The success of the United States (U.S.) Women’s National Team (WNT) has encouraged millions of young female soccer players. With television viewership records being shattered at the 2019 World Cup, these elite athletes may inspire today’s young players to pursue the next level of their game, with the hopes of earning a college scholarship, signing a professional contract, or maybe donning that coveted red, white and blue jersey. However, the opportunity to achieve those dreams remains beyond reach for many girls due to the expenses associated with youth sport.
In recent years, the cost of youth sports has skyrocketed. During this time, physical activity levels decreased among youth from low-income backgrounds, and soccer exemplifies this change. Through informal interviews with several parents and coaches in the Northeast, we learned that a town recreational league costs anywhere from $200-$500 per season, and there are usually at least three seasons per calendar year (spring, summer, fall). More competitive club teams, meanwhile, typically cost between $2000-$4000 per year. One Long Island, New York, club listed their yearly tuition for 11 and 12 years olds at $2,875, excluding uniform costs and players’ travel expenses. The most prestigious clubs come with an even higher price tag. No matter what the level, these fees do not cover the costs of family involvement (such as hotels during tournaments) and/or training gear, which can cost thousands. Needless to say, the costs of participating quickly accumulate. Even though many clubs offer scholarships and financial aid, many families still struggle to get their children to and from practices and games.
Examining the Socioeconomic Backgrounds of Elite Soccer Players
Given these parameters, we wondered if playing at soccer’s top level was correlated with women’s socioeconomic backgrounds. To answer this question, we examined the social class background of elite level female soccer players. While we don’t have personal data on each player, we followed other scholars who have used athletes’ hometowns to approximate players’ socioeconomic status. We first researched the WNT roster and recorded all players’ hometowns as the place where they were born or raised. For example, Christen Press was born in Los Angeles, California but her biography indicates that she raised in Palos Verdes Estates, therefore her hometown was recorded as Palos Verdes[i]. We then looked up each woman’s hometown median income using the American Community Survey’s five-year estimates, which were based on data collected between 2013-2017. Because cost of living varies by state, we also examined how the women’s hometown median income compared to the median of their home state. This was calculated with two separate measures—the difference between the hometown and the state income and a ratio between the hometown and the state[ii].
According to our research, the average hometown income of a WNT player was $84,456. This figure is significantly higher than the US median income of $57,642. Of the 23 women on the WNT, only seven were from hometowns that fell below the US median. That means 69 percent of the athletes come from places with incomes above the U.S. median. Though 10 women’s hometowns fell below their respective state medians, only three women came from places where their hometown income fell far below the state median. Regardless of which measure we used, middle and upper class women are overrepresented on the USWNT.
The WNT consists of elite-level talent drawn from two major feeder systems—the U.S. Youth Development program and the U.S. college system. Therefore, we also examined the income distribution of players in those pipelines. Without extensive vetted biographies, we could not discern if individuals were born and raised in different places, so we used the hometown listed on their official biography.
We collected data from two college soccer conferences on the West Coast—The Pac-12 and the West Coast Conference. This sample contained 610 players. Ultimately, we were able to collect hometown income data for 560 U.S. born female players in these two conferences. Using the same income measures, only 100 collegiate players (17.9%) came from hometowns below the U.S. median and only 86 women (15.4%) came from places where the hometown income was far below the state median. The average hometown income for a collegiate player was $80,373. We also collected data from the Youth National Team rosters. These data include all women and girls who were on the rosters in September 2018. Of the 148 women listed on the seven youth teams, we were able to determine the hometown for 142 players. Their average hometown income was $78,920. Only 34 players (23.9%) were from hometowns below the U.S. median, and 22 players (15.5%) came from places far below the median.
Why Socioeconomic Background Matters
Overall, these data show that women from low-income communities are underrepresented in elite soccer. Pay-to-play sports enable girls from wealthy families to have more sport opportunities at all levels while constraining the chances of girls from low-income families. Further, due to the intersection of race and social class, women of color are disproportionally left out of sporting opportunities. Though the percentage of non-white players has increased since 2015, women of color still make up just over 20% of the 2019 roster. Furthermore, the five women of color who are on the team are not from low-income hometowns.
During this year’s World Cup, the fight for equal pay and treatment at the elite level has captured headlines. The 2019 team, inspired by previous generations of players, is making important strides on that front. However, we also need more measures in place that ensure soccer in the U.S. is accessible, affordable, and inclusive for future generations. Moving away from a pay-to-play model for all youth sports can help increase physical activity levels among all children while also ensuring that talented young athletes have the opportunity to strive towards the elite level regardless of their families’ income.
Jen McGovern, PhD, is an assistant professor of sociology at Monmouth University. Her research centers around how race, ethnicity, and gender interact to influence experience and opportunities within sport, exercise, and physical fitness.
Esther Wellman is a senior political science major at Monmouth University and a member of the women’s soccer team.
[i] Becky Sauerbrunn was born in St Louis, Missouri ($38,644) but went to high school in Ladue City, Missouri ($203,205). Because these two places are quite different, we used the median income for St Louis County ($50,936) where both places are located.
[ii] Hometowns where households earned less than 90% of the state median were far below the state median. In the dataset, this ranged from between $25 and $6930 below the median. For example, Julie Ertz is from Mesa, Arizona. At $52,155, Mesa’s median income is below the national median, but on par with Arizona’s state median ($53,510). Julie would be classified as below the U.S. median, below the state median, but NOT as far below the state median.