Summit recap: National soccer leaders call for more local play

May 5, 2022  • Jon Solomon

Top soccer leaders endorsed the creation of more local programs as a solution to the often expensive travel team model that has come to dominate the youth soccer ecosystem, limiting access to a sustained experience for low-income youth, including many minorities.

The call to action was made during a livestreamed, keynote session at the Project Play Summit that featured U.S. Soccer Federation President Cindy Parlow Cone, U.S. men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter, and new National Women’s Soccer League Commissioner Jessica Berman.

Berhalter said European countries such as Germany create a better youth model by focusing on local competition, which reduces costs, transportation challenges, and pressures on families.

“Do we need 10-year-olds traveling eight hours for a game on the weekend?” Berhalter said. “That doesn’t pass the common-sense test. Let’s keep them playing local, let’s keep them competing here, maybe have some restructuring, and as they get older, then they can start traveling more.”

U.S. Soccer Foundation CEO Ed Foster-Simeon, who moderated the session, noted there’s an incentive in the youth soccer financial model to travel far for games because tournaments make money for entrepreneurs. Cone said the various leading organizations that touch the disjointed youth soccer ecosystem – the federation, professional leagues, entities focused on youth play, and schools – need to collaborate to improve the model, including identifying best practices for the future of kids and the game.

“The money in youth soccer is mostly at the elite level of the game,” said Cone, who proposed bringing more recreational soccer programming to schools. “That’s taking away the focus from where I really think it should be – which is the entry level of the game at U10 and under. … Why is this U10 team traveling four hours on the weekend to play games when they just drove past 100 teams that they could have played and would have been competitive against?”

A 2019 Aspen Institute study found that youth soccer participation costs more on average than tackle football and basketball, and more than twice as much as youth flag football participation. For many Black and Hispanic families, those prices can be prohibitive. The average child quit soccer by age 9 – two years earlier than basketball and three years earlier than tackle football. Only gymnasts quit their sport at a younger age than soccer players.

Progress has been made at providing greater access to a sustained, high-quality experience for the very best young prospects. Over the last decade, U.S. Soccer and Major League Soccer started developmental academies that provide scholarships for elite training. Coaches now better scout underserved communities “and you’re seeing that with the fruits of our (U.S. men’s) team now with an incredibly diverse team and a joy to be around with all these different backgrounds coming together,” said Berhalter, whose national team is among the most ethnically and geographically diverse in all of sports. “But in terms of the amount of players we’re affecting, it’s still only the elite players.”

Berman said it’s the “primary responsibility” for U.S. soccer leagues to invest in the entire youth sports ecosystem, not simply as a player development tool for soccer.

“If you get an elite player out of that pool, then that’s great,” she said. “But really, we all know that the value proposition of playing sports has to be more than that because less than 1% end up transcending into the elite space. It’s not a good investment if that’s your only value proposition.”

Berman said reshaping the end goal of the youth soccer system also requires recognizing that entrepreneurs will seek to monetize gaps in a capitalistic society. At a previous job in the NHL, Berman engaged with private youth hockey organizations “who sort of let the system get away from them,” she said. “Give them a seat at the table to be part of the solution. At the end of the day, they do care about the future of youth sports. I think there’s a way for them to achieve their stated objectives and to ensure our stated objectives.”

Stephen Curry, City of Houston endorse Children’s Bill of Rights in Sports

NBA star Stephen Curry and the city of Houston became the latest to endorse the Children’s Bill of Rights in Sports. Curry’s foundation with his wife Ayesha, Eat. Learn. Play., is also partnering with Project Play on the State of Play Oakland report to be released this summer.

“I firmly believe that access to sports in safe and healthy environments for children to play should be made available to every kid,” Curry said in a taped message.

The Children’s Bill of Rights in Sports, developed by Project Play with human rights and sports policy experts, aims to create a shared cultural understanding that all youth should have the opportunity to develop as people through sports. More than 360 athletes and over 130 national and international organizations have endorsed the Bill of Rights.

Houston became the first government to adopt the framework. The fourth largest city in the U.S. will operationalize the rights through a municipal plan that includes education and the engagement of city’s parks and recreation department, schools, more than 30 local organizations. The organizations may also be eligible for grant funds to implement new programs and services. The effort is part of Houston’s bid to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

“Houston is proud to be an inclusive and equitable city focused on protecting and enhancing the rights of our most treasured asset, our children and future leaders,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a news release. “We are proud to implement the Children’s Bill of Rights in Sports in Houston because it underscores the positive physical and mental health benefits needed for young people to thrive and learn.”

The Fairfax County (VA) government also announced its endorsement. “The COVID-19 pandemic has presented our community with an extraordinary set of challenges,” said Lloyd Tucker, director of the Fairfax County Department of Neighborhood and Community Services. “However, this period has also given us the opportunity to reflect on what adds quality to each of our lives. For our children, sports were and continue to be a part of what brings them joy.”

Other recent endorsers of the Bill of Rights include the NWSL and Aspen Institute Mexico, which committed to rally leading organizations in Mexico to support the framework.

High school sports CEO: Transgender youth need access to sports

Twelve states have passed laws banning transgender girls and women from participating in female sports, and others are considering such bans. Some states enacted bans through high school athletic association policies, as Georgia did this week. Since 2016, Georgia has allowed individual schools and school boards to decide what teams transgender students could play on. In the fall, students must play on teams that match the sex listed on their birth certificates.

“Do I see the future based on gender as mattering? Absolutely, because there’s science around biological development,” National Federation of State High School Associations CEO Karissa Niehoff said at the Project Play Summit. “However, when we talk about access to opportunities, gender participation and inclusion, let’s talk about the age that we’re talking about. If we are a youth-based, scholastic organization, then let’s talk about 14-year-olds. If we’re an elite professional organization, let’s talk about 24-year-olds. They’re not the same.”

Niehoff said discussion about transgender sports participation must include why, in an educational setting involving minors, access to these activities is important. Transgender teens have higher suicide rates than their peers.

“It’s complicated to say boys are in boys sports, girls are in girls sports, and it’s based on gender at birth,” Niehoff said. “Wait a minute. Let’s talk about age and stage.”

The U.S. Department of Education is expected to finalize soon new Title IX policies that assert the rights of transgender students. Title IX bars discrimination on the basis of sex in education. The education department has argued in court that the term “sex” includes gender identity and that schools cannot keep transgender girls from playing on girls teams.

“Those are very clear rules and it’s important for our schools to understand every student has value, every student is protected by the law,” said Catherine Llamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the education department. “They are protected by the law, and we and I are prepared to protect them.”

Other announcements at Project Play Summit

  • Project Play is conducting the first major survey to ask Canadian kids what they want from sports. The initiative, in partnership with Canadian Tire and its Jumpstart charities, aims to gather baseline data on sports preferences, relationships with adults in the context of sport, and rationale for levels of participation from young people across Canada.
  • Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) announced a new effort to prioritize health and safety for young athletes, including a focus on preventing ACL injuries.
  • MyHockey Rankings announced that it will stop the practice of ranking 10U hockey teams. The service will continue to collect game scores and calculate performance ratings for that age group but will discontinue ranking teams while trying to better educate users on its rating system, which is designed to help teams find appropriate competition and limit blowouts that can serve little purpose. Tom Farrey, executive director of Aspen’s Sports & Society Program, lauded the move, saying, “Competition in youth sports is good, and fair competition even better. But ranking little kids and teams doesn’t serve any good purpose – the focus needs to be on development and this adjustment by MHR is a step in the right direction.”
  • For the 10th anniversary of Project Play next year, the Aspen Institute is bringing the Project Play Summit back to the state where it was launched. The event will be held in Colorado Springs, Colorado next spring at a date TBA, with the support of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, presenting sponsor Nike and other partners. Keep an eye out for more information in the coming months.
  • Also coming in 2023: the release of State of Play Tacoma-Pierce County. The Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program is partnering with the Names Family Foundation to produce its 12th community landscape analysis. Learn how to work with Project Play.

Jon Solomon is editorial director of the Aspen Institute’s Project Play initiative. He can be reached at