Youth soccer participation: Red flags in latest State of Play survey

No organization does a better job of exploring the trends in youth sports than the Aspen Institute’s Project Play. 

Its annual State of Play quantifies participation in youth sports -- who's playing what sports, at what levels and how much are parents spending on their children's activities.

Crucially, Project Play has been advocating for greater access to youth sports at the local level, chronicling the decline of in-town youth sports leagues, growing financial constraints in the last decade on municipal recreation departments, lack of qualified coaches and low participation rates among children from low-income families.

This year's report not only captures annual participation trends but looks at how youth sports have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The cloud COVID-19 has cast over youth sports comes after a year of growth in terms of participation. For the first time since 2013, participation in absolute numbers (16,000) and as a percentage of the population (3.2%) was up for soccer in ages 6-12. Numbers were also up for other sports as well.

The down side: Soccer has suffered the most dramatic decline in participation in the 6-12 age group since 2010: down 26.5 percent. Even tackle football (down 18.7 percent) has lost less players in the age group. By contrast, baseball was up 7.8 percent in the last decade, and ice hockey and lacrosse were both up more than 50 percent.

Participation: Youth soccer (ages 6-12)
2010 3,016,000 (10.9%)
2012 2,659,000 (9.2%)
2013 2,708,000 (9.3%)
2014 2,659,000 (9.1%)
2015 2,597,000 (8.9%)
2016 2,303,000 (8.5%)
2017 2,300,704 (7.7%)
2018 2,200,000 (7.4%)
2019 2,216,000 (7.7%)
Note: In parentheses is percentage of population.
Aspen Institute's Project Play

In the 13-18 age group, soccer participation increased 3.1 percent in 2019 and ranks third among team sports with 1,480,000 million participants.

The down side: Soccer lost more participants -- 741,000 -- in the 13-18 vs. 6-12 age group than any other sport except baseball, which lost a whopping 1,996,000 due to the transition to larger fields and dominance of travel baseball.

Also from the 2020 State of Play report:

-- The average family spending prior to the pandemic on soccer was $828 a year, below the average of $903, and ranking ninth among all 21 sports and below team sports such as ice hockey, volleyball, baseball and softball. (The accuracy of family spending is somewhat suspect given the drastic change in some of the outlays for other sports from year to year.)

From 2019 State of Play report (not included in 2020):

-- Soccer was last in terms of any team sport for the average age a child quit regularly playing at 9.1 years. (Only gymnastics of 21 sports surveyed was lower.)

As for the pandemic findings, the average time children ages 6-18 spent on sports (competition, practice, free play and virtual) declined dramatically, at least 40 percent from pre-pandemic levels for all sports.

Interestingly, parents cited growing concerns about barriers to resume play as the year has gone on, from March to June and now September. More than 63.9 percent of parents expressed a fear of their children getting ill and 59.3 percent expressed a fear they would get ill. There was a big jump in the number of parents who cited a schedule conflicts (40.0 percent) with transportation difficulties rising to 32.3 percent and their children's lack of interest climbing to 28.9 percent.

That latter number, the State of Play report noted, "should be a major red flag for the youth sports ecosystem."

Despite that, Aspen Institute's survey of parents conducted by Utah State University found that slightly more parents (28.2 percent) planned to spend more on youth sports after the pandemic than spend less (26.8 percent).

The comfort level that parents have with their children playing travel sports rose slightly from March to September, but it was still only 52.1 percent, less than all other forms of sports activities (pickup, school, community, etc.), where the comfort level has declined over time.

Perhaps most concerning, the huge number of high school-age athletes reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression with numbers increasing in higher grades and among team-sport athletes from high-poverty homes, according to a University of Wisconsin survey.

7 comments about "Youth soccer participation: Red flags in latest State of Play survey".
  1. R2 Dad, October 13, 2020 at 12:31 a.m.

    I think organized team sports for all kids 16-18 has been a complete disaster in my neck of the woods. Are there many teams playing this fall? My state is still in lockdown. I really feel for these kids, deprived of important HS years.

  2. cony konstin, October 13, 2020 at 10:09 a.m.

    Another reason why we need a soccer Revolution in the USA. We need 600,000 futsal courts so kids can play king of the court, 24/7/365, for free and no adult interference. We need a Rucker’s Park soccer environment. We need to create Courts of Dreams. You build them. They will come


  3. Karen Willoughby replied, October 13, 2020 at 12:56 p.m.

    Cony- completely agree.  How can we transform tennis courts into futsal courts and let them play.  Street Soccer style. 

  4. Phil Love replied, October 13, 2020 at 5:24 p.m.

    Dream on.  I see open school yards, park lands, vacant lots, etc. all over my city.  I never see kids playing on any of them unless they're being coached by adults.  Built it and they will sit unused.

  5. Wallace Wade, October 13, 2020 at 2:05 p.m.

    They are building some. The only problem is, they are only being built up on the East Coast

  6. Richard Crow, October 13, 2020 at 3:47 p.m.

    Soccer is one of the least expensive sports to play, unless it's travel soccer.
    Soccer is one of the easiest sport to organize, unless it's travel soccer.
    Soccer can be one of most enjoyable sports to play, unless it's travel soccer.
    So, yes! Futsal courts everywhere! Can you imagine a sideline nuisance trying to hang out and make trouble at a game organized played by kids and teens?

  7. humble 1, October 14, 2020 at 2:35 p.m.

    Not convinced on the argument that "No organization does a better job of exploring the trends in youth sports than the Aspen Institute’s Project Play."  The give a lot of information - but very little on how they collect it.  There is nothing on the website for Aspen Institute that describes their data collection methodologies.  Are they surveying Spanish speaking families?  Do they count boys and girls playing in cheaper latino soccer leagues that skip expensive USYS, USC and even AYSO leagues and clubs, then go right to HS?  Perhaps they do, but perhaps not.  For sure the trends in youth sports participation, but the demographic landscape, especially the youth landscape, is dynamic.  To get it right today, you need to penetrate the latino households that don't speak english.  If you don't explain how you do this - your data - and perhaps your conclusions may be off.

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