AYSO's Mike Hoyer: Youth soccer needs options between entry level and full travel/club commitment

In mid-July, the New York Times published an article headlined, "Youth Soccer Participation Has Fallen Significantly in America." We’ve asked for a reaction from Mike Hoyer, the National Executive Director of the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), which was founded in 1964 and is among U.S. Soccer-sanctioned youth organizations that include U.S. Youth Soccer and U.S. Club Soccer.

Mike Hoyer, National Executive Director of AYSO.

SOCCER AMERICA: What's your opinion on the accuracy of the New York Times' report on youth soccer participation? For example, Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, is quoted as saying: “It’s lost more child participants than any other sport — about 600,000 of them.”

MIKE HOYER: The data from the Sports Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) Top Line Participation report reflects different circumstances. The majority of team sports have lost youth participants.

U.S. Soccer member-affiliated organizations show a total registration over the last few years that is flat.

SA: Do you believe there is indeed a problem with fewer children playing soccer?

MIKE HOYER: We are concerned about the potential future inactivity pandemic as self-reported activity levels are dropping. We are concerned about the 70 percent of kids that leave organized sports by middle-school age.

We are aligning with various organizations to promote sports participation. As a low barrier of entry for costs for the program and equipment, soccer will naturally benefit from these efforts.

SA: What changes would you recommend for American youth soccer to decrease the dropout rate of young players -- and/or increase participation?

MIKE HOYER: U.S. Soccer’s participation study indicates what many others have found and what soccer program operators know anecdotally: we are competing to get on the calendar.

Homework dominates the schedule more than sports, video games, playing with friends and other activities. Their study shows that there is a need for a progression in programming for player development that includes options between the entry level and the full travel/club commitment.

This is where AYSO’s EXTRA and AYSO United programs have been successful by offering a player development pathway that includes intermediate to advanced levels of play at a reasonable price and, more importantly, a respect for the holistic youth development by leaving time in the week for non-soccer activities.

We also must consider the market expectations of our new parents who are digital natives. Most have grown up with a la carte options.

Soccer and other organized sports have successful programs that offer soccer play opportunities that are not strictly conformed to the team and league structure. Free play, pick-up, soccer classes are growing in popularity and are relatively simple to deliver. These offer families the opportunity to sample a sport in a more relaxed environment focused on learning the game and to play for fun.

SA: In the New York Times article, reporter Joe Drape wrote: “Youth players are abandoning the game in alarming numbers” …

MIKE HOYER: I spoke with Joe Drape in advance of the article being published. It was offered to him that there are many data points to consider. We use surveys and data to identify consistent themes from different sources as an indicator. Relying on one study or one data point, even with an effort to relay the context, may not represent the full picture.

SA: What’s your view on the U.S. Soccer Federation’s role? (Drape writes that, “Although the federation has installed an academy system to standardize coaching and culture, many believe it chokes off a pathway for young players.)

MIKE HOYER: There is more collaboration among U.S. Soccer association members than ever before. This has been confirmed from USYS, SAY, USSSA, USASA, and U.S. Club.

We’ve been meeting on an intermittent basis since December 2015. There is a recognition that in one realm we are competing businesses. In another, a collaborative effort on common elements to increase participation will benefit all involved.

Let’s also acknowledge that U.S. Soccer is involved and invested in the youth game more than ever. This started four years ago, in our view, with the arrival of Nico Romeijn [U.S. Soccer’s chief sport development officer], and the reconfiguration of the coaching licenses and, more importantly an educational philosophy suited to the grassroots soccer coach.

To address the broadest point of participation, the Grassroots licenses will provide consistency of messaging and age-appropriate training. AYSO has been advocating and practicing these tenets since 1988 with small-sided games and our 2011 mandate that coaches have age-appropriate training for the age group and performance environment in which they are to coach.

U.S. Soccer is engaging its members in various focus groups and study groups to evolve or develop programming and education. This is a long process that U.S. Soccer is clearly committed to achieving marked improvements “to make soccer the preeminent sport in the United States.”

The restructuring of departments at Soccer House has fine-tuned the capabilities to deliver the programs and services in their varied departments and be more responsive to the needs of the more than 100 members.

SA: What do you expect from the leadership of new U.S. Soccer President Carlos Cordeiro, who was elected last February?

MIKE HOYER: His first job was to finalize, with our partners from Canada and Mexico, to win the rights to host FIFA World Cup 2026. Job done.

He had several other planks to his campaign that seek to increase participation in an inclusive environment. There have been various discussions about using the target of the 2026 World Cup to promote soccer participation. You are likely to hear more about this in the coming months as Mr. Cordeiro has the opportunity to get to work.

12 comments about "AYSO's Mike Hoyer: Youth soccer needs options between entry level and full travel/club commitment".
  1. R2 Dad, July 24, 2018 at 12:40 p.m.

    Is participation falling or just registration? As the game develops in this country, I'd expect it to fan out into Futsal, Freestyle, pick-up, etc. I've noticed there has certainly been fewer teams at tournaments over the past 3 years, but maybe that's more a function of less discretionary because housing has skyrocketed. Maybe parents have decided spending your entire weekend at a meaningless tournament isn't the best way to enjoy the sport. Maybe crappy middle school kickball coaches have killed off the joy of playing for your school, when the only players chosen are tall/fast while most soccer players are neither.

  2. s fatschel replied, July 24, 2018 at 4:50 p.m.

    In the Northeast the same kids are playing futsal and outdoor. Futsal is Nov to March.

  3. Chuck Coan, July 24, 2018 at 2:32 p.m.

    Last time I checked, every major youth soccer organization in the country was using computers to register their players. Why is it that we can not get a simple, straight answer on exactly how many players were registered at each age group in the major soccer associateons in the USA? State by state. So that the clubs can understand what kind of impact what they are doing is having on player retention.
    I can tell you that focusing everything on the top of the pyramid has an extremely detrimental effect on the base. We just brought back our club from the brink of extinction. 2000 kids down to 500 because the board was made up of "classic, elite" players parents and that is where every dime of resource went as the rec/entry level program that built our club virtually disappeared. As the well went dry we were barely able to field a team at age group in the local competitive division! We are back to 1500, rec/entry level players are filtering into our academies and our classic division, which is still struggling, sees a brighter future starting next year as the academy kids begin to move up. 
    In my opinion we started killing the sport in our regon when every club went to club wide tryouts and we began telling teams worth of young players that they were not good enough to play with us and pushed them to under resourced, poorly organized, poorly coached rec programs. One or 2 years of that and they found another sport or quit entirely! Throw the birth year debacle into the picture and the pace of departure accelerated. 
    What is best for the players is the question that is never asked. As for the title of this piece, every club in this area provided mid level opportunities from 1980 to about 2000. After that there simply were not enough kids because they all had to be elite or their parents took them elsewhere like to the 12 new clubs claiming they were elite! Which is why elite soccer is not. the kids playing "elite" soccer are the ones whose parents can afford it and support it. If you don't have both pieces, you have nothing. All the skill and athleticism means absolutely nothing without those 2 things. So, elite? I do not think so. No base, no peak.

  4. Kent James replied, July 25, 2018 at 9:12 a.m.

    Well said.  Without a good foundation, the building topples...

  5. A. Torres, July 24, 2018 at 4 p.m.

    I was an assistant coach at one of the top clubs in our area. The problems that I observed while there were many. I will try to speak about the ones that I see as most detrimental to the sport and to producing players oh higher technical abilities.

    The academy A teams received the most attention and consumed most of the resources. Clubs below the A division (B, C, D, intramural, Recreational) were over populated. There were teams on the B division that had 26 to 30 kids. We played in a league where we were only allowed to roster 17 kids for the games which always left 9 kids with no soccer at all.

    I personally felt teams were overstocked to maximize profits and, in this way, provide more resources for the Academy A teams. I think teams should be limited to a certain number of players…  I would say no more than 17 players per team. This would allow better training and most importantly playing time for all. Only in this way can you grow players with confidence and truly develop skillful players.

    Also, there were teams in which coaches had their own kids playing in. This cause tension amongst the parents who felt the coaches’ kids were always assured playing time at the expense of other more deserving kids. Coaches’ should not be allowed to coach their children’s teams. I think is both a benefit for the kid and the coach, it eliminates the perception of preferential treatment and it gives the kid a more relax environment that does not follow them home at the end of the game.

    I am no longer with the club, but recently I bumped into some of the kids who are no longer so little at the gym. I asked them if they were still playing and sadly they told me that a year after I left they had raised the annual registration from $900 to $1500 and that most recently to $2000. It’s been only 3 years since I left. Most said their parents couldn’t afford the first increase and therefore stopped playing.

  6. s fatschel, July 24, 2018 at 5:02 p.m.

    If you add high school, funded odp and futsal to the mix there is no reason for $2000 for 3 months of outdoor club.  This should be an optional path for any player. Also soccer up to age 14 should be very low cost and coaches required to volunteer.

  7. Bob Ashpole, July 25, 2018 at 12:20 p.m.

    Mr. Hoyer speaks like a CEO running a business organization. "There is a recognition that in one realm we [USYS, SAY, USSSA, USASA, and U.S. Club], are competing businesses. In another, a collaborative effort on common elements to increase participation will benefit all involved."

    Soccer is a participation sport, not a business. What is good for business is not necessarily good for sport or its participants.

  8. Ric Fonseca replied, July 25, 2018 at 11:37 p.m.

    Bob, ayso IS a business organization. as a former parent whose children participated in ayso, I learned very quickly about the business side of the organization. Although they continuously and fervently demanded that everyone plays, parents had to have some role as coach, manager, team mom, etc, if they expected their child to play it was (and continues to be) a b-u-s-i-n-e-s-s. If you're in the SoCal area, go check out their headquarters, their tax returns (they're a 501c.3 "non-for-profit" and check out their CEO's salaries. You'll be rather "unpleasantly surprised..."    

  9. Bob Ashpole replied, July 27, 2018 at 2:42 p.m.

    Ric, I do not question that the alphabet organizations including USSF are businesses. The problem is when business conflicts with sport and business interests are placed first. Times have greatly changed from 40 years ago.

  10. James Madison, July 25, 2018 at 9:47 p.m.

    Beginning soccer is one thing.  Continuing participation is another.  It depends on developing (i)  a love of the game and (ii) skill sufficient to support that love by the time a child enters puberty.   It is critical that youth coaching focus on both these factors.  This is true, not only for those with competitive aspirations, but also for the great mass of children who will not advance to competing at the high school, college or professional levels, but for whom soccer can and should become a lifelong recreational outlet.

  11. beautiful game, July 30, 2018 at 9:35 a.m.

    It's a house of cards with no base.

  12. R2 Dad, July 30, 2018 at 1:11 p.m.

    I will say that tournament soccer has really slowed down over the past 5 years. THOSE participation rates are decreasing but I see that as a good sign, that parents are hearing how 3-5 games in a weekend is bad for their kids and they're doing less of it. It's a small victory for kids vs the club drive for revenue.

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