Youth soccer participation: Red flags in latest State of Play survey - Soccer America
by Paul Kennedy

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.
Source: 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.