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).


Can Futsal Save Soccer in Canada

Everyone knows the Canadian soccer system is broke. It’s no longer a question of how or why rather a question of what can we do to fix it? Truth is, there are hundreds of things that need to change and decades of commitment to that change before Canada can ever hope of being considered a soccer playing/loving nation as the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) would like. We need look no further than to our good neighbours to the south – the USA. Once in the same boat as Canada, they are now at least two decades ahead of us and although not yet considered a world soccer force they are certainly now the team to beat in CONCACAF and enjoy regular FIFA World Cup qualification. Their award of the 1994 FIFA World Cup sparked a revolution in US soccer, spurring the establishment of a domestic professional league with a number of D2 and D3 league options, forced a plan to deal with the not for profit vs for profit quandary, and inspired regular lucrative promotional events featuring Europe’s and South America’s biggest brands. All this has helped build an appetite and has sold the game to Americans allowing it to grow in the USA. So is their growth model the example for Canada to follow? No, it seems to be working for them and that’s great but it couldn’t possibly work here. The American soccer boom has its roots in massive commercial and financial investment. With 1/10th the population and significant geographic barriers, Canada simply doesn’t have the financial where with all to adopt an American style growth model. 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. When a sporting culture is not present, there must be a catalyst for change, a ground zero building block to move things forward. What if futsal was that catalyst? What if futsal was the building block to create both the cultural and technical changes needed to save soccer in Canada?

Hockey Culture
If you don’t like hockey you’re not Canadian! Just kidding, or am I? That answer literally depends on who you ask. The cultural connection to hockey in Canada is as strong as any nationalities connection with soccer. Canada’s dominance in hockey is no more a coincidence than Germany, Brazil and Spain’s dominance in soccer. 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.

Why Futsal?
Simple. It’s proven to develop some of the worlds most technically proficient players, the skills learned are completely transferable to the full field game and implementing a nationwide infrastructure program is very much feasible.

Essentially a small sided version of soccer, futsal in its many forms has helped develop many of the worlds greatest players and is an essential part of developmental programs in most of the world’s top footballing (soccer) nations. Played on a small surface, 5v5 (4 plus a goalkeeper), futsal is a very fast paced game. It forces players to think and play the game much quicker than full field soccer; this conditions the mind to play under the most demanding pressures the full field game has to offer. In addition to mental sharpness and technical superiority, futsal is proven to develop creativity, player confidence on the ball and perhaps most importantly a sound transitional game; an area the CSA’s Technical Director, Tony Fonseca, identifies as a key component to playing successful soccer. Unlike the full field and modern versions of indoor soccer, players have nowhere to hide in futsal. They must be involved in the play and are often forced to make decisions and attempt skills repetitiously that they might not be forced to perform in variants of indoor/outdoor soccer. Many recognize some of our greatest deficiencies competing internationally include poor speed of play and effective decision-making skills, futsal forces the development of these key aspects. It’s ironic the single best tool to help reverse our shortcomings is not well promoted in Canada.

Building A National Futsal Infrastructure Framework
Like the endless stream of outdoor hockey rinks and arenas across Canada, we could have futsal courts in every neighbourhood and at a fraction of the cost to build and maintain. This can be achieved through a combination of building some new and converting the countless dilapidated basketball and/or tennis courts in every neighbourhood into refreshed multi-use community facilities. We’ve all passed the empty, local sport specific tennis and basketball courts. Why must they be sport specific? Why can these facilities not be multi-use to accommodate basketball, futsal, tennis, volleyball and many more? They can and many such facilities already exist, just not in Winnipeg and I would venture too few elsewhere in Canada.

Modular futsal/multi-use court installation. Source: http://www.weiku.com/products/12589512/Grid_Court_Indoor_interlocking_sports_flooring.html
Modular futsal/multi-use court installation.

Some of the newer and/or better maintained, existing facilities could be converted for a mere few thousand dollars with simple surface marking upgrades and the installation of anchored futsal goals and basketball net upgrades. If one wanted to upgrade from the typical asphalt surface to a futsal certified, multi-use outdoor surface these can be purchased from a variety of vendors ranging from $10-$20/m^2. If you work out the cost vs area permutations for an official FIFA size futsal court, you can purchase an outdoor grade court for as little as $6,000 – $17,000. That price can be lowered significantly, perhaps even halved if the court is purchased for indoor installation.

Governments and municipalities all over North America seek “healthy living” initiatives. They also tend to own several parcels of land not viable for significant economic development but could prove perfect for the creation of new outdoor multi-use community facilities. With a quick internet search you can find some basic pricing of what a new tennis court installation costs. For all intents and purposes, this would be comparable to the size and expense of a multi-use court installation. The basic rate of a new court ranges from $50,000 – $100,000. Broken down as follows:

  • Clearing/grading the land: $15,000 – $25,000
  • Hard/Clay/Multi-sport surface installation: $25,000 – $75,000
  • Fencing & Lighting: $10,000 – $15,000
Multi-use outdoor court. Source: http://www.gridcourt.com/en/product.aspx?tid=5
Multi-use outdoor court. Source: http://www.gridcourt.com/en/product.aspx?tid=5

Sounds expensive right? Wrong! This is a drop in the bucket compared to what most municipalities budget for recreation. To put things into perspective, let’s compare the expenses of refurbishing and building new futsal/multi-use courts to the price of building a community centre hockey arena. The new Seven Oaks Arena is a $20 Million dollar, double rink arena set to begin operation in Winnipeg’s North End this month. You read that correctly, $20 million dollars for one community centre arena in one neighbourhood of one Canadian city! Let’s see how far that would go towards building a national futsal infrastructure shall we?

New/well maintained existing community courts:

  • Assumptions: upgraded marking and new futsal goals/basketball nets required. No repair/upgrades to current surface.
  • Assumed upgrade cost: $5,000
  • Number of refurbished courts for $20M: 4,000

Dilapidated existing community courts:

    • Assumptions: upgraded markings and new futsal goals/basketball nets required. Current surface requires significant repair or replacement.
    • Assumed upgrade cost: $10,000 – $25,000
    • Number of refurbished courts for $20M: 800 – 2,000

Brand new court construction:

      • Assumptions: built on municipal owned land, no acquisition costs.
      • Assumed build cost: $50,000 – $100,000
      • Number of new multi-use courts for $20M: 200 – 400

Manitoba has a population (2014) of 1.2 million people, 65-70% of whom live in Winnipeg. To serve that population we have approximately 244 outdoor rinks and arenas across the province. Of those, 94 are arenas with 28 of those arenas in Winnipeg. Astonishingly, the budget to build just one arena, the new Seven Oaks Arena, could more than cover the total costs of building a futsal infrastructure capable of supporting the entire population of Manitoba! Granted not all arenas are as lavish as the new Seven Oaks Arena but todays replacement cost of a modern single rink, hockey arena ranges between $3 – 10 Million dollars! The International Ice Hockey Federation provides a guide for building basic hockey rink arenas and value their cost  at 2.5 million euros or 3.4 million dollars Canadian. Ignoring the fact there are a number of multi-rink arenas in Manitoba already thus greatly increasing their value, our 94 arenas in this province have a combined value of $282,000,000 – $1 Billion! This could build 2,800 – 10,000 brand new multi-use courts or refurbish as many as 56,400 – 200,000 existing courts depending on current condition. Astonishingly, the value of Manitoba’s arenas alone could potentially finance an entire nationwide futsal infrastructure program!

Nickel and dime the futsal refurbishment and new construction cost estimates if you wish, inflate them by a ridiculous 100% even. The fact indisputably remains that the cost to implement a national futsal infrastructure program pales in comparison to what we already spend on hockey, but my oh my look how that investment has paid off.

Leading the Charge for Change
Some argue that we don’t produce enough talented players and the corrective action is to introduce clear player pathways and universal training methods. Few disagree these are necessary but it’s kind of like putting the horse before the cart. These measures don’t exactly grow and promote the game rather they improve the processes in place for current and future participants. No matter how clear the developmental path or how good the developmental methods, the size and quality of a player pool is culturally dependent.

As the official governing bodies of soccer across Canada, the CSA and its Provincial Member Associations are responsible for the promotion and growth of soccer in Canada. In order to achieve this, they need to establish a cultural connection to the game and make it freely accessible. They should be leading a charge to partner with federal, provincial and municipal governments as well as reaching out to other sporting agencies with similar objectives like Basketball Canada and/or Tennis Canada to pool resources and fund a national futsal/multi-use court infrastructure.

Cultural identification lends itself to sporting success, there is much proof of this in the world of sport. Reducing access constraints at the grassroots level is crucial to building a cultural identification with a sport. A national futsal infrastructure is economically feasible and capable of building the cultural and technical foundations of the developmental model necessary to grow the game of soccer in Canada. Tasked with the promotion and growth of soccer, our national and provincial governing bodies need to be the primary advocate for developing such an infrastructure framework while partnering with government and sporting bodies with similar vested interests to secure the funding necessary. Financial investment, player pathways and development models are all great and necessary initiatives in building a national sporting program but passion and cultural identification are required for building a successful program.


Banner image source: Nick’s World Cup Brazil 2014