Beyond the sport, I have come to love soccer for what the culture of the game conveys about the disparate lands that have adopted it. For me, soccer is the ultimate conversation starter in any corner of the globe and I find myself genuinely interested in the different perspectives that become apparent during such dialogues.
Over time, that love has been augmented by the recognition that soccer tells us useful things about what it means to be American. One of our current candidates for President likes to underscore his huge nativist crowds who are peculiarly enthusiastic about the masonry of barricades. That is one image of America. An alternative image is presented by the current Copa America Centenario – as in the 83,000 (really huge) that took in a terrifically fun match between El Tri and the Reggae Boys last night in Pasadena.
The United States’ steadily increasing presence in the world soccer landscape has been accompanied by hand wringing as to the domestic state of the sport. Why aren’t the men better? Why is the domestic league still the subject of ridicule? Is college soccer a bad thing? Why can’t we build viable second and third tier professional leagues for men’s soccer? Why can’t we maintain a viable first division professional league for women’s soccer?
Les Carpenter’s recent article for The Guardian reminded folks of another continuing concern – the impact of the “pay-to-play” youth system on the composition of our nation’s soccer players. Carpenter’s piece discussed welcome advances in outreach to broader communities, but largely carried forward many of the same anecdotal complaints and criticisms that have been repeatedly raised over the last two decades. To the extent that there is any discussion of empirical support for these criticisms, Carpenter references Greg Kaplan and Roger Bennett’s analysis of elite professional athletes by socio-economic data tied to their hometown zip codes.
Because the conventional wisdom trope (that pay-to-play inhibits the development of soccer in the country by making it the arena of the wealthy) rings false for me in terms of what I have seen as a fan over the last decade, I wonder how much objective evidence there is for the argument that the existing youth structure has limited the diversity of the sport.
One easy metric to evaluate is the composition of student-athletes participating in college soccer. The “whiteness” of the U.S. women’s national team is one of the focal points for concerns regarding diversity in American soccer. Is women’s college soccer similarly narrowly confined to well-off white kids?
The NCAA makes available Sports Sponsorship, Participations,and Demographics data that now include information over a sixteen year period.
A review of the data shows significant improvements in the diversity of women’s soccer; diversity improvements that have coincided with significant growth in the sport. In 1999-2000, there were 6,464 women participating in Division I women’s college soccer. In 2014-2015, that number had grown to 8,963 – almost a 40% uptick in population. During that timeframe, the white women’s share of total players fell from 83.8% to 72.6%. African-American (black) players increased their participation from 2.9% of the total in 1999-2000 to 6.4% in 2014-2015, while Hispanic (Latino) players jumped from 2.9% to 6.5%. Those demographics do not yet fairly reflect the composition of the United States, but the long term trend is certainly heading in the right direction.
A separate published report by the NCAA on participation rates observes that during the 1981-1982 season, there were a total of 520 women playing Division I college soccer nationwide. In 2014-2015, there were 575 African-American women and 584 Hispanic women playing Division I college soccer.
These demographic trends are also apparent in Division II and III women’s soccer, providing even further indication that American soccer’s diversity “problem” is being addressed. In the 1999-2000 season, there were 3,879 women participating in Division II college soccer; by the 2014-2015 season that figure had almost doubled to 7,229. Where 87.5% of the women playing Division II soccer in 1999-2000 were white, in 2014-2015, 74.7% were. African-American participation increased from 2.3% to 3.4% over that timeframe, while Hispanic participation more than doubled from 4.0% to 8.6%. In the 1981-1982 season, a total of only 227 women were playing Division II soccer. There were 244 African-American and 625 Hispanic women playing Division II soccer in 2014-2015.
Similarly, during the 1999-2000 season, there were 7,766 women participating in Division III college soccer; by the 2014-2015 season there were 10,803 women involved in the sport. Where 88.2% of the women playing Division III soccer in 1999-2000 were white, in 2014-2015, that figure fell to 83.1%. African-American participation increased from 1.9% to 3.1% over that timeframe, while Hispanic participation more than doubled from 1.7% to 5.5%.
Diversity in American soccer – particularly women’s soccer – remains a valid concern. At the same time, however, there have been significant shifts in the demographics of participation. These shifts, in turn, require that the narrative surrounding our stories about diversity in the sport be adjusted. Rather than ask whether to pay-to-play development system only works for white kids, it would be more useful to understand why significantly more racial minorities have been able to participate in, at a minimum, college soccer.