Pay to Play Soccer: The Lopsided Reality in the U.S.

Pay to Play Soccer: The Lopsided Reality in the U.S.

Spending north of $3,500 on a 9 year-old to play sports is outrageous. Unfortunately, this is the reality of the pay-to-play system in U.S. soccer.

What is pay-to-play in soccer? It refers to soccer clubs and organizations charging fees to participate in youth soccer programs. On average, it ranges from $1,500 to $5,000 per year.

The biggest downfall of the system is that it is creating barriers to entry for low-income families and limiting the talent pool in the sport. At the same time, other countries continue to develop young talented players.

Even though it’s getting better, this has been a topic for many years. Just take a look at this video from 2017.

In this article, I’ll explain more about the system, lay out the pros and cons, and present possible solutions.

Understanding Pay-to-Play Soccer

The pay-to-play model has been a topic of debate in the soccer community for many years.

Some argue that it creates an unfair advantage for players who come from wealthier families, as they can afford to pay for better coaching and more competitive play.

Others argue that it provides a necessary source of income for clubs and helps to offset the costs of running a team.

It is important to note that not all levels of soccer in the U.S. operate on a pay-to-play model. Some recreational leagues may offer free or low-cost options for players, while more competitive leagues may require higher fees. Additionally, some clubs may offer scholarships or financial assistance to players who cannot afford the full cost of participation.

Where does the player costs go to? Typically, the fees for a player in a soccer club go to coaching, leagues, field maintenance, and other soccer-related expenses.

The Economics of Pay-to-Play Soccer

Financial Impact on Families

The economics of paying to play soccer can be complex. On the one hand, clubs and leagues need to generate revenue in order to pay for expenses such as field rental, equipment, and coaching salaries.

Pay to Play Soccer

On the other hand, the high cost of pay-to-play can be a barrier for many families, particularly those with lower incomes. This is even more of a challenge when there are multiple children involved.

For example, let’s run a couple of scenarios where a family is paying $3,000 for their child to play soccer.

  • Family 1: Family earns $30,000/year so paying for their child to play soccer is 10% of their yearly income. Combine this with our current inflation numbers and other necessary expenses, the family is left with very little or even negative every month. At some point, they need to prioritize their life, and leaving soccer will give them a boost of $3,000…enough for six months of groceries.
  • Family 2: Family earns $150,000/year between two working parents. This equates to only 2% of their yearly income. Although it’s still a lot of money to pay, they are able to get by and then some. If they keep the rest of their expenses in check, this does not put added pressure on the family and they continue to play club soccer for many years.

In addition to club fees, families must also consider the cost of travel, equipment, uniforms, and transportation to games and practices. These costs can really stack up. In fact, our family recently spent over $7,000 on our son’s soccer.

Looking at the two scenarios above, how can anyone think it’s fair for the families or the child? In reality, I guess we are part of the problem but we are left with no other option.

Pay to Play Mentality

Another challenge with pay-to-play is that it can create a “win at all costs” mentality. Clubs and coaches may prioritize winning over player development, as winning can attract more players and generate more revenue. This can lead to a focus on short-term success rather than long-term player development.

Pros and Cons of Pay to Play Soccer

Advantages of a Pay to Play System

Pay-to-play soccer has several advantages that make it a popular model for youth soccer in America.

Firstly, it helps to fund soccer programs and facilities, which in turn helps to develop the sport more. Without funding, soccer programs may not be able to provide the necessary equipment, training, and facilities to develop young players.

Secondly, pay-to-play soccer helps to create a more competitive environment. Players who are serious about the sport are more likely to join a team that requires a financial commitment. In theory, this leads to a higher level of play and creates a more competitive environment that helps to develop players’ skills.

Finally, pay to play soccer helps to create a sense of ownership and responsibility among players and parents. When players and parents invest in a team, they are more likely to be committed to the success of the team and the development of its players.

Disadvantages of a Pay to Play System

While pay-to-play soccer has its advantages, it also has several disadvantages that need to be considered.

Firstly (and most impactful), it can be a financial burden for some families, especially those with multiple children who are interested in playing soccer. This can lead to a lack of diversity in the sport, as some families may not be able to afford the fees associated with pay to play soccer.

Secondly, paying to play soccer can create a sense of entitlement among players and parents who have invested a lot of money in the sport. This can lead to a lack of appreciation for the hard work and dedication required to succeed in soccer. In many cases, parents have the attitude that the club owes them in terms of playing their kid or providing personal treatment.

Finally, pay to play soccer can create a divide between those who can afford to play and those who cannot. This can lead to talented players not getting a fair shot at the highest levels of youth soccer. This can sometimes lead to jealousy and negative behavior…and sometimes rightfully so.

Alternatives to Pay to Play Soccer

If you are looking for alternatives to the pay-to-play model in youth soccer, you are not alone. Many parents and players are frustrated with the high costs of playing soccer and are seeking out more affordable options. But, let it be known that players will have to level-set and understand that there will be lower competition. Here are a few alternatives to consider:

Local Recreational Leagues

Most communities have recreational soccer leagues that are open to all players regardless of skill level or income. These leagues are often run by volunteers and offer a fun and low-pressure environment for players to learn and enjoy the game. The registration fees for these leagues are much lower than those for club teams, making them a more affordable option.

This is great for younger kids that still learning the basics of the game.

School Teams

Many public middle school and high schools have soccer teams that are open to all students. These teams are often coached by teachers or volunteers and offer a great opportunity for players to represent their school and compete against other schools in the area.

The costs associated with school teams are usually minimal, making them a great option for families on a tight budget.

In many areas of the country, the competition is fantastic.

Scholarships and Financial Aid

If you are interested in playing for a club team but are concerned about the cost, it is worth looking into scholarship and financial aid programs offered by the club.

Many clubs offer these programs to help offset the cost of playing for families who cannot afford it. Be sure to check with the club to see if they offer any type of financial assistance.

Believe it or not, clubs want to create a community and they are willing to work with you.

Find a Subsidized Soccer Club

Some soccer teams are subsidized by their club which means the players don’t pay anything to play club soccer. In our area, there are a couple of MLS NEXT teams that are subsidized by their clubs. To further the controversy, the lower teams still pay so I think it makes up for the difference.

Solving the Pay to Play System in the U.S.

To be honest, I’m not sure if the system will ever change or get better. In my opinion, as long as the majority of parents continue to pay and the clubs provide the support then there’s really no reason to change. Have you seen the fields at soccer facilities? They are full so the system is operating like it’s intended to.

My optimistic mind tried brainstorming a few scenarios where it would benefit our system. Here are a few ideas:

1. Increase Funding for Youth Soccer Programs

One potential solution to the pay-to-play problem is to increase funding for youth soccer programs. This could come from a variety of sources, including government grants, corporate sponsorships, and private donations.

Of course, this money should be funneled in the right direction. It should be there to support families and not be put back into the club’s expenses.

2. Expand Scholarships and Financial Aid

Another approach is to expand scholarships and financial aid programs for young players.

This could involve partnering with colleges and universities to offer youth soccer scholarships or creating need-based financial aid programs for families who cannot afford the costs of competitive soccer.

By making it easier for talented young players to access high-quality coaching and training, we can help level the playing field and promote greater diversity and inclusion in the sport.

3. Develop Alternative Models for Youth Soccer

Finally, it may be possible to develop alternative models for youth soccer that do not rely on the pay-to-play system.

For example, MLS NEXT, Girls Academy, or ECNL creates a lower league where teams are concentrated within certain city limits. The costs are taken care of by donations and fundraising. But, it mitigates the travel requirements and raises the competition. These teams compete and one team can eventually get promoted to compete in their respective top league but costs are still subsidized.


In summary, pay-to-play soccer has been a controversial topic in the United States for many years and there’s no sign of slowing down.

While it has allowed for the development of elite players who have gone on to represent our country at the highest level, it has also created barriers for many young players who cannot afford the high costs of participation.

Our current system puts us behind top European and South American countries. In these countries, talent is priority numero uno. Players like Neymar Jr., who didn’t come from much, might have been a lost talent in the U.S.

Overall, I think the debate is here to stay for the foreseeable future. While there are valid arguments on both sides, it is clear that more needs to be done to ensure that all young players have the opportunity to participate in the sport, regardless of their financial situation.

I don’t have the answers but hopeful that even small changes will help some families out.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a pay-to-play system in soccer?

The pay-to-play system in youth soccer is a system where players are required to pay a fee to participate in a competitive sports program. This fee is used to cover the costs of coaching, training, equipment, and competition. In soccer, the pay-to-play system is used by many club soccer programs.

How much does it cost to play club soccer in the U.S.?

In the U.S., on average, it can cost between $1,500 and $5,000 per year to play club soccer.

Why is soccer in America so expensive to play?

Soccer in America is expensive to play for a number of factors. One factor is the cost of coaching, training, and equipment. Another factor is the cost of competition, including travel expenses and tournament fees. Additionally, many club soccer programs are run by private clubs, which can charge high fees to cover their costs. Lastly, its supply and demand. Parents continue to pay and the demand is high.

Beau Bridges - Soccer Novo Hey 👋 I’m Beau. A proud Dad, former coach and soccer enthusiast. I continue to love the game of soccer today the same way I did when I was 7. I created to share what I know about the game as well as provide a platform so other parents can learn more about youth soccer in the U.S.

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