Wednesday, 30 July 2014

He Might Be Right

Pedro Morales is a pretty good soccer player. He currently stars for the Vancouver Whitecaps in the MLS, and he's revitalized a Vancouver soccer community that needed a star to help spark the fire in rekindling the interest in the game. While he's been embraced by the soccer community as a phenom with the ball, the Chilean midfielder still struggles with the English language at this time. When being asked questions by reporters, he can occasionally offer up a thought that might ruffle some feathers on the outset.

Craig MacEwan from Sportsnet caught up with Morales who was asked if soccer's popularity is growing in Canada and across the MLS from his perspective. Morales' response was one that caught everyone, including teammate and fill-in translator Omar Salgado, off-guard.
"Soccer can take over hockey one day in Canada. It should happen in ten to 20 years," Morales proudly stated before the Whitecaps boarded their flight to Chicago where they'll play the Fire on Wednesday night.
That'sa pretty bold statement by Morales in a country that is obsessed with hockey. However, and this may raise some eyebrows, he actually may be closer to the truth than he is away from it. Hear me out on this one.

Hockey is an expensive game to play nowadays. Between equipment, tournaments, indoor ice rentals, travel, and league registration fees, the cost of playing hockey has become astronomical for parents today. With the rate that kids grow up, the cost of keeping them in equipment that fits can mean new equipment year after year as they develop into adults. In other words, hockey is becoming a sport that is better suited for those that either have the money upfront and can afford it or for those that are willing to sacrifice a number of smaller things so their kids have a shot at the NHL one day.

The CBC published a report on September 30, 2013 that looked at a number of issues that parents face when choosing sports for their kids. According to the CBC's report, the average cost to outfit a child in hockey equipment is about $740 annually. Comparatively, to outfit a child in soccer gear averaged out around $160 annually. If you're doing the math, that's a $580 difference annually when it comes to outfitting your child in gear. I'm pretty sure that families can use $580 in a multitude of ways when it comes to the overall household budget.

Secondly, we already know that soccer registration numbers are higher than hockey numbers in Canada for children aged 14-and-under. In fact, 42.3% of kids 14-and-under already practice soccer - a number that nearly beats swimming, ranked second at 24.1%, and hockey, ranked third at 22%, combined. In other words, soccer is currently the sporting choice for Canadian kids 14-and-under.

Now you might be asking about adults since they're making the decision for their kids. Consider this fact dug up in the July 15, 2014 article of MacLean's magazine: "Canadians bought more than 29,000 tickets to this year's World Cup matches, according to FIFA. We outranked all other nations that didn't qualify, and were behind only 10 nations that did." Also in that article was this gem: "An estimated 3.1 million Canadians tuned in July 9 to CBC's English-language broadcast of the Argentina-Netherlands semifinal — just 200,000 short of the 3.3 million who watched the final game between the Rangers and Kings."

It doesn't stop there, though. MacLean's Amanda Shendruk also wrote,
Canada ranks ninth in the world when it comes to registered athletes in soccer. According to a 2006 FIFA census, one in 39 Canadians is enrolled in the sport at some level. By comparison, one in 40 Italians plays. In the United States, it's one in 72. Germany ranked the highest with one soccer athlete for every 14 people.
That's a staggering number of Canadians playing a sport that we've long ignored in our own borders. Hockey is held onto like it's the most valuable identity we possess, but we might be clinging to something that is losing its luster because of the high cost of playing that sport. Here's a graphic by Miss Shendruk that helps illustrated the above paragraphs.

We saw the images from Brazil of shoeless kids playing soccer on a beach or in a dusty field. All they needed was a ball and the willingness to participate in order to play soccer. They didn't need nets or sidelines or referees or indoor fields to play, laugh, and enjoy the sport. Soccer is the world's most popular sport, and it becomes even more evident in a microcosm when looking at Canada. Unless you were born into a culture that holds hockey so dear (Canada) or baseball as its pastime (USA), it's pretty evident that those sports fall off the radar for new citizens of those countries. Miss Shendruk wrote,
The Institute of Canadian Citizenship just released a national study exploring how new citizens participate in Canada’s sporting culture. The most popular team sport for new citizens is soccer — 18 per cent report playing the game in their new country. The pastime follows running, swimming and biking. By comparison, only six per cent of new citizens have enrolled their children in hockey or baseball.
There could be a vast number of reasons for new citizens not registering their kids in hockey, but the most obvious answers are usually the most truthful - they come from soccer-playing countries and cultures, and the cost of enrolling kids in a foreign sport for new citizens is not a cost they're willing to absorb. Personally, I know a few immigrant families who have settled into daily life here in Canada quite nicely, and they still feel the cost of playing hockey is far too high compared with the amount of enjoyment that children get out of it.

Additionally, Miss Shendruk wrote, "Nine in 10 Canadians think sports are too expensive, and 82 per cent know a child who cannot participate due for that reason" based on a CIBC report. 90% of Canadians think all sports in general are too expensive to play, and more than four-of-five people know a child who can't play due to the costs! Does anyone see a problem with that statement?!?

Let's keep digging, though. On November 30, 2012, The Globe and Mail published Roy MacGregor's article about the rising costs of the game. I'm going to highlight a number of passages below that should show you the state of the game in Canada. Here we go.
It is a refrain heard again and again across this country, which worships hockey as its national game. Minor hockey, most especially at the competitive level, is fast becoming an elitist sport rather than, as it once was, the winter game of the masses.
Elitist sport? That's a negative.
The cost of kids' hockey is of growing national concern, from the outdoor community rink to the offices of Hockey Canada. Registration has slipped in recent years and one estimate claims barely 10 per cent of Canadian youngsters aged 5-19 are playing organized hockey.
Registration has slipped, and estimates have 10% of kids playing. Not good at all.
There is no doubt that costs – even before registration – can be high. Given the choice between outfitting a kid for soccer rather than hockey can be equal roughly to the choice between walking to the corner store and chartering a helicopter to pick up the milk.
That's actually a pretty accurate comparison for a lot of Canadian families, and that's sad to say.
There is unfortunately a significant Apple Effect in minor hockey: youngsters successfully pressuring parents to buy top brands even when the equipment is far beyond the level being played.
I'm well beyond my "youngster years", and I have never owned a stick that has cost more than $50. In fact, I still prefer wood over composite when playing. Today's young players, though, are seen with two or three composite sticks at $100 per stick. That is sickening.

The cost of hockey is killing the game in North America. It's pretty much a foregone conclusion that more kids will play soccer than they will hockey simply because of how tightly-stretched a middle-class family's budget is nowadays. However, there are things that can be done to reduce costs for parents, and it's time that coaches and organizations to follow some suggestions instead of nickel-and-diming these hard-working folks to death. These include:
  • Get back on outdoor ice. While I respect the ideals that kids shouldn't be practicing in -40C weather, there's no reason why teams can't head outdoors in -10C to -20C temperatures.
  • Start mandating fun. Force creativity. Stop teaching systems to kids younger than 10 years of age. If kids have fun, they'll be back. If it feels like work, they'll walk away.
  • Wood sticks only. Kids are developing, and there's no way any of them have Brett Hull-like flex on their sticks before they are teenagers. Stop with the composite dream.
  • Equipment manufacturers should reward families for playing by offering equipment recycling. Bauer, Reebok, Easton, and the likes should give cash back for trading in equipment of a smaller size for a bigger size. And forget $5 or $10 off. I'm talking real value in trading up - half the value of the new equipment. Profiting off kids who just want to play is bad business.
  • More off-ice training. While drills on the ice are important, dry-land training is just as important, if not more important! Kids should run, play, stickhandle, and have fun while training off the ice. Why do NHL players spend a ton of time in the off-season working on off-ice training? Because it's important!
Look, these are suggestions. I know they won't all be incorporated, but I'd like to see one minor-hockey team do this for a season to see if they get the results they want. I think the social experiment would be intriguing, and I'd love to see how the team fares over the season both in the standings and growing closer as teammates. I'm pretty sure that the pocketbooks of the parents would be a little heavier, and that goes a long way to building better hockey families.

I admit that I am a casual soccer fan. However, I love hockey, and we're forcing hockey's greatest resource out of the game because of cost. Kids are our most important hockey resource, and the majority of them aren't able to play.

Maybe, just maybe, Pedro Morales sees the horizon better than we do at this point.

Until next time, keep costs down and the kids in the game!

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