Austin’s Professional Soccer Team May Spur Increase in Youth Soccer Participation
By Stephen Cabler
In mid-January, a raucous crowd stood in the Rustic Tap, on Sixth Street in Austin. They chanted, sang and waved flags bearing a logo of bright green, intertwined oak trees as Dan Garber, Major League Soccer commissioner, took the stage.
Garber was about to announce that Austin would be getting its own MLS team. It would be called Austin FC.
“Everybody came together to align to bring this team to the city,” Garber said.
Some soccer aficionados say that the addition of a professional soccer team in Austin, coupled with the 2019 Women’s World Cup this summer and a gradual shift away from American football, may spur more young people in Central Texas to take up soccer.
“I think it’s going to help tremendously, personally, because it’s going to be here,” Mike Rees, an Austin-based account manager for Challenger Soccer Camps, a national chain of youth soccer camps.
Soccer has already begun to make that jump, with the younger ages, 4- to 8-year-olds, becoming increasingly involved with soccer, says Katie Devenuto, soccer program manager at West Austin Youth Association.
Devenuto says enrollment West Austin soccer leagues for ages 4 and 5 went from about 60 in 2017 to 120 this year. The 5- to 7-year-old league jumped from about 40 to 80 players.
“There’s so many programs now that offer soccer compared to even 10 years ago,” said Melissa Morrow, executive director of the West Austin Youth Association.
The association enrolls kids from 50 different zip codes, Morrow says, and soccer’s popularity is growing in Austin.
Since 2015, the number of kids ages 6 to 12 playing soccer on a regular basis has dropped 14 percent, according to a study by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. The same study showed that nearly 600,000 kids across the country have stopped playing soccer.
This is the age range where kids are beginning to pick the sport they most enjoy and jump solely into that sport, Rees says.
Most MLS teams have a youth program in conjunction with their team. For example, the Houston Dynamo and Dallas FC both put on various camps and have youth teams that compete at a high level. This addition along with the already existing camps and leagues could help make soccer more mainstream in Texas, Rees says.
According to the agreement between team majority owner Anthony Precour, and the city of Austin, the team will host 10 youth camps annually for 500 young soccer players, boys and girls, starting this year.
“I do think having Austin FC is definitely going to have an impact on the game,” Morrow said.
Another event that could help propel the sport is the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
This summer, the best female soccer players will head to France to compete for their home countries in the Women’s World Cup. A successful run by the United States women’s team could also help bring attention to a sport that lags behind football and basketball in popularity in the United States, Rees says. Challenger Soccer Camps use the World Cup as a marketing tool to help promote their events, Rees added.
Many parents are also moving away from those more popular sports, such as football, because of the health risks, mainly concussions, Morrow says.
“The impact that’s really affected a lot of the additional soccer players is the decline in football,” Morrow said. “We’ve seen a lot of parents who just have more concerns about tackle football.”
Soccer camps are working to make the sport safer. Certain age groups, mainly 4- to 9-year-olds, are no longer allowed to head the ball during play, and when they’re older, they are taught the correct way to use their heads to impact the game, Rees says.
Money plays a role in the soccer expansion as well. Soccer is a cheaper sport to get into, Morrow says, as anyone can go into their back yard and start kicking the ball around without needing more equipment.
Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, according to WorldAtlas.com. With a professional soccer team headed to Austin, the sport in Central Texas is in for a bright future, Morrow says.