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Former soccer star Kyle Martino: 'Why have we turned it into a rich kid's game?'

Kyle Martino played Major League Soccer for five years, played on the U.S. Men’s National Team, and even ran for president of the U.S. Soccer Federation—but he doesn’t like what he sees in American youth soccer today.

When Martino ran for president of U.S. Soccer last year, he wanted to figure out why youth participation in the sport was declining in the U.S. He determined the biggest issue is access.

“That needed our attention immediately,” he says. “This is the cheapest game on the planet to play, the most accessible. Why have we turned it into a rich kid’s game? Let me deconstruct that, and understand why it’s this country club, elitist game, when it’s supposed to be blue-collar and invite absolutely everyone.”

Martino says an insidious narrative has developed in many parts of America that kids need fancy, well-manicured fields on which to play soccer. But in New York City, he says, “I was a bit blown away at the remarkable inventory of space to play this game in the way it’s played everywhere around the world. It’s a very blue-collar, inclusive sport that can be played on vinyl, concrete. And the fact that people are paying huge prices to get on grass, and get on turf, has created a real praying on parents and market confusion that drives cost up and kids out.”

Libyan displaced boys, who fled their house because of the fighting between the Eastern forces commanded by Khalifa Haftar and the internationally recognised government, play soccer at Bader School, which is used as a shelter, in Tripoli, Libya April 14, 2019. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
Displaced boys in Libya, who fled because of the fighting between the Eastern forces commanded by Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan government, play soccer at Bader School in Tripoli, Libya, on April 14, 2019. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

Martino has a series of new ventures to address the issue. His startup Goalpher installs soccer goals in the floors of basketball courts to make them “a multi-dimensional space.” The goals can pop up from the floor for soccer or fold back down and out of the way for basketball. Goalpher says it will roll out its product this summer in cities across the country.

Martino also became chairman of the nonprofit Street Soccer USA, which puts on programming for inner city kids in 17 cities, using soccer to spur youth engagement and community development. The board includes Zappos cofounder Nick Swinmurn and NBA legend Steve Nash.

And finally, Martino and Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley started Street FC, which aims to turn city spaces into soccer spaces. Martino calls it “SoulCycle for pickup soccer,” though he adds, “I hate that analogy.” (Dennis Crowley is also the owner of the semi-pro Kingston Stockade Football Club.)

Soccer, much like golf and tennis, is thought to be a sport where youth participation is crucial for fan interest in the pro game. So even as MLS rapidly expands, officials, pro athletes, and everyone around the sport says the growth of the pro level relies partially on the youth level.

“The drop in participation across all sports is a health epidemic,” Martino says. “This is a serious crisis that needs to be taken seriously.”

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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