How Much Does a Soccer Scholarship Cost?

How much is your kid’s sports career worth?

Easy come, easy go. It’s just money, right?  Spent by the thousands per year on your middle school and high school aged soccer player for club fees, tournaments, travel, equipment, spirit-wear, food. And if they’re “good” enough, there’s the ODP State and Regional, perhaps National tournament travel and play. How much is enough to invest in the hopes of a soccer scholarship?

A Washington Post article from Feb 2009 estimated this amount at approximately $11,750 per year with a 3 year total of $41,150. Cortlyn Bristol, the athlete whose mother was quoted there, is in her 3rd year of play on a soccer scholarship at William and Mary. According to another member of her family, Cortlyn hopes to turn pro. “She has never had a summer job; all she knows is soccer.” But anyone who looks at her would say she’s successful; she plays college ball.

Bristol hails from the Northern Virginia area, but this is not just a phenomenon of the mid-Atlantic region. A family I spoke with from the Massachusetts area has supported their daughter’s dream to play collegiately. Her Dad says their family is frugal by nature, admitting they drive rather than fly to destinations where it’s possible even when the rest of the team flies. Still, he estimates they have spent approximately $45,000-$55,000 on her youth soccer career. This includes national and regional tournaments requiring week long trips the family substituted for vacations, booked at full freight due to last minute team selection notifications. Currently, this young player is red-shirting in her second year at topnotch soccer school in Florida, hoping she might break into the regular playing rotation. So far, she’s gotten “pity minutes” of playing time, according to her father. Success?

Both of these kids have made it to the college playing ranks. Their families have sacrificed much, investing not only money but time and travel, not to mention countless hours dedicated to driving them to various practices and events. When you add up the dollars, the sacrifice, and the intangible expenses, is it worth it?

How much is your kid worth? Surely, they’re priceless. But priceless is getting more expensive in youth sports. A few years ago a friend and I had a good laugh about a parent who actually brought his nine year old football player for personal training at the local health club. He wanted the kid to get a leg up on the competition.

No one is laughing any more.

Parents are flocking to “professionals” to put their kids through the paces in their sport of choice. And this, on top of the three practices a week the kid already attends. The thinking, I guess, is “if some is good, more must be better.” Let me buy my kid better. If we have the money and want to be responsible parents we are supposed to do all we can for our kids, right? But do we fund their dreams, at all costs?

That’s our hard earned money we’re spending, and let’s be honest, when we pay for something, we expect to get something for our money. Even if we don’t admit it, when we pay for training we expect our kids to play better. We expect playing time, wins, even state and national rankings.

If they don’t come, do we find another trainer, another team? Do we blame our kid for not trying hard enough, not wanting it enough, doggin’ it? Then insist he go to practice even though he’s exhausted, has tons of homework and is coming down with a cold because…we paid for it.

So, let’s look at our spending. What can you buy for about $12,000 per year? Last time I checked: annual in-state tuition at the University of Virginia, in state tuition plus room and board at the College of William and Mary, the same at George Mason University, maybe all 4 years at Northern Virginia Community college. You get my point. The families who have shelled out what elite youth soccer demands have invested the equivalent of a college education in their kids’ soccer, before they get to college. When it comes right down to it, we’re thinking “Some college program better want them.”

No pressure.

The reality of course is that while soccer opportunities across the country are growing, so is the pool of players vying for spots. An outstanding athlete must now be an exceptional player to earn a soccer scholarship at a DI school. (DII and DIII can’t match the funds) And most of these programs have already spent their scholarship money to lure the best players in by their sophomore year in high school. So, here you have spent thousands on your kid’s budding college career, only to find that the compensatory pay off may not be forthcoming. You start scratching your head justifying the expense: well …if you can get into a better school because of your soccer, …if you’ll have tutoring support because you’re on the roster, …if the travel and team experience will be worth it.

And wait, this is college after all, what about academics? Professional soccer is not an option but for a handful of these players, what if you’re kid is going to college to get an education (They still do this!) and play soccer along the way? What will the demands of collegiate soccer do to their grades, their social life, the rest of their college experience?

A few may even make the decision to forego the topnotch academics to accept the invitation from the soccer program that will take them. What happens if an injury, an illness, or an unforeseen event forces them out of the game? Will they still be happy with the college they have chosen?  That is the best advice I’ve heard on this topic, and it comes from the best coaches in the business, the ones who care first and foremost for their athletes as young people and not as soccer currency.

My oldest was an excellent youth soccer player. She had the physical gifts, the skills, the reflexes, and the game-sense to play in college. We anteed up to support her dream, so much so that my husband’s response to estimating what we spent was, “I don’t even want to know.” During her senior year of high school she told us she didn’t want to play college soccer. I had seen it coming; her love for the game was waning. The pressure she felt not to misstep in an instant and give up the game-losing 1-0 goal was heavy. She didn’t like being in a showcase. She didn’t thrive in an environment where it was “every man for himself” because the college coaches watching.

If I’d seen it sooner, I could have saved us several grand. But I’m glad she realized this about herself and she had the courage to say it. I’m afraid that in all that writing of checks we were so busy booking airfare and ranking colleges, we may have mixed a bit of what we wanted for her in with what she wanted. It took her confession of “I don’t want to play” to focus us on the most important thing: where she saw herself headed.

Today, she’s in law school at a top-ranked university. Academics and chutzpah are what got her there. Her professional success will require dedication, discipline and a whole lot of guts.  So, you tell me, were those years of top-level soccer worth the expense? That’s certainly where she developed the character traits she is wielding capably now on a new field of play. One that has more career potential. Could she have learned them somewhere else at a much lesser cost? I’m not sure.

Some of these kids, probably most that play at the elite level, learn best by putting themselves in motion; I call them kinesthetic kids. Kids that need to do in order to learn. Hitting the books will only get them so far. What they figure out they can do for themselves will take them the rest of the way. For parents, even the best-intended and most-resourced among us, this means offering the support we can and then getting out of their way.

But let’s be plain here, if what you pay for your kid to play soccer is what you have saved for their college tuition, say so. Make that choice as a family, and be sure the kid is on board and old enough to be part of the discussion. Money is a terrible thing to wedge between a parent and a child and even worse to dangle over their head. In today’s competitive youth soccer environment, it may be a little like playing the lottery and the undertones are reverberating in our families.

If you are struggling with how to manage the environment of recruiting for college soccer play, Diane Drake, Women’s soccer coach at GMU, has offers some helpful suggestions here.

Diane, who says they are recruiting “ALL the time,” recommends sending kids on the cusp of college play to camps where the college coaches and current players can get to know the kids and how it feels to coach them. The kid gets the chance to try on this kind of coaching and this kind of competitive environment. It’s not for every kid, even if the parent hopes so.

I talked with a family a few years back whose oldest child was captain of his DII U15 team. Mom told me she never missed a game. In fact, she confided, “If he quit, we’d probably end up in therapy.”

The day will come when they quit. Sooner or later, it will come. Let’s not end up destitute or in therapy. These kids are our world’s greatest natural resource. I’m thankful to all my kids’ coaches for being their biggest supporters and, at the higher levels, their toughest critics.

Someday, I hope they’ll have a boss like that. One who will see the spark in them and encourage them to play their game, the way it’s meant to be played. In my daughter’s case, that will be as ringer on the law firm soccer squad.

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