Scoring Chance


Although soccer’s popularity as a spectator sport is surging in the U.S., growth in participation remains at a standstill. Outdoor soccer participation totaled 11.4 million players in 2018, a decline of 4.3 percent from 2017, according to the SFIA 2019 Topline Report. Of those players, 64.8 percent were male and 35.2 percent were female. The six-to-12-year-old crowd accounted for the highest number of players (38.5 percent), followed by those ages 13 to 17 (20.5 percent), and 18 to 24 (14.1 percent). Regarding indoor soccer, the SFIA reported that in 2018 there were 5.2 million players, down 3.1 percent from the prior year, and the participation was predominantly male (68.5  percent male, 31.5 percent female). The 6 to 12 age group comprised 24.5 percent of the total, followed by college grads ages 25 to 34 (23.8 percent), and those ages 13 to 17 (19.7 percent).

As an interesting sidenote, despite dipping participation, sales of soccer balls inexplicably inched upward. NSGA found that in 2018, consumer reported retail sales of soccer balls totaled $113 million, an increase of 2.5 percent versus 2017.

At the high school level, the participation picture is a bit brighter. The NFHS reports that boys’ and girls’ soccer are each growing, albeit at somewhat different rates. “We are very optimistic and ecstatic that the sport continues to grow,” says Theresia Wynns, director of sports and officials at NFHS. “Right now there are more than 12,000 high schools involved in boys’ soccer, and the same number in girls’ soccer. There are more than 459,000 boys playing, making soccer the fifth most popular boys’ high school sport. There are also more than 394,000 female players, and soccer ranks as the fourth most popular girls’ high school sport.” She adds that the high school game is especially vibrant in California and across the Midwest.

Wynns points to referee shortages, as well as some rules conflicts between clubs and high schools (such as the fact that some states don’t allow players to participate on teams outside of high school during the season), as being two of the more challenging issues at hand. “The premier teams that U.S. Soccer [the United States Soccer Federation] is pushing impacts high school soccer, which is a problem for some individuals,” she says. “But we work hard with schools and agencies so students don’t get caught in the middle.”

Nevertheless, youth soccer overall in all its permutations – including a vast array of club, recreational and elite leagues – isn’t growing, and there’s no question that over the past decade or so, the sport has languished. This is a serious impediment, particularly as U.S. Soccer is in a building mode and is struggling to retain young players. Furthermore, the U.S. is now preparing to host the men’s 2026 World Cup along with Mexico and Canada, which presents a supersized opportunity to boost the sport’s relevancy and future here at home. On the national level the challenges are great, exacerbated by the fact that the U.S. doesn’t have a comprehensive national training center—something that nearly every other competitive soccer nation has.

“Soccer is pretty flat because there’s really no quality soccer at the pro level in the U.S.,” asserts Shawn Shams, owner of Phoenix, AZ-based Soccer Mall. “There are a lot of different levels, but at the entry level there’s not much investment by the parents. Kids play in competitive leagues up to about age 18, but there’s a huge drop-off after that because there’s nowhere to go from there. At least the women can get college scholarships, so there’s more to look forward to.” He reports that his women’s sales are doing well, but they only comprise about 20 percent of his overall business, whereas boys and men account for upwards of 80 percent. “The World Cup is the biggest opportunity to create excitement, but things will probably be pretty stale from now until then,” he says.

To Shams’ point, in the youth and high school ranks there has been criticism aimed at the sport’s governing bodies for a lack of outreach to immigrants and other underserved communities. There is also a matter of money—specifically, how much parents have to shell out to keep their kids involved at the club level. Once registration fees, gear, uniforms and travel expenses to tournaments are taken into account, the outlay of cash can easily add up to a couple of thousand dollars (and sometimes more) per season for select travel soccer. These rising costs are pricing a lot of children out of the game and are making the sport more exclusive.

The Dealers’ Percpective

Although soccer participation leaves much to be desired, many dealers have found their niche in the market, are succeeding with the sport and remain optimistic about its future prospects.

“Our soccer business is doing well and is consistent. The retail side is fairly flat, neither growing nor shrinking, and has been flat for the past couple of years. But team/group sales have been growing and are stronger this year than in the past. We’ve had a successful 2019 season in growth as well as performance, which includes quality and delivery,” says Sean Macklyn, owner of Scoreboard Sports in Bountiful, UT. “Looking to 2020, we want to maximize what we’ve learned to improve operations and processes, and will utilize our software and technology more.”

Scoreboard Sports is extremely well versed in the youth soccer market and continues to successfully navigate through its many levels. “The key is to offer more choices and price points,” says Macklyn. “Branded companies don’t offer all of the colors demanded by recreational programs. For example, clubs that have a lot of teams may need 18 colors, but brands may only offer eight.” Sizing is also an issue for bigger brands, especially when serving very young rec players ages 3 to 4, and fast turnaround is also critical. “We throw a wide net out. We seek out larger orders but still serve smaller customers,” he says. “Our strength is the club business.”

Although soccer participation leaves much to be desired, many dealers have found their niche in the market, are succeeding with the sport and remain optimistic about its future prospects.

Over at Valparaiso, IN-based Blythe’s Athletics, owner Mike Blythe reveals that his soccer business is up 5 to 10 percent in 2019. “We’re doing a lot of business with clubs and a couple have split which could add more customers. We also have a strong high school business, and being an Adidas dealer is very helpful,” he comments. “We try to get into the soccer market with a young age group, 5- to 6-year-olds, and then work to serve those kids and their parents well, and hopefully keep them loyal to us for years to come.”

Dale Keith, owner of Duke’s Sporting Goods, which has one store each in Elizabethtown and Bowling Green, KY, notes that this year his business has done well with schools, young kids and leagues and he looks forward to continued success in 2020. “We serve a majority of leagues in our area including big ones. We mainly handle rec leagues and schools—most elite teams deal directly with vendors. Sometimes you don’t really want the elite teams because they’re pickier; it’s their way or no way,” he says. “Youth groups are easy to work with, but it’s challenging because kids are changing sizes constantly and you also have to keep up with colors—you really have to stay on top of everything.” He adds, “Overall, club soccer is good. One club in particular, the Flames, is very loyal and a good account for us. They have nine to 10 teams spanning all age divisions and they’re a good group to work with.”

Serving the market for 36 years is Lloyd’s Soccer, a three-store operation with locations in Charleston and Greenville, SC, and Johns Creek, GA (just outside of Atlanta). GM Mike Walter points out that in the areas in which the business operates, the population has been growing and so has participation. “It gives us an opportunity, especially in the youth rec market,” he says. “But even as participation is increasing among 4- to 6-year-olds, kids are quitting soccer at ages 11 to 12 which is a year earlier than they were stopping a couple of years ago.” He adds, “We’re cautiously optimistic about the next 10 years—we’re a regional player and we focus on four to five key states where we know the people and the trends.”

There is a general consensus among dealers that brands need to be more consistent in offering products in women’s-specific sizes and silhouettes. That being said, a few other nuances also merit attention.

The Female Touch

Walter of Lloyd’s Soccer believes it’s important to watch the trends. “For some reason,” he says, “the trend for girls now is small shorts and oversized jerseys.” Meanwhile, Keith of Duke’s Sporting Goods has noticed that, “Girls tend to buy more than guys, especially spiritwear. They want to look good.” Blythe, from Blythe’s Athletics, concurs: “We serve more male teams but girls order more stuff than guys. Girls want a female-specific fit, meaning shorter inseams on shorts and smaller waist sizes.”

Scoreboard Sports’ Macklyn has come to realize that although girls buy more ancillary products such as an extra pair of shorts or more than one top, the brands support this but not all dealers do. “Many dealer [businesses] are owned by men and many buyers are male, and they tend to lack a female perspective,” he observes. Interestingly, he is finding that soccer lifestyle apparel is becoming increasingly popular among high school girls. Because players are required to wear team-approved uniforms and training gear on the field, they like the freedom of wearing more casual soccer attire off the pitch.

As many dealers know only too well, the Internet can be a great help or a monumental hindrance—and sometimes a bit of each depending upon one’s business goals. On the minus side is the dominance of big online competitors, vendors selling direct to consumers, and issues surrounding investment in technology. Opportunities include the ease of doing business via online team stores, and the ability to reduce timelines and fulfill orders more quickly and accurately. And through it all, making any improvements to customer service is key.

“Our number one competitor overall is,” Scoreboard’s Macklyn states. “On the rec side, there’s Score out of Southern California. Score is a gorilla in the space and is the Amazon of rec suppliers. It sells direct and has a huge impact on dealers selling to rec leagues.”

For Duke’s Sporting Goods, other, larger soccer specialty dealers are the biggest competition. To fight back, Keith focuses on keeping prices in line and providing top-notch customer service. “We just try to be fair and honest. Also, we call and stay tight with our coaches and the people in charge [of running clubs and leagues],” he says.

Adopting Technology

“It’s important to adopt to technology and to look at expenses and the overall operation of the business,” asserts Walter of Lloyd’s Soccer. “Growth comes with extra costs and you have to grow properly. There are fewer soccer dealers but there is still a lot of competition—it’s just coming from other sources. Consumers are always looking for service and it’s important to change and adjust to trends in the industry. We’ve found that people tend to buy more when they’re online, and that has definitely helped us.” In the end, “It takes a lot of planning and money to survive in this market, and we have to do a lot of volume to stay active with the big brands. We also try to bring unique product into the store and we hire soccer nerds. If you want to sell soccer, be soccer,” he says.

“Online stores often make it easier for clubs and teams to do business with us,” states Blythe of Blythe’s Athletics. “For example, we can offer number selections for uniforms online and then keep track of which numbers are taken. Also, online stores prompt customers to order quickly so we deal with fewer late orders.” He notes that for young players, packaging products together—such as shin guards, shoes and a ball—makes the ordering process simpler for parents and less expensive than purchasing the items separately, plus these packages can be offered online.

While online direct sellers may focus on price, Blythe believes that providing fast delivery can save the day: “The faster you can be, the less you have to worry about pricing.” Beyond the Internet, Blythe credits the ability to offer sublimation (which requires no minimums and can be turned around within five to seven days), plus having a four-person graphics team, with helping to grow the business.

For dealers seeking to grow and improve their soccer businesses, Blythe has a few suggestions. First, “Make sure you go to your supplier before your customers go to that supplier direct. Vendors need to be partners in your business rather than competitors,” he says. Also, because most soccer clubs and organizations have social media sites, it’s important to get and remain connected.

“Soccer kids tend to shop online more than because they want unique products,” says Blythe. “They know most soccer and team stores carry soccer product, but not the cool stuff—elite players are a different breed and you need to entice these kids into the store. If you don’t carry it, let them know you can get it.”

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