Pay-to-play in youth soccer is more of a problem than ever before Playing competitive youth soccer can cost families a small fortune, excluding kids who might excel at the sport. There are efforts around the country to get more kids in the game.

Club soccer puts the sport out of reach for many kids

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Americans did not get that far in the World Cup this year, but soccer continues to grow in the United States. In fact, some families are spending small fortunes to let their kids play club or travel soccer. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: At a recent U15 soccer game, club teams from Loudoun County, Va., and D.C. faced off.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Take it. Take it. Take it. Take it.


BLAIR: After the game, I caught up with soccer parent Kevin Salandy.

KEVIN SALANDY: This is the mecca of pay-to-play era - right? - because it's Loudoun County. There's a lot of money in Loudoun County. That's why they have all of these teams and these facilities.

BLAIR: Salandy, a software consultant, says it's not cheap.

SALANDY: Across my three kids, probably spend about $10,000 a year.

BLAIR: Some families make the investment because they can. It's fun for their kids, good exercise, and they get experience playing on a team. Lindsey Blom, a professor of sport and exercise psychology at Ball State University, says club soccer has its advantages.

LINDSEY BLOM: If you're looking at it from a youth development standpoint, then there are certainly benefits that come out of it.

BLAIR: But for some families, it's more serious. At a game in Maryland, I talked to Peter Guthrie, a longtime youth soccer referee and former coach.

PETER GUTHRIE: In some cases, they believe that this is going to be the path for their child to get to college. You know, so they have to do well as a 10-year-old in order to get that college scholarship.

BLAIR: There are a lot of problems with the pay-to-play system. First off, a fraction of high school soccer players get scholarships, and an even smaller fraction go on to play professionally. Second, no guarantees. I asked Lindsey Blom if paying to play equals winning.

BLOM: So that is the myth that I would say that people think, that the more I put into my child's sport experience financially, the more successful they're going to be and the more they're going to get out of it. And we do not find that to be the case.

BLAIR: Another problem with pay-to-play - kids who can't afford club soccer could play on their high school teams, where it's generally free, but in tryouts, they often have to compete against more experienced kids who can pay for clubs.

TOM FARREY: We are just structurally pushing aside kids who want to play a game that is accessible around the world to kids of all income categories.

BLAIR: Tom Farrey is executive director of the Sports & Society Program at the Aspen Institute.

FARREY: The fundamental flaw in American youth sports and particularly soccer is we are sorting the weak from the strong well before kids grow into their bodies, their minds and their interests.

BLAIR: Farrey says, because there's money in it, more and more clubs are being offered and to younger and younger kids.

FARREY: By creating these travel teams at ever-earlier ages, we're pushing aside the late bloomer. We're pushing aside the kid from the lower-income home that can't afford the youth sports arm race or doesn't have, you know, a second parent in the home to drive them to these endless array of practices and games, some of which are two counties away or sometimes two states away.

BLAIR: Now, there are efforts around the country to level the playing field. Some clubs offer scholarships. In Washington, D.C., soccer coach Pierre Hedji co-founded a club that's a hybrid business model.

PIERRE HEDJI: Some are paying. Some are not paying, right? Because the thing is that we want to be able to help the next kid. So if you can afford to pay the whole thing, yeah, pay the whole thing so that way we can afford to help the next kid that can't pay anything at all.

BLAIR: It was Hedji's club, DCXI, that played against the Loudoun County team in Virginia. Hedji's team won - by a lot.


BLAIR: Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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