Girls Soccer and the Perversions of Capitalism…

Lets get this clear at the start – this post is not about any off-kilter sexual issues related to girl’s soccer (although I am sure there is a blog dedicated to that somewhere out there).  It stems from a recent conversation about the increasing cost, complexity, and competitiveness of kid’s sports in general and girl’s club soccer in particular.  The number that stuck in my mind was that the team uniforms alone cost $800 for a full set.  Shorts, shirts, kneepads, socks, and what in the heck else?  That is just insane.  But that’s the ante to stay in the game.

What really fascinates here is how cleanly this illustrates one of capitalism’s persistent perversions.  The free market is working its wonders here.  The results just aren’t that wonderful.   Economically rational decisions of individual, un-coordinated actors combine to create what is basically an extractive, coercive, parasitic “industry.”  AND that process has also sucked much of the joy out of its functional raison d’etre.  Not a bad days work for the invisible hand…

My best guess for how this particular branch of extractive capitalism evolved.

  • Ambitious, dual-income, uber-educated upper middle class families with tight schedules found it harder and harder to find volunteer coaches.
  • At the same time, ambitious, dual-income, uber-educated upper middle class families wanted to make sure their kids got “the best” so why not hire a professional?
  • So everyone agrees to club dues sufficient to hire some recent graduate with good soccer skills.  Costs go up, but the team starts to win a lot more games.  Other clubs see the impact and respond.  Pretty soon all coaches are pros.
  • The problem, of course, is that those coaches fail to remain recent graduates.  Their needs and expectations increase with age.  The short term-impact is a round of competitive hiring.  But the more entrepreneurial among them realize that the bigger and better money is made in expanding their new-born “industry.”
  • New entrepreneurial niches are exploited.  Specialist training workshops (big $$ taken from the most ambitious).    Specialist gear (like $800 uniforms).  Ever-expanding tournament and travel schedules (with someone taking a cut of fees to organize).  Underlying this all is, must, be paybacks flowing back to those front-line coaches.  I’d guess $100 of that $800 uniform is finding its way back into the coaches pocket in some way or another.
  • Of course, none of those niches prosper unless you can whip the consuming classes into a frenzy of keeping-up-with-the-Jonesing.  Of course, the target market for girl’s club soccer – high SAT upper middle class ambitious status conscious good schools maybe-a-scholarship? – is perfect for this sort of rat race.  Each season you turn the screw a few more times and the wood squeaks but it just holds tighter.
  • The key to all this, of course, is that the parents are the real consumers.  If you put 20-30 pre-teen girls in shorts on a field with a soccer ball, they’d find a way to have fun.  A few would probably have the natural desire to really work hard enough to try and get really good.  Even fewer would actually get good.  A (small) fractional number would get a college scholarship. The rest of them are doing the sports equivalent of sawing away until they can get old enough to age out of the goddam viola lessons.

All this money produces very little joy.  A fractional few lottery winners get a scholarship.  A few parents get happy uber-atheletes.  Others get unhappy or injured ones.  Most parents get shades of “meh” from their over-scheduled, stressed, helicoptered offspring.  And a few cope with the dark stuff that hyper competitive pre-teens can wreak upon their peers (or themselves) when given the chance.  Not a whole lot of happiness out of the whole thing.

The end result is an “industry” that is largely extractive.  The parents pay out huge sums.  A few kids get rewarded but the majority aren’t seeing much real return on that “investment.”  And the whole thing keeps spinning farther and farther away from the ostensible purpose to get some exercise, learn team skills, and have a little fun.  With each orbit, the dollars go up and the joy drains away.   The only winner is the house.

The key term in all this is the ante – “a forced bet in the game of poker.”  So many markets are defined by this sort of “forced bet.”  The really juicy markets are ones where the house can claim most or all of that forced bet instead of paying it out to the winner.

The perversion of this is that the game rigs itself.  There is no controlling mastermind.  Just people trying to get ahead.  A group of actors who guileless self-interest is to rig the game to extract as much as possible from those playing it.   But the end result is arguably tighter and more efficiently extractive for it – the free market is incredibly efficient in that regard.  But its outcomes aren’t always benign.

To my mind, this is a perversion of capitalism.  Society is NOT net better off from the workings of the market.  A few winners take all and a lot of people make (still small) livings off an inherently extractive industry.  But the working mechanism of that industry pretty clearly reduces the positive benefits of team sports for most of the girls (and parents) involved.  The net return in social capital is negative.

**A fun, related example.  Sometime in the last few years, New York State’s Little League mandated that at least ONE practice be a simple pick-up game.  The kids were supposed to just choose up teams and play a full game.  The key rule was that no adults could be involved (except as umpires I guess).  The kids handled it fine and generally loved it.  The parents and coaches had huge trouble.  A huge wave of questions and clarifications flooded the League in advance.  On the day, parents and coaches struggled to stay away (or even off the field).  I don’t know if they repeated the experiment, but it clearly was seen as just that.

***My other fun fact is that kid’s playing on organized teams don’t even get much exercise.  They spend a lot of time doing low-effort drills or just sitting watching others.  They’d be much better off just running around playing (badly, but energetically).  Baseball is particularly bad, but most organized sports appear have the same negative effect.

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