Is soccer declining in the United States?

“Oh, soccer is doing fine!” you may argue. “It’s the Federation that stinks.”

It’s entirely possible that the second statement is true while the first statement is false.

A couple of metrics look very bad:

  • World Cup ratings are down, even accounting for the USA’s absence. You can blame Fox’s production if you like, but they’re also way down on Telemundo.
  • A household survey conducted by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, which does this sort of thing regularly and works with the Aspen Institute’s Project Play (which aims to get more kids playing, no matter what the sport is), shows youth soccer participation in freefall. The New York Times has a follow-up. The full numbers of the most recent survey aren’t available, but you can check out last year’s survey and see that soccer’s decline had been comparable with other sports but now appears to be considerably worse.

As with World Cup ratings, the SFIA survey can’t be completely explained by everyone’s favorite scapegoats (Alexi Lalas, Fox producers, Sunil Gulati, unnamed people in U.S. Soccer’s Chicago HQ). We’re not talking about U.S. Soccer’s registration numbers, which have been either flat or declining a bit for a good while — see my attempt to make sense of the numbers.

This survey collects data on everyone. All those unregistered players the presidential candidates touted? Yeah, this survey is intended to account for them, too.

person jogging near soccer goal during sunrise

Photo by Flickr on Pexels.com

You can question the survey’s methodology. You can even say polling as a whole is in disrepute after the 2016 election, but if you look carefully at those numbers, you’ll see they weren’t that far off — it’s just that the 3 or 4 percent errors all broke in Trump’s favor.

Sure, it’s still possible that there are plenty of people playing soccer who didn’t answer the poll-takers. But you’d certainly be hard-pressed to look at any metric and say participation is growing. 

Here’s the trickier question: Why?

A lot of the coverage focuses on misguided Federation initiatives — birth-year registration, the DA’s insistence on not playing high school soccer, etc. More generally, the “travel or bust” mentality parents get — with considerable pushes from the local clubs — leads to burnout and frustration.

But we don’t have data to measure the impact of each of these factors. That’s not part of the survey. (Which is understandable — who wants to deal with a 100-question survey asking, “Did your local club make you want to quit? Or was it the jersey colors? Or do you just want to play xBox?”)

And the World Cup numbers are also difficult to assess. Is interest dropping, or are ratings failing to take into account everyone going to watch parties or watching on their phones? Or do Millennials really just “consume” sports by watching highlights and not complete games?

So the questions aren’t simple, and neither are the answers.

Yet we should be able to agree on one thing: We can’t take soccer’s growth for granted. We can’t turn youth soccer into a joyless breeding ground for elite players. We have to do better with TV coverage. And yes, we need to rev up our professional game in multiple divisions. (And we need to talk about the nuances of doing that — 15 years of yelling at each other on Twitter and prior forms of mass communications of done jack-squat.)

We can certainly agree on this: We’re not where we want to be. And it’s not just a ball taking a bad bounce in Trinidad or a bad call that got Panama to the World Cup. It’s not just parents who want to “win” too badly — it’s also the coaches who pick out top athletes at age 8, discard everyone else and then moan when they have no one to replace the top athletes who pick other clubs or other sports.

It’s the Federation and its ham-fisted mandates, but it’s not just the Federation. It’s everyone.

Something’s wrong. Many things are wrong. And we need to start talking about it with a good Kirk-Spock mix of passion and reason. Soon.

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