In 2021 Texans will have yet another Major League Soccer team to root for as Austin FC prepares to take the field for what will be their inaugural season. But overall, is soccer well enough received around the Lone Star state and is the sport getting enough attention to keep investors, sponsors and fans engaged and entertained?
“It is a hard question you ask,” says James Gordon, a Dallas area soccer development analyst. “Because Texas is diverse you end up with so many different variables and factors in play that it is just hard to give a yes or no answer.”
Gordon, says that he feels that diversity is what is really needed to see the sport thrive and survive in Texas. Experts in sociology from major universities around the state fully agree.
“The baseline is that you have too many hands in the money pot,” says Austin based economist Lavelle Pearson. “Statistics show us that in general the families of American based soccer players generally are more affluent and have a high level of disposable income to spend on soccer camps, specialized coaching and gimmick style programs geared toward making somebody some money.”
Pearson says that worldwide, that is more of the exception than the rule.
“In Texas and the U.S. in general, the sport of soccer is dominated by higher income families and oftentimes you see quality players being left behind because they do not associate with the societal click of the location,” he says.
State numbers show that communities like Frisco, Sugar Land, The Woodlands, North San Antonio and Round Rock have no shortage of avenues for entry into the highly competitive sport. Places like Longview, Abilene and Corpus Christi struggle with accessibility to the sport and while data collected on the subject shows that there is an interest in the sport in places like these, one thing is causing a stumbling block–money.
“Soccer is a religion to many people,” says youth soccer coach Bill Barton of Austin. “Like a religion, if you get pissed off at the preacher you go start your own church and that is how leagues are formed.”
Barton says that has been the problem with soccer since it really started to be put on the map back in the late 1980s.
“Let’s say you think your kid is not getting enough playing time or maybe you feel like the coaches are not doing a good enough job. What you do is go get you some insurance, secure a field someplace and start advertising a new league,” Baton says. “Of course then you start charging registration fees and so on and then…well, you can see where this is going.”
But then for older participants over the age of around 17 you have organizations like the USL that launched in 2011. While listed and operating as a professional sports league, it serves as a quality developmental location for athletes that wish to play at the next level in college or in the higher rated leagues like MLS. But the trick experts say is in youth development.
“The problem here is not children but parents,” says Gavin Lewis, a sports development manager in Houston. “The parents have to put their ego aside and let the children develop and not get involved.”
Lewis says that at this level it is not about winning at all or keeping stats–it is about getting playing time and learning good fundamental soccer. He also says that while American football coaches preach to kids that very principal, soccer coaches find themselves under high demand to win regardless of the age.
“I have seen parents keeping stats on 6 year-olds,” says Lewis. “And they will deny, deny, deny that they are doing it but you know damn good and well this is 100% about mom and dad making a claim for personal acceptance and being welcomed into the circle.”
But isn’t football and baseball like that here in Texas? Absolutely it is. But sports experts say it is more difficult to organize a Youth Football League or a baseball league than it is a soccer league.
“Sports is sports and parents are parents,” says child development expert Mick Reynolds. “Soccer is as much a parental social gathering as it is a learning event.”
But travel to places like Rochelle or Freer where the populations are smaller and the income and resources are considerably lower. While there might be a talent pool in these places, the access to the game is extremely limited. When you combine that with a lack of exposure to the sport, football and baseball will win every single time.
“Every year you have kids from small town Texas signing up to play at major universities or going to big league tryouts,” says Reynolds. “And those kids don’t have access to personal trainers and high priced instruction found in the bigger cities.”
In fact, Reynolds says that more and more college recruiters are scouting smaller, more rural schools because of that very reason.
“You have to get away from the so-called experts and get right down to heart, grit, guts and ability,’ Reynolds emphasizes. “No amount of money will buy that and no personal coach can really drive that home like a solid team approach can.”
So what does the future of the sport of soccer look like here in Texas? It just depends on where and how the ball bounces. Experts say that it is highly unlikely that any of the MLS teams will surpass the NFL, MLB or NBA teams that call Texas home anytime soon in gross revenue.
Bryan Brooks contributed to this report from Dallas.