I have been thinking a lot over the last few months regarding a disconnect between the providers and consumers of grassroots soccer programs. There are some statistics indicating a decline in participation numbers over the last decade (see here, here, and here). Various reasons are provided: lack of facilities, changes to US Soccer Federation age groupings, a decline of in-town opportunities in favor of traveling programs, lack of outreach to low-income families, and lack of free-play opportunities.
A phenomenon that I have observed recently is the model of soccer as a “class” rather than as a “league”. My local community consists of a diverse collection of cultures and backgrounds and children activities are highly regulated. A variety of extracurricular programs are available – math, cultural, school enrichment, as well as the usual sports (football, basketball, baseball, softball, cheerleading, etc.).
I am encountering more instances where parents are inquiring on how to enroll their child in “soccer class.” This feels like a different paradigm from the “joining a team/league” behavior that has traditionally applied. I recently received an email from the parent of an 8th grader wanting to know how to “enroll” his daughter in our high school program in the fall.
Enrollment feels very different from “joining.” If I enroll in an activity, I am a paying customer. I expect a certain set of services (curriculum, etc.). My loyalty extends through the duration of the program. If I am not satisfied, I may investigate other “schools.”
If I join something, I am a “member”. I have an identity in the program. It is about “us” rather than “me.”
In my previous professional career, I observed the behavior of software developers projecting their behavior and backgrounds onto their customers. These developers tended to act in an echo chamber. Disruption in industries trended toward solutions that met customer needs in an innovative manner.
I am concerned that the soccer powers-that-be are stuck in the past – assuming that the paradigms that governed their early sports organizational experiences project onto the current generation and culture. A lot of effort is being spent on “fixing” the top of the pyramid, in particular, the US Men’s National Team.
There is a lot of noise regarding the cost of elite coaching education, pay-to-play, etc. The Federation is trying to revamp the grassroots coaching education pathways, which is a step. But, I am concerned that we are missing the forest for the trees.
Understanding what success looks like at the grassroots level, in particular, the needs and expectations of the “customers” and creating “products” that increase participation feels like an important task that requires more attention.