Our beloved Brew.

Our beloved Brew.
R.I.P. Big guy.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Soccer: Where Are All the Children Going?

People know soccer is one of the most popular youth sports in America. But it might surprise you to learn it is also one of the fastest declining youth sports. Every adult connected in any capacity with the sport should be concerned. Research conducted by a variety of bodies including the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association suggests that while soccer does the best job of attracting young children among all sports, it loses them at an alarming rate after the age of eight or nine. The decline continues through the age of about twelve or thirteen. Beyond that age, the number of players modestly increases again through high school.
It’s widely accepted the falloff is largely related to the way soccer clubs are structured and parents and society influence the equation. The theory goes like this: Up to the age of eight or so, kids play mostly for fun. At about eight or nine years of age kids are told by coaches and parents they have promise, or they do not. Teams that were once defined by friendships and carpooling convenience are now being reorganized by skill level and training programs. Among some soccer administrators, the expression that is widely used, but never to a player’s or parent’s face is, “You are either good, or you suck.” Players and their families are aware of this through the Premier, A, B, C, and Recreational designation of teams. The concept of “playing up an age group” is introduced.

For every child that is encouraged to strive for greater advancement in the sport, there is at least one child who is given signs that even at the ripe old age of eight, they just do not have what it will take to be a standout player. Players are separated from friends, and assigned to teams for the less gifted. The theory suggests that children are being discouraged and thus leave the sport.

While I do not argue with this theory, I think it is one part of a complex, multi-faceted problem. I contend that what soccer is facing is not unique to the sport. Retailers and fast food restaurants have been dealing with the dilemma for years. McDonald’s invented the term “tweens” to describe customers between the ages of nine and twelve whose motives changed when they outgrew the Ronald McDonald® experience.

Briefly, McDonald’s learned a love of Ronald, and a commitment to visiting the restaurants is directly motivated by a child’s sense of fun and imagination. When a child reaches eight or nine years old, their influences and motives change. There is a desire to break with habits and interests that defined them as a “little kid.” Peer recognition and the element of “being cool” become much larger influences. Ask any parent of a child who used to love a visit to McDonald’s, and they can pretty much pinpoint this age as the one where their child was no longer interested in visiting the Playland®, or ordering a Happy Meal®. Try as they might, McDonald’s could not convince tweens that there was anything cool about Ronald.

People who study consumer habits recognize unique patterns and influences in this target market. What do most nine-year-olds want to be? Teenagers. What do most twelve year-olds want to be? You guessed it, sixteen - for the range of freedoms associated with driving.

The experts also agree that once a young consumer goes away, it extremely more costly to regain their allegiance than it might have been to hold their interest. The experts also agree that once lost, a large percentage of consumers will NEVER return.

The way children from nine to twelve define fun is radically different from their earlier years, yet coaches, administrators, and parents often fail to recognize this in relation to soccer. Not only is “fun” different for tweens, but also a host of other factors influences their interest in the game.

It’s true, the same age drop off happens in other sports. So why are the numbers leaving so much more dramatic in soccer? It’s the GIRLS, silly! No other mixed gender sport has such a high percentage of girls. 52% of all soccer players in this country are females. Eight and nine are also the ages when girls and boys take even more pronounced separate directions in the way they socialize, are influenced by their peers, and are affected by media and other societal factors.