We’re NOT #GrowingTheGame but Futsal Can Help

If you’re at all connected in anyway with youth sports you have likely seen or heard the #GrowTheGame or #GrowingTheGame expression… a lot over the past few years. It’s a rallying cry for administrators, coaches and sport enthusiasts alike to raise awareness for a sport and promote exemplary people and/or initiatives within the sport contributing to its growth. In Canadian youth soccer it seems we’re really fond of this hashtag catch phrase but are we living up to our word? Who is responsible for overseeing its progress? And how is progress achievable?

Are We #GrowingTheGame?

In short, No! But we can! Let’s first start by dispelling this crazy notion that we are before examining how we actually can. Two years ago I undertook an impromptu study on youth soccer participation rates in Canada (Kellough, 2015a) using Statistics Canada population census data and registered youth soccer players in Canada from FIFA in 2006 and the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) in 2011. I was able to determine that not only was there no national growth in the game during this five year period, there was in fact a statistically insignificant contraction of growth in the game.

On May 6, 2017 at Canada Soccer’s Annual General Meeting, they released their 2016 Canada Soccer Annual Report titled “Think Globally Act Locally.” Once again they published data on registered youth soccer players in Canada that could be compared against StatsCan 2016 Census data, a continuation on from my previous work. Hoping that the minor contraction in registered youth soccer players and thus participation rates observed between 2006 – 2011 was merely a blip, I was sadly disappointed to see it proven not so. Table 1 shows a breakdown of registered youth soccer players and a participation rate of the total youth population by province as well as nationally.

GrowingTheGame - Table 1

Participation trends revealed follow that shown from the previous study based on 2006 and 2011 data, participation on the East and West coast is among the highest while the prairies are lowest with Manitoba’s the lowest of all provinces by a startling measure. Manitoba’s youth soccer participation rate is in fact so low that Saskatchewan, the second lowest ranking province in the country, has double their normalized participation rate and P.E.I. astoundingly almost 5 times that of Manitoba! The folks in Manitoba and at the CSA ought to have a long, hard look at these numbers and ask some tough questions of themselves. Now if we compare these provincial and national numbers to 2006 and 2011 data the picture is desperately grim.

GrowingTheGame - Table 2

Nunavut will be excluded from the following discussion as this is its first appearance with records kept and thus it has no rate of change to be established at this time. Remarkably, 8 out of 12 provinces and territories show an average decline of 1.25% in participation rates between 2011 – 2016. Only 4 jurisdictions have experienced an increase in participation rates averaging 1.24%  and this value is largely brought up by significant gains in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The result is a national participation rate decline of almost ¾ of a percentage point between 2011 – 2016.

While provincial records for 2006 were unavailable, we see that nationally the participation rate further declines to almost one full percentage point over the period of 2006 – 2016. Table 3 gives us a better picture of what exactly this means.

GrowingTheGame - Table 3

A 0.78% decline in our national participation rates from 2006 – 2016 equates to a loss of 44,512 youth soccer players or a decline of 6.22% in registered youth soccer players from 2006. That’s the equivalent of a small Canadian city, a staggering loss for a single decade! With only four jurisdictions in the whole of Canada showing gains in youth soccer participation and an overall loss of almost 45,000 youth players over the past decade, we most certainly are NOT #GrowingTheGame.

The quandary with this statistically significant decline in youth soccer registrations and participation rates is that it comes during arguably the most progressive decade in Canadian soccer history. So did we get it wrong? Is our chosen path over the past decade the wrong way forward? No. I don’t believe the observed declines are the direct result of any of the policies and initiatives implemented over the past decade rather, they are more likely linked to the policies and initiatives that have not been implemented.

While some, particularly within governing bodies, suggest that the soccer community as a whole represent the game and thus are responsible for its growth, both common sense and science show that growth is inherently organic when the right conditions exist. In the world of youth sport, these conditions are created through sound player-centric policy and the appropriate collection and allocation of material and human resources, none of which the broader soccer community (i.e. players and parents) have any control over. Therefore the onus is on the decision makers of our national, provincial and leagues governing bodies to create the necessary conditions conducive for real growth of the grassroots base.

Over the past decade there has been unprecedented cooperation between the CSA and its provincial member associations. From this cooperation, the CSA driven initiative Long Term Player Development (LTPD) was born. The CSA is now following this up with its Club Charter program, in draft form at least, it’s primarily composed of cosmetic standards for the branding and operations of clubs while reinforcing the commitment to the LTPD initiative. “These are great and necessary initiatives to improve the experience for our participants but do not address the root problem with soccer in Canada – growth. Canada has no cultural connection to the game of soccer, we don’t get excited about soccer like we do hockey” (Kellough, 2015a). “If Canada is to succeed at soccer, as it has in other sports, our growth and development models must be culturally driven and technically sound” (Kellough, 2015b). If we truly want to live up to the #GrowingTheGame moniker, the solution may very well be found in futsal.

Futsal as the Catalyst for Cultural Change

It’s simply not debatable, the best footballing (soccer) nations, developing the best players have a cultural connection to the game much the same way Canada does with hockey. If we are truly serious about wishing to join this group of nations one day, we too must establish a cultural connection to soccer. Doing so is the only way for Canada to achieve growth and technical development in the game and the most basic, affordable and organic way to do this is through Futsal.

While I believe it is imperative we develop an affordable national futsal infrastructure framework (Kellough, 2015b), the time component to complete this is simply too long to remain idle for the interim. We need to take immediate measures that will provide immediate benefits, get kids playing the game right now. But where? The only thing more ubiquitous than hockey rinks in Canada is schools!

futsal-school-4Canada Soccer and it’s provincial member associations should advocate to have futsal included in the lunch hour intramural and after school sports programs in every middle and high school across this country. But here’s the catch. That’s as far as their involvement goes! These are school run programs, not sanctioned programs for the hierarchy of governing body’s to capitalize on and syphon player fees! Supervision should be the extent of adult involvement here, particularly during the middle school years which coincide with the golden age of learning and player development. Clubs, private enterprise and certified coaches need not apply unless they are happy to be a pro bono babysitter. These need to be non-structured free-play programs, open to all at no cost… the last frontier of affordable soccer in Canada! These programs may, for many possibly, be their first introduction to what will hopefully become a lifelong passion or for experienced players, an opportunity to fall back in love with the game. Youth sports have become a big business in North America and with so many competing interests, the notion of “pickup”, “free-play” in the park has become extinct in Canada. We have scheduled, structured and coached creativity, independent thought and fun almost completely out of youth sports.

Indeed there is little incentive to provide youth programming of any kind that doesn’t generate revenue, sadly this is the world we live in. That said, there is plenty of opportunity for both cash strapped schools and soccer’s governing bodies to “cash in” on futsal while still making it a much cheaper alternative to the currently skyrocketing costs to play soccer even at the recreational level. As awareness and participation in futsal grows, largely in part because of the implementation of school based programs, opportunity to add to the paltry eleven sanctioned leagues recognized by Futsal Canada will grow. Sanctioning of course means money in the coffers of governing bodies; however, schools undoubtedly have a much greater potential to pad their ailing pocket books by renting out gymnasium time in the evenings to both sanctioned and unsanctioned adult and youth futsal leagues.

A big part of the appeal of futsal is that it can be played in the ubiquity of small spaces with few people comparatively to its big brother – soccer. Less is more! I know from many, many years as a player, coach and administrator that team viability is a significant problem facing many clubs and leagues in youth soccer, particularly in the older age groups. Unfortunately it isn’t uncommon for teams of 8-12 committed players to disband due to insufficient roster sizes. Many of these players don’t find other teams to play with and end up leaving the game meanwhile, that same group of players could easily form a futsal team and remain connected to the game.

The affordability and infrastructure availability of this plan makes for a viable first phase to building a cultural connection with soccer in Canada. However, despite being public schools, one cannot simply gather some friends or strangers for a pickup game of futsal in the local school gym. This is why it remains essential that we develop a national futsal infrastructure framework to complement the growth of futsal in structured and unstructured environments thus developing the cultural connection to the game of soccer that is essential to actually #GrowTheGame.

“Our collective cultural passion for hockey is aided by our international success but is rooted in the accessibility of the game at the most basic grassroots level. The vast majority of Canadians love of hockey does not stem from time playing in structured youth leagues at exorbitant costs of $5,000 – $20,000 per season. The average Canadian relates to hockey from the time they spent playing on Canada’s infinite supply of frozen water with their buddies at a cost even the most financially challenged can afford. And when the lakes, ponds and rivers are melted, we are constantly reminded of our hockey loving culture every time we pass by the endless supply of outdoor rinks and arenas in EVERY urban and rural community across Canada. I’ve been told youth hockey is not without its issues but at least the most basic grassroots need – accessibility – is not one of them” (Kellough, 2015b).