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Youth Soccer Enrollment Declining – How To Reverse The Trend

Declining chartRapid, Significant Membership Decline in Youth Soccer

Today, US Youth Soccer is the largest governing body for youth soccer in the United States. Comprised of 55 State Associations (some states split in half based on population, geography, and other factors), US Youth Soccer registered 3.025 million kids aged 5-19 nationwide in 2011. This is approximately two million more than the rest of youth soccer (US Club Soccer, AYSO, SAY, Super Y) combined.

However, from 2009 to 2011, US Youth Soccer player registration decreased by over 50,0001 and is projected to drop by an additional 164,590 in 20122, leaving an overall total of less than three million for the first time in more than 12 years.

It would be easy to attribute the decrease in registration to economic concerns or even a lower birth rate. However, when you look at organizations like US Club Soccer, they’re forecasting growth of more than 15%2 in 2012. Similarly, other sports like US Lacrosse, the governing body for Lacrosse in the United States, showed an increase in youth registration by more than 35,000 from 2010 to 20113 with further growth expected.

Clearly there’s a problem within US Youth Soccer.

Invisible Marketing

To attract new members and retain existing ones, youth sports organizations at all levels (including grassroots community organizations, state associations, and even national organizations) must actively campaign and market themselves. In general, non-profit organizations dedicate 3% of their annual budgets to marketing and promotional activities4.

Based on our research, many of the 55 State Associations within US Youth Soccer have severely underinvested in marketing in their annual budgets. While some of these funds could be used to promote state-level programs and initiatives, the majority could be going to community organizations to help them increase enrollment at the local level.

In an informal survey of eight associations across the country, none spent more than 1% of their budget on marketing and all but one spent less than half of one percent. “We actually don’t budget for marketing,” commented one State Administrator.

During our research, we even encountered some associations who were unwilling to release any budget information, so it’s probably safe to assume similar figures.

Why are so many youth soccer associations not budgeting for marketing?

The Root of the Budgeting Problem

Budgeting in non-profit organizations is difficult because resources are limited. Staff often think of physical, short term needs like equipment and supplies for event preparation before long term, non-mission-critical items like marketing and promotions.

“When items need to be cut or reduced in the overall budget, the first place people look is the marketing budget,” said one State Association Executive Director.

While marketing may seem like a non-critical investment on the surface, in reality it is an essential tool for success. Shrinking or even eliminating a marketing budget leads to declining enrollment, forcing other budget cuts in the long run4.

Each year, State Association budgets are approved by member vote at an Annual General Meeting. In many cases, the proposed budget is circulated to membership (grassroots youth soccer clubs within that state) less than 48 hours before the vote and is usually approved without much, if any discussion. More often than not, annual budgets do not receive a thorough evaluation from voters to make sure key areas are receiving proper attention.

It’s not far-fetched to assume that leaders of member organizations at the local level use state association budgets as a rough guide to budget for their own organizations as well. As a result, not seeing an emphasis on marketing could lead to similar thinking at the local level.

Not a Priority

In one state, the Treasurer notified the Executive Board that a recent project was completed under budget and allowed the State Association to provide a small amount of money back to their member clubs. While the initial thought was good, the overall result could have been more harmful than good:

  • The fund distribution only came because other projects were under budget – the initiative was more of an afterthought than an initial need.
  • The funds came with no guidance. To be most effective, funds distributed by State Associations to member organizations should have rules for use and recommendations on the best ways to use it within the organization.

Solid leadership is truly essential to ensure State Associations are thinking long-term when possible and any/all marketing investments are geared towards providing the best return.

Wise Investments Make a Big Difference

Associations struggling for marketing ideas can take a tip from the New York State West Youth Soccer Association (NYSW). NYSW created a Recreational Committee that visits clubs in the association to analyze what works well and what could be improved. This information helps drive future decisions about how best to grow the game within the state. NYSW also dedicates a section of their website to Recreational Soccer Best Practices to provide valuable information to member organizations.

In addition, NYSW held a Recreational Soccer Festival along with a tailgate party and tickets to a professional soccer match. Activities like this allow the association to focus on local community awareness. Although promotional events require both time and money, they attract attention.

Recreational Soccer is NYSW’s largest program – 80% of NYSW’s registration revenue is attributable to it. As players get older, many “graduate” to become Competitive Travel players, so efforts to promote Recreational Soccer are very worthwhile.

Even with the promotional activities NYSW has implemented, marketing still accounts for less than 1% of the annual budget, so it is possible to make an impact without breaking the bank.

At the national level, U.S. Soccer realizes that marketing investment is necessary. Despite a projected decrease in overall revenue, U.S. Soccer continues to invest approximately 2% of revenue in marketing.

Light BulbPromotional Tips For All Associations

Here are some other options to consider for organizations at the community (or even State Association) level with a limited budget:

  • Hire a marketing consultant (or even an intern working for college credit) to provide fresh ideas on how to reach your existing and potential clientele. Several State Associations benefit from having staff person on hand. At the very least, having a fresh set of eyes review your situation and challenges could help produce some unique ideas.
  • Commit to maintaining a web presence that makes information about your association easily accessible. Even if you’re not doing as much outbound marketing as you might like, make sure those seeking you out can find the information they need.
  • Become further involved in the community by hosting free (or low cost) clinics. Demonstrate that your organization is accessible and expose yourself to those who may not have seen or heard about your organization.
  • Have parents and/or players volunteer at local events. In all cases, make sure those representing the club are wearing a club t-shirt or otherwise when possible. The more visible you are in the community, the better.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. Many resources are available today for your organization online. For example, HP has a series of free flyer template you can use. Youth clubs can also check with their State Association for published materials. It would also be beneficial to see what other clubs, both in your area and in other areas are doing – you might find a great idea that can be easily implemented!

What ways have you found to successfully promote your youth sports organization? Let us know!


1. US Youth Soccer Key Statistics

2. 2012 U.S. Soccer AGM Book (PDF link near bottom of page)

3. US Lacrosse Facts and Figures

4. Non-Profit Marketing Tips For Tight Budgets

Kris Baker

Kris Baker is the President of Demosphere and has been serving the Youth Sports Community since 2006.