The failure of the U.S. men’s national soccer team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia to some points to a broader problem around youth sports participation.

In an interview with SGB, Tom Cove, president and CEO of SFIA, described the U.S. team’s failure to quality as a “disaster for the sport on several levels.”

From a business standpoint, fewer people watching the games will mean a lost opportunity in jersey and other soccer-related sales. Cove told SGB, “We see sales grow as much around the World Cup as in any other major sporting event, including the Super Bowl and the Olympics. So it’s a terrible disappoint for our business and really dampens what otherwise would have been a gangbuster time in 2018.”

Participation also earns a bump during the World Cup timeframe, particularly when the team does well in the tournament. Stated Cove, “The World Cup is so important in terms of broadening the game, driving excitement and selling product.”

But he hopes the failure to reach the World Cup for the first time in 30 years for a country as large as the U.S. may put a spotlight on the challenges facing overall youth sports participation. Soccer and baseball are the two most popular sports played by 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds in the country but participation heads south after those ages. Recently, overall youth participation levels in soccer slid below those marked in 1994 when the country was captivated by the U.S. women’s World Cup that turned Mia Hamm into a celebrity.

Cove attributes much of the erosion in participation to the costs around youth sports, including “pay to play” demands marked by paid coaches, travel teams and other expenses. SFIA data finds soccer among youth is not gaining traction with Latinos and kids in urban centers in general, likely due to the financial hurdles. Soccer youth participation heavily skews toward kids from households over $100,000.

Said Cove, “You don’t need a lot of money to play soccer. You need a ball and shoes, and you can even make up a ball. And you can play anywhere. But we’re pricing kids out of youth sports for a variety of reasons.”

Another related reason soccer is losing participants as kids reach their teenage years is the U.S. has a “very formal” structure around playing soccer at an elite level that other countries don’t have.

Stated Cove, “We need to become more local, more affordable, more welcoming of different cultures and socioeconomic classes,” said Cove. “More sports open for all.”

Cove’s not alone.

In the St. Louis Dispatch, Jose de Jesus Ortiz, the newspaper’s sports columnist, wrote, “While every major soccer country invests in youth development to uncover the best and brightest soccer prodigies in every corner of their countries, the U.S. soccer pyramid is still dependent on middle class suburban families who are willing to pay anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 a year in fees and travel costs in search of college scholarships.”

With the U.S. well ahead of most countries in encouraging and supporting female athletes, the women’s teams have fared better in the sport. But “pay to play” drives the development of boys in soccer.

He wrote, “Club soccer teams price out poor families during the crucial development years. While major soccer countries have clubs who fight to uncover and develop their best young soccer players, the U.S. Soccer system is dependent on players having enough money to play on clubs where they can ultimately be discovered.”

In a column for the Washington Post, Laurent Dubois, a Duke University professor and author of “The Language of the Game: How to Understand Soccer,” in the same vein said, “One of the keys to the future of U.S. soccer will be tackling the inequalities that structure the sport in this country,” tracing it to ‘pay to play.’

He noted that in the 1970s, France failed to qualify for the World Cup tournament and that led to major investments by the government in national training academies as well as infrastructure for recreational sports throughout the country. An example later followed by Germany and Belgium, particular attention was paid to making sure immigrant communities had access both to recreational sport facilities and a path to soccer academies.

“The current U.S. team has many players of immigrant backgrounds, including the star Haitian American forward Jozy Altidore,” wrote Dubois. “But at the grass-roots, there is much more that can be done to make ensure all communities and youth players get equal access to sources of support and training.”

One challenge is that while soccer participation has soared since Pelé first joined the New York Cosmos in 1975, it still ranks as the third or fourth most popular sport in the U.S. As a result, the country’s top-slight athletes rarely play soccer. Cries for greater funding and change also won’t be as loud as those heard by major European and South American countries when their teams fail to quality.

But many soccer enthusiasts feel a country with more than 320 million people should be able to find 25 players good enough to qualify for the World Cup. According to the SFIA and Physical Activity Council research on sports participation, there are 11.9 million soccer (Outdoor) participants in the U.S. This includes 4,8 million children between the ages of 6-12 and 2.5 million participants between the ages of 13-17.

On a more encouraging note, Mike Woitalla, of Soccer America Daily, noted that the launch of the Development Academy 10 years ago is starting to show results, including increasing opportunities for lower-income players.

“While MLS clubs subsidize their DA programs so players don’t have to pay, U.S. Soccer’s financial aid program has paid out more than $2 million in DA scholarship funds,” wrote Woitalla. “Non-MLS clubs have also increased scholarship funding for their players over the years to remain competitive in the DA. U.S. Soccer’s nationwide training centers to identify players with youth national team potential are cost-free.”

He further noted that MLS (Major League Soccer) only recently began fielding reserve or under-23 teams in the USL and PDL to support player development below the professional level.

The U.S. men’s team’s former coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, used five young players who had been raised in Germany and trained in that country’s successful youth system because he believed U.S.-developed talent, including MLS players, couldn’t field a winning team.

Woitalla also noted that U.S. Soccer introduced Futsal, a five-on-five game played on a basketball-court size that is big part of youth training in South America, as part of Development Academy programing.

“More recently, U.S. Soccer implemented small-sided standards and the build-out line, an excellent way of creating an environment at the early ages that’s conducive to long-term development over short-term results,” Woitalla wrote. “Of course, there must be reevaluation, critique and accountability when the USA fails to reach a World Cup. But one bad ending doesn’t mean there hasn’t been any progress.”

Also on the positive side, even though fewer Americans are expected to watch the 2018 World Cup due to the U.S. team’s loss (as well as Russia’s time zone), the sport continues to increase in overall popularity.

The fan base had bulged among adults to 79 million from 59 million between 2010 and 2016, according to a study cited by Sports Illustrated. Teenagers also often rate soccer among their favorite sports.

Fandom is being helped by established MLS teams and new ones have rapidly garnered strong and devoted fans. National Women’s Soccer League teams are also growing, and TV ratings for professional games in the English Premier League, the Spanish leagues and the Mexican league are all on the rise.

The final of the 2015 World Cup featuring the U.S. women’s team win was the most-watched soccer match in U.S. history and their return to defend their title in 2019 will likely be closely watched. And while the Trinidad and Tobago may go down as the most embarrassing loss in U.S. soccer history, fans are expected to come back to follow teenage wunderkind Christian Pulisic and his other teammates in their quest for the 2020 World Cup.

“I believe true soccer fans throughout the country understand crushing defeats are part of the game,” said Stuart Crystal, president of The Crystal Agency and former VP of marketing and consumer products for Major League Soccer told SGB. “The inability for the U.S. team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup will likely impact the tournament’s English language television ratings, merchandise sales and commercial opportunities for the team. But I do not foresee this setback derailing the growth trajectory being experienced by MLS and USL. Long term this disappointment may inspire stronger support and participation by this country to ensure the U.S. is always a part of the world’s biggest event.”

Photo courtesy U.S. Soccer