Kevin Payne, U.S. Club Soccer CEO
SOCCER AMERICA: What do you think of the notion, according to The New York Times, that “youth soccer participation has fallen significantly in America?” The article, based on figures from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association and a statement from the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, reported that youth players are abandoning soccer “in alarming numbers.”
KEVIN PAYNE: I have been away so haven't read the report, just the article. I’ve always considered the participation numbers produced every year by the sporting goods industry to be so broad that they can be pretty suspect. They don’t try and determine who’s playing a sport in any sort of committed or organized way. It’s always kind of been, if you throw a basketball up in a hoop in your neighborhood, then you’re a basketball player.
It also depends on what population they’re defining. If they’re talking about white kids from the suburbs, then I suppose it’s possible that it’s down.
I don’t know what their methodology is, but in U.S. Soccer and the youth organizations, we’ve not seen a decline. The registration numbers have been almost completely flat for years.
For our organization, U.S. Club Soccer, our numbers have gone up, by a compounding rate of about 9 percent or so over the last six or seven years. But I’m not sure the pie is growing. I think some of that is simply that more kids are double-registering.
I don't see big drops in total numbers if you combine us and AYSO, SAY and U.S. Youth Soccer. Those numbers are pretty much the same.
And it’s impossible for me to believe that “youth soccer participation has fallen significantly in America” with the rate of immigration in our country. Whether it’s Latino or Asian or African, we see those leagues exploding around the country. So, I think their methodology could be flawed.
I think they often look for a headline. And the Aspen Institute tends to look for something that's going to draw attention to their opinions and ring an alarm bell.
Now, I do think there is a problem with kids leaving our game. …
SA: That’s been an issue for a very long time, that kids hit a certain age and decide to quit a sport …
KEVIN PAYNE: There are a significant number of young people who leave sports in general right before the age of 13. It's way too high a number in every sport. Soccer is a little bit higher than many other sports, but not all.
In baseball, for instance, there’s a huge drop off when you go to 90-foot base paths and a 60-foot mound. It’s just almost a different sport.
So, I do think there are a lot of things that we need to try to do to keep more kids in the game. I think there's a lot of issues. Almost all of them created by adults, that cause kids to want to leave.
But I'm not sure that I'd buy in to that giant alarm bell that they were trying to ring with that report.
SA: What about the possibility that kids are leaving soccer earlier than they were historically …
KEVIN PAYNE: U.S. Soccer is trying to conduct research on who’s leaving, when they’re leaving, why they’re leaving, which I think is a great first step to understanding the issue.
Anecdotally or maybe intuitively I would not be surprised that that’s the case [kids leaving at earlier ages], because I think there's way too much pressure being put on kids at too young an age to commit almost totally to soccer.
I think one of the worst offenders is the DA [U.S. Soccer Development Academy].
I think the whole idea of having aggressive D.A. program expansion below the age of 12 -- I just think it's dumb.
There's no evidence anywhere in any sport in any country to suggest that you can predict the future ability of players before the age of 12 anyway.
So, I'm not sure what the point of it is. What outcome they think they're going to achieve. But I think what it has done is just created a large class of young players who now are being told, you're not good enough. There is a very small number that are being anointed and a very large number that’s being told, you're not good enough.
I think that's a huge mistake. The DA is not the only one that’s doing that. A lot of youth soccer organizations do that. …
What’s probably an issue in our country, is kids who are on the best teams in clubs are getting pretty good training and pretty good coaching. But the kids on the lower level teams I think, in a lot of cases, those kids are not getting the same kind of training and experience.
And kids can see through those messages. Kids at those ages, when they're interacting with their peers, they want to feel valued, and if they feel like they're not valued, and they're not worthy, then you know they're much more likely to decide, I’m going to do something else.
SA: Children are also being urged to specialize in one sport at an earlier age ...
KEVIN PAYNE: I think kids should be playing more than one sport. Many of the best [soccer] players in the world have been successful in other sports.
If a kid says, I just want to play soccer, that’s all I want to do, that’s fine. But I think it’s important that parents and soccer clubs try and encourage kids to make those decisions for themselves.
What do you want to do? You’re only going to be a kid once. If you'd like to play basketball this season, then you should go play basketball – and soccer will be there when you come back.
I think we all, everybody who’s involved in this, has some level of complicity, and we just put way too much pressure on these kids. ...
We create a completely false sense of expectation. The parents now believe that there’s a straight line between training incessantly and becoming Venus or Serena Williams.
I think we need to do a much better job of educating parents about what this experience is supposed to be like so we can help them develop a better sense of perspective.