New study finds big drop in soccer participation in key age group

A lot has been written about the issues of pay-to-play at competitive levels, generally considered ages 12-18, and Tom Byer's work with the under-6 age group has gotten a lot of attention.

Now, the Aspen Institute's State of Play 2017 has looked at the ages 6-12 when children first start playing different sports, and it's bad news for soccer. The top three team sports children ages 6-12 played on a regular basis -- basketball, baseball and soccer -- saw declines in participation, but none like soccer has.

In 2010, 3,016,000 children 6-12 played soccer on a regular basis, but that number was only 2,303,000 in 2016, a drop of 23.5 percent. Baseball was down 5 percent while basketball was down 8 percent in the same period.

In percentage terms, 7.7 percent of children 6-12 played soccer on a regular basis in 2016, down from 10.9 percent in 2010. Those percentages show a greater decline for soccer participation as the population of children 6-12 has increased.

The report examines many aspects of youth sports -- why kids like certain sports, what barriers exist and what are community and sports organizers doing to create new opportunities. Many of the issues are familiar to those working in soccer:

-- Lack of free-play, opportunities for children to play on their own;
-- Decline of in-town youth sports leagues (the traditional Little League baseball concept);
-- Lack of nearby sports facilities for children to play at;
-- Low participation rates among children from low-income families; and
-- Lack of properly trained coaches.

Others are issues familiar to all parents -- most notably, the heavy use by children of smartphones and tablets.

Soccer comes up frequently throughout the report. A few developments that were highlighted:

-- U.S. Soccer's decision to alter birth-year registration;
-- U.S. Soccer Foundation's work in building mini-pitches (futsal courts);
-- Continued move of European clubs into the U.S. youth soccer market; and
-- The Urban Soccer Leadership Academy's work in San Antonio to create soccer programs for underserved kids.

The Aspen Institute piggy-backed on the work of others in the field and some of the findings are troubling:

-- The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation surveyed 22 counties in Western New York and Southeast Michigan and found one in 20 kids play soccer near their home (vs. two in three for bicycling, the most popular activity).

-- In a Sports & Fitness Industry Association study on the training of coaches, soccer finished last in four of six training categories and no higher than seventh in any.

Our take:

-- So many of the challenges soccer faces relate to the fact it came along long after the major sports became entrenched, not just securing the support of fans at the professional and college level but gaining control of the prime sites for athletic facilities.

-- Not having parents educated in the game is one of the big factors for the shortage of properly trained coaches -- and the rise of an army of paid coaches that is a big factor is soccer's high cost of participation.

5 comments about "New study finds big drop in soccer participation in key age group".
  1. Kent James, December 18, 2017 at 8:36 a.m.

    Alarm bells should be going off. Soccer playing in this age group should be ubiquitous.  It should be cheap and easily accessible.  

  2. Bob Ashpole, December 18, 2017 at 9:09 a.m.

    This "study" was an "on line" survey. 

  3. Joseph Pratt, December 18, 2017 at 9:22 a.m.

    Those numbers are stunning! My first thought is, can they be right? But even adjusting for sampling errors and such, the decline is shockomg. Here is a sport that is truly egalitarian in terms of who can physically play (i.e. size is not a factor), that is fundamentally inexpensive, and that allows kids to run around and kick a ball, rather than standing around waiting for something to happen. And it’s seeing these declines? A major wake-up call!

  4. R2 Dad, December 18, 2017 at 11:06 a.m.

    My school district relies on each principal to decide what recess activities are allowed. Typcially there is 4 square but the primary concern is balls flying around hitting people and buildings so no soccer, anywhere. Same for baseball and football. Running = injuries so no running. Permanent baskets facilitate basketball shooting, but how many schools have permanent goals for soccer? The problem isn't just smartphones. The afterschool program defines "soccer" as 40 people with one ball on a basketball court, so they can claim they allow "soccer". How messed up is this? USSF has $100M in the bank, though. Too bad they can't figure out how to use it.

  5. Bryan Holland, December 18, 2017 at 4:28 p.m.

    Just curious... There are so many governing bodies in American youth soccer, I’m skeptical as to where this data was drawn from. 

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