- Lower Injury – soccer has injuries, but it doesn’t have the same stigma of other contact sports to parents.
- Less Equipment – this also lowers costs and makes entry to the game easier
- Modular – it lends itself well, to short and defined seasons (ex. Fall, Spring) and doesn’t carry the intimidation of “year-round” sports.
- Non-Competitive Leagues – kids can stay in the sport in non-competitive leagues throughout their youth and not be forced (unless they choose) into the uber-competitive or travel teams and leagues.
Soccer’s (Head Scratching) Weakness
After the last men’s World Cup (2010) and the last women’s World Cup (2011), soccer participation* actually declined by 1.4% in the year after the men’s World Cup and by 8.5% the year after the women’s World Cup. Even with that decline, it was still way ahead of other sports as noted above. Whereas USA Swimming participation by comparison made substantial jumps after the most recent Olympic Games including Athens 2004 (7.3%), Beijing 2008 (11.3%) and London 2012 (13.2%).
For a future blog, we could look at how much winning on the international stage impacts a sport’s growth. It’s not a coincidence that swimming’s growth coincides with Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Missy Franklin, Natalie Coughlin and more!
What Does This Mean to Other Sports?
I have written several blogs about promoting youth sports (Youth Sports on the Rise, Moms Making Sport Decisions, Disruptive Ads in Sports) so there is no quick fix, but I do see other sports taking more shots on goal to have parents consider. It’s up to all of us as sports marketers to learn from other things in the youth sports marketing landscape, improve and try to get families to consider the sports for their kids.
For USA Swimming, that means improving the SwimToday campaign and reaching the 80% of families who don’t consider swimming as a sport after their kids take swimming lessons.
It turns out, many of them are playing soccer.
* According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association for “Casual” players who participated between 1-25 times per year.