Let’s talk about money – lots of it!

It’s the end of the Spring season and some clubs are already asking for commitments for the Fall season. So it’s that time of year when parents are reminded again about the cost of youth soccer.

Competitive soccer is expensive, especially if your youngster plays on the top couple of teams in his/her age group at his club. And this cost increases as your youngster gets older.

According to my Quicken software we spent about $20,000 (no typo!) on soccer related cost in 2015 on our three comp soccer kids (U10, U12, and U14), excluding a big soccer-related trip we did during the Christmas school break. And some time ago I posted an article on another family’s similar spending level – click here to read it.

As a rule of thumb, I estimate that at one of the big clubs here in the Bay Area you can expect to pay around $2K-$3K per year when your youngster is 8 or 9, then around $3K-$4K when he/she is 10/11, and $5K-$7K at 12/13. It can easily reach $10K per year or more if your 16 year old daughter or son is on an ECNL or USDA team. Both travel a lot.

This is a lot of money! And a lot of parents get upset, of course. And some point the finger specifically at coaching fees. I will get to coaching fees a little later in this post.

First let’s take a step back for a moment and start with what many, probably most, parents want for their comp soccer youngsters:

  • great coach who really knows the game and how to teach it, fully committed to making youngsters the best they can be, in a positive environment, while also communicating frequently with parents;
  • good fields for practices and games, ideally all-weather artificial turf instead of bumpy and/or muddy grass;
  • quality equipment (balls, training accessories, etc.);
  • supplemental private or small-group clinics through the year;
  • variety of league games that develop the youngster and entertain the parents;
  • tournaments for that extra drama and team bonding – some medals hopefully too;
  • well-organized club – efficient software for registrations, effective and timely communications, sufficient oversight by the Director of Coaching to make sure coaches are doing their job well, ongoing development courses for coaches, both in-house and, probably more importantly, externally organized for a fresh perspective;
  • for well-developing youngsters a structured/organized path to higher-level teams within each age group, more challenging leagues such as ECNL and DA, and more challenging tournaments (local, region, state, national);
  • efficient and effective league and tournament organization;
  • qualified referees – while this is mostly a volunteer role referees do get paid some to cover their cost and to earn a little on top

The list goes on.

Now let’s be clear that all this costs money. Somebody has to pay for all this and because there are no subsidies for what is ultimate a private enterprise it’s the families that have to cover all of the cost (some clubs offer merit and/or needs-based scholarships but those are negligible).

It’s simple math.

And like all private market products and services this ‘youth comp soccer’ service we purchase from clubs and leagues (and individual coaches sometimes) is driven by the perceived quality of the service and the availability and cost of alternatives (i.e. other clubs/coaches and non-soccer activities).

Money is a medium of exchange and cost/prices reflect ‘value’ driven (mostly) by demand and supply. And there are apparently enough families that are willing to pay the going rate.

Are there imperfections in this youth soccer market? Sure, like in pretty much any market, and discussing those go beyond the scope of this post. But, for all practical intents and purposes, families have a choice how much and where to spend their soccer money.

Now let’s talk about the coaching pay.

Keep in mind that for the majority of comp soccer coaches at the bigger clubs this is often their livelihood or at least contributes materially to their income. It’s how they put food on the table and pay for their kids’ clothes. It’s how they pay for rent. It’s how they cover their cost of living. And our Bay Area has one of the highest cost of living in the country.

I estimate that typical comp soccer coaches make anywhere from $20K to $50K per year, depending on how many teams they coach per season, how experienced they are, which club they coach for, and how many private lessons they do per week.

And I further estimate that top coaches with a good amount of teams and maybe also some club-level responsibilities can earn up to $100K, even $200K at the very top. Some of this additional pay comes from offering clinics outside the usual team practices and and elite coaches can charge $50 (and more) per player per hour for a small-group clinic with, say, four players. That’s $200+ per hour.

But let’s focus on the ~80% of coaches that coach most of our kids.

Living on $20K in the Bay Area is very difficult even when you’re young and single. It’s not much better with $50K. And it’s even difficult with $75K-$100K if the coach has a family.

Great coaches that work hard and are committed and/or have broader responsibilites such as Director of Coaching roles deserve to be compensated for the work they do. Just like in any other profession.

There are some volunteer coaches that do a fine job, of course. I know of one team that is still keeping up with wins and rankings with the elite group of teams in that age group and the coach is a volunteer. The players aren’t nearly as proficient because they lack the technical skills, for example, but this volunteer coach knows how to maximize the odds of winning. So there are exceptions to the rule, of course, if winning is your primary goal.

But if longer-term player development, quality, efficiency, sustainability, and scalability are important then comp soccer needs professional coaches and clubs.

But like any business a soccer club (and also individual coaches) have to continue to offer the best possible product and strive to continuously improve and innovate to satisfy its ‘customers’, the players and families. If the quality drops too low and/or the club doesn’t handle its families and players professionally then the club will sooner or later lose its customers.

So if the product offered by the club and/or coach is perceived to be superior and families are willing to pay for it, then why should the club and/or coach not be ‘allowed’ to make as much money as possible?

Why should this be any different from, say, a financial consultant charging as high an hourly rate as possible for his or her services? Or the cleaning lady trying to negotiate the highest possible hourly rate for her services? Or you and me negotiating the highest possible salary and bonus in our professional lives?

If what you do is valued highly and someone offers you double or triple what you’re getting now and you can therefore buy that four bedroom modern house in a neighborhood with great schools then why not charge for your services?

Money is a reflection of the value you deliver. There’s nothing bad or dirty or questionable about that.

There are non-monetary measures of ‘value’, of course, and those are important motivators in some professions, but money is a strong indicator of delivered value in private markets, including youth soccer.

You have to continue to deliver a great work product, of course. If you don’t then the payments will stop quite quickly because parents will go elsewhere for a better product.

Like with all purchasing decisions, families need to make a decision about what’s important and affordable for them.

If a club’s activities are simply too costly and your youngster isn’t talented enough then you need to find another club. Or move your son/daughter down to a lower team that doesn’t train as much and only plays games within driving distance. The cost for this second or third team should be lower. Don’t waste your money!

For example, the annual cost to play on an ECNL team is much higher than the cost for the second or third team. This is mostly because the ECNL team travels much more.

So take a step back and honestly assess your youngster’s soccer potential and decide on what’s important to your youngster and your family.

A good friend of mine with tremendous knowledge of competitive sports, including soccer, keeps reminding me of how delusional we as parents can be. Here’s a good blog post on DPD – Delusional Parent Disorder. Love the term!

If your youngster isn’t heading for an ECNL team (girls) or an USDA team (boys) then don’t waste your hard earned money chasing the wrong goal. The same applies for any other level of play – if he/she simply isn’t going to make the first or second or third team then stop chasing that with money and sacrificed time.

Instead, focus on having a great time at soccer together. Make sure your son/daughter learns to enjoy the game for a lifetime. He/she doesn’t have to play on the ‘best’ team or club for that to happen. And it doesn’t have to be expensive.

But it’s ultimately your choice in this private market called “youth soccer”.

P.S.: There are very problematic issues arising from this ‘pay-to-play’ market model we have here in our country, which exceeds the scope of this blog post. I will post separately on that in a few days. Stay tuned.

 

Lifelong player and student of the beautiful game in Germany, England, and USA. Volunteer futsal coach and USSF referee.

7 thoughts on “Let’s talk about money – lots of it!

  1. Good post. This issue of Value is a relative thing. What happens when what you value (development) isn’t shared by the majority of the other parents? Even for parents that have played, the concept of Development isn’t necessarily similar. If you grew up with ping-pong soccer, Development = playing time. Sadly, I think we need another 5-10 generations of kids before Americans reach consensus that Development = Possession (and the skills required to implement that) and not Counterattacking Mourinho-ball. As far as the cost of refereeing goes, I would gladly pay more for stricter league enforcement of penalties/suspensions against abusive coaches who get ejected–it’s always the same bad actors year after year. We wouldn’t need to recruit so many new 12 YO referees if the existing ones didn’t burn out after suffering abuse at the hands of supposedly-adult coaches who then get a slap on the wrist from the leagues. We should care more about the development and well being of the players, referees and parents and less about hurting the feelings of the coaches.

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  2. Great post.

    I agree that ultimately we are the consumer of the product called “youth soccer”.

    However, it’s not a free market with enough competition in my mind.
    So making good choices is very hard.

    My son is a youngster playing in a well-known club’s middle level (“B”) team.

    This is what I get for my money

    1. A coach who specialize in “B” or “C” level team.

    He pays lip service of player development but I can see he really needs to win games.

    Focus of practice is quick pass instead of teaching kids to look up and make good decisions and improving technical ability.
    Some kids played the same position for entire season. U10 is too early for that.

    No wonder some parents say they are not returning.

    2. No turf field for practice.
    With just little bit of rain, city closes fields and practices get canceled most of the time.

    3. No supplemental private training officially offered.
    Invitation only clinics by top team coaches offered during school break.
    Other private or small group sessions are available only through word of mouth.

    4. Since the season started, there was 0 communication from DOC.
    DOC never visits individual practices.

    5. Very unclear path to move up to higher level teams.
    If you are the best player in the team, it’s not clear how you move up.
    I think it’s intentionally left murky so it’s entirely up to the coach. It just leads to many parents attending other club’s tryout.

    Is it fair that I pay the same amount as parents of “A” team kids who get better coach and training? Probably no.
    Is U10 too early to decide that my son is not USDA material and be happy with where we are? Probably yes.

    If there is a club that offers what parents are looking for in your list, sign me up…. I’m willing to pay more than what I’m paying now.

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    • Thank you for your comments! You raise important points about some of the inefficiencies in this youth soccer market and there are probably many cases where this applies. And good alternatives are not always available, so families can feel ‘stuck’.

      As a rule of thumb, my view is that clubs should charge different fees depending on which team a player is on if, for example, the team practices less, has fewer games, competes in fewer tourneys, and if the coaching quality is clearly not the same as the coaching quality for the A team. They should also consider charging differently if the field quality is different – it is often the case that renting a high school turf soccer field for practices is more expensive than a piece of grass in a neighborhood park. That said, keep in mind that many cost items are fixed cost irrespective of which level the team is playing at. League registration and referee fees, for example.

      In general, there is too little visibility in this market (one of the inefficiencies). Parents don’t know what they don’t know and it’s often too late by the time they find out from another parent at a different club.

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  3. Thanks James. I agree. We expect a lot from coaches and then people complain over the costs. I’ve always volunteered my time as a team manager and I am still amazed at families that have visions of success, but still do not understand the overall effort involved. It has to be a joint endeavor between the club, the team, the players, and their families. In short it has to be made a priority.

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    • Appreciate your comment, Jeff! You raise an important point – in addition to the dollars we have to spend there is also a lot of extra volunteer effort that goes into making youth soccer successful. Team managers are one clear example of that.

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