It is widely accepted that soccer is the most popular sport in the world — except, that is, in the United States, where football, baseball and basketball prevail. But with the growing popularity of youth soccer clubs, that just might change. Bubba Hunt, the general manager of the Columbus Youth Soccer Club (CYSC), thinks that this generation of soccer players is the one to do it, too. In 1996, six years into Hunt’s youth soccer career, he noticed an increase in the number of kids playing in clubs. Hunt attributes this to the inclusion of soccer units in elementary school physical education programs. The U.S. Youth Soccer League, the largest youth sports organization in the United States, has noted a dramatic rise since it was established over 30 years ago: from 100,000 registered players in 1974 to 3.2 million registered players today.
Locally the average number of registered youths is between 1,000 and 1,200; there were 1,500 participants in the fall season.
Joy Perez, soccer mom and treasurer of CYSC, has also noticed a definite increase in players since her oldest child started playing five years ago. Her four children, ages 5, 8, 10 and 12, all play soccer; the youngest started when he was 4, the oldest when she was 7.
Perez said that she loves that her children all play soccer.
“To me, because I’m a young mom, and with all the dangers going on, playing soccer keeps them out of dangerous situations,” said Perez. “It gives them something to do outside of school.”
Hunt reiterates the importance of keeping children busy, noting that “soccer is an opportunity to get (them) away from the television set and the Play Station and get more involved.”
Now more than ever children need to get up and get involved. Childhood obesity has risen from 6.5 percent in 1980 to 17 percent in 2006 and adolescent obesity from 5 percent to 17.6 percent according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Web site. Additionally, said Hunt, doctors are encouraging asthmatic children to play soccer to improve their respiratory ability.
Perez said when her middle child broke her foot, she couldn’t do much of anything for about a month. When she got back out on the soccer field, running around so much, she said she’d forgotten how hard it was and how much she missed it.
In addition to the physical aspect of soccer, there is a social aspect that is equally important. Playing on a team builds friendship and trust amongst peers, as well as a healthy sense of competition.
When Perez mentioned to her oldest that she could quit playing to focus on school or other activities, “She told me ‘Absolutely not!’ ” said Perez. Socializing and being with her friends is one of the things the preteen likes most about playing.
It offers children the opportunity to meet children outside of school. “They associate with all types of kids,” said Perez, which introduces children to diversity in economic status, religion and ethnicity.
Hunt says he often sees and hears families planning sleepovers for their daughters and going out to eat together after a game or practice. “It’s all about friendship,” he said.
Parents also get involved by cheering for their child or children from the sidelines, where they are closer to the action. Most other sports have spectators set off from the playing field. The interaction brings families together and “gives them something to talk about at the dinner table,” said Hunt. “The value I get personally is that it’s very family oriented.”
Even though the Perez children are half Hispanic, their background had little to do with their interest in soccer. Perez said she knows that most people assume Mexicans play soccer, but her husband, who is Mexican, wasn’t really into it when the children started playing. “He played as a child, but not since then,” said Perez.
Since the children had cousins who played, Perez asked the kids if they’d be interested in playing. Her husband has since signed up for the adult league. “I didn’t expect to be a soccer mom,” Perez said. “But I love it.”
Despite the notion that soccer is not “in the blood” of Americans, the number of youths playing the sport continues to grow. In Hunt’s estimation, the numbers for adult and professional soccer will start to catch up with other professional sports when “the children of today become the parents of tomorrow.”
Perez said she would encourage anyone to sign their child up for soccer, noting that it’s inexpensive and it keeps them busy and out of trouble.
Whether it’s the socialization, competition, physical activity or skills acquired in soccer, more and more children each year are signing up for the most popular sport in the rest of the world.
If soccer wasn’t in their blood before, it certainly is now.