In her four years with the American Youth Soccer Organization in Atlanta, Meg Sheldon has seen rosters nearly double.
“When I began my involvement we had around 150 to 200 participants,” said Sheldon, a regional commissioner based in the Grant Park area. “Now we have between 250 and 300, a significant increase.”
Having Atlanta United in town has helped boost both enrollment and engagement among the young players.
“They have definitely been more interested and involved,” she said. “Many of them had previously never watched professional soccer.”
Now, of course, they have local champions for inspiration and official word that their sport is front and center.
“Soccer is everything!” cheered Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms at Monday’s parade to revel in Atlanta United’s Major League Soccer Cup victory last weekend over the Portland Timbers.
The team has been packing Mercedes-Benz Stadium in its first two seasons. The attendance was announced as 73,019 for Dec. 8th’s title game - an MLS Cup record.
Georgia has about 86,000 players ages 4 to 19 and about 5,000 adult amateur players, according to Georgia Soccer, the authorized state youth and adult association within the U.S. Adult Soccer Association and U.S. Youth Soccer Association. The numbers represent steady growth with spikes coming after the 1996 Olympics and after the 2014 and 2015 men’s and women’s World Cup events.
“We believe we are gaining players,” said Georgia Soccer executive director Greg Griffith. “Atlanta United coming around has been key.”
Youth participation drops nationally
Atlanta’s soccer mania comes amid an overall drop nationally in youth league participation.
The Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program’s “State of Play: 2018” found a 9.5 percent dip in youth soccer participation rates from 2016 to 2017. For comparison, tackle football rates dropped 11.8 percent while flag football rose 9.9 percent. (The sport with the biggest percentage increase was ice hockey, which saw a 10 percent rise, although the number of that sport’s participants was eclipsed by both football and futbol.)
Meanwhile, soccer’s popularity as a spectator sport is surging.
A 2018 Gallup study found pro football reigns supreme (as it has since 1972) with 37 percent of adults naming it their favorite sport to watch. Basketball was next at 11 percent, followed by baseball at 9 percent and then soccer, at 7 percent.
“Soccer now nearly matches baseball’s popularity,” the study noted. “Only once before have at least 7 percent of Americans named a sport other than football, basketball or baseball as their favorite, and that was auto racing in 1997 (now down to 2 percent).”
So, why the gap in soccer’s adult spectators and young players? Experts point to costs associated with playing, especially when kids get involved at the club level. The players in Sheldon’s organization pay $120 per season. “Our league specializes in recreation soccer and providing a price point that is realistic for families to pay,” she said.
But the fees for registration, gear, uniforms, travel and tournaments at other levels can have parents paying thousands of dollars a year for their kids to compete.
“The game has gotten increasingly expensive,” said Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program. “We are creating travel teams well before kids grow into their bodies, minds and interests. That has pushed down participation rates among kids who are from lower socioeconomic homes.”
Sean Fagan’s 17-year-old son has played select soccer for Canton-based Cherokee Impact and estimates the bill for the season adds up to between $2,500 to $3,000.
“Select travel soccer becomes much more serious and competitive and the costs jump,” he said.While talent is part of the selection process, it can also be assumed that there is developing talent who drops out of soccer or isn’t getting access to better levels of coaching and play because the family cannot afford it.”
Trying to bridge the cost gap
At a youth soccer clinic a day before the victory match, MLS player turned coach Brad Friedel presented players at Young Middle School in Atlanta, where the free and reduced lunch rate exceeds 95 percent, with backpacks, soccer balls, water bottles and uniforms. Helping with the clinic were recent recipients of $5,000 college scholarships, including 16-year-old Carlos Luna, a Peachtree Ridge High School junior who plays with Atlanta’s Concorde Fire Soccer Club.
The gear and scholarships come courtesy of Allstate and the Alianza U Foundation. In his comments to the young players, Fridel, who coaches the New England Revolution, noted the importance of sponsors in funding his sport.
“I started out like all of you,” he said. “We’re here to help you.”
The U.S. Soccer Foundation also is among the institutions hoping to help.
“The game has grown phenomenally. The cost of playing has made it more exclusive,” said Ed Foster-Simeon, the foundation’s president. “A lot of children are priced out. Our work is about reaching those children who come from low-income communities and ensuring they have the opportunity to enjoy the health and social benefits of soccer.”
The foundation partners with programs around the country, including Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta.
“They give us all the resources we need to grow the soccer program for our members,” said Aaron Quinney, director of athletics at Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta, who oversees its Soccer for Success offering. “Everything we could possibly need, they support us with.”
Soccer for Success operates at 18 sites with a projected roster of between 700 and 850 youths this year. Quinney said participation growth has been steady.
“Our kids love that the United are here,” he said. “It’s one thing to see soccer games on TV. When it’s in your city and they’re really, really good it drives your excitement. Word is traveling fast about soccer in Atlanta.”
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