March 12, 2009
The Camp Economy's Wide Reach

Soccer camps are a big part of the nation's multi-billion dollar summer camp business and impact several levels of the American game.

By Mike Woitalla (from the March issue of Soccer America)

About three decades ago, when I was in elementary school, my P.E. teacher pulled me aside and asked, "You're into soccer, right?"

I nodded. He then said he needed to learn the rules. I found that promising, surmising that maybe we'd start playing more soccer at P.E. I told him I could help him out. At home, my father and I searched through our soccer books and magazines until we found a concise summary of the rules that I could bring the teacher.

We still hardly ever played soccer at P.E., but the following summer I discovered that this neophyte to the game had launched his very own summer soccer camp. He had even photocopied the rules I'd given him and handed them out to his campers.

I remember asking my dad how someone who knew next to nothing about the sport could launch a soccer camp. That may have been when I learned the word entrepreneur. The P.E. coach recognized a good business when he saw it.

Of course, I never attended his camp. But I did go to three soccer camps, and I remember enjoying every minute. My first one was in Texas, run by the NASL's Dallas Tornado. I couldn't believe that Ron Newman - the team's head coach! - was coaching us. I remember how much we laughed at his jokes when he demonstrated. And the players I idolized when I watched them at Texas Stadium were on the field with us as well. These were guys I would wait for outside the locker room to get autographs and now I was spending the entire day with them. I couldn't believe how lucky I was.

The next couple of camps I attended, still in my pre-teens, were at Iolani, my new school in Hawaii where I hoped to play varsity soccer. The camp counselors were current varsity players. I admired them almost as much as the pros in Dallas. And I remember always keeping an eye out to see if the varsity coach, Bob Barry, was watching when I played, and trying so hard to impress. A few years later, I was one of the counselors.

Those soccer camps were the only summer camps I ever attended. Times have changed, of course, and now it's the norm for children to fill most of their summer weeks at a wide variety of camps.

Households in which both parents work have reached the 75 percent mark in the USA, and camps provide a child-care option while promising to teach children particular skills.

There are cooking camps and drama camps. Art camps and language camps. Science camps and chess camps. Rock 'n' roll camps and rock-climbing camps. And lots and lots of soccer camps - for kids who can barely walk and for teens who might become stars.

Chances are, if you're a parent, you're camp-shopping right now. And pretty soon you'll be digging up the tax ID numbers for the camps your child attended last summer in case you can take the Child and Dependent Care tax credit.

"My camps were never about childcare," says Hubert Vogelsinger, one of the pioneers of American soccer camps. "We had some kids who weren't that enthusiastic about soccer, but were just dumped off by their parents who wanted to get rid of them for a few weeks. They didn't make it. I'd give them their money back and send them home."

Vogelsinger immigrated to the USA in 1961 from Austria, where he was a pro player. After he became head coach at Yale, high schools in the area kept asking him to come by and help teach their players shooting skills. He finally suggested that instead of him visiting the various schools, all the players meet at one place. That led to his first camp, a gathering of 60 players, and the Vogelsinger Academy was born.

Vogelsinger's camps spread around the country, attracting 3,000 campers annually. Five years ago, after more than four decades of running his camps, Vogelsinger sold the enterprise to Nike.

"I never did it for the money, but because I loved soccer and it helped kids get into it and become better players," Vogelsinger says. "But I did make good money."

When Vogelsinger and other camp pioneers launched their programs, youth soccer was just starting to spread across the USA. Coaches with a soccer background were rare at the grassroots level, so the camps provided a unique opportunity for youngsters to be around real soccer people. Children who played traditional American sports were much more likely than soccer players to get good coaching at school, the rec center or with their teams.

"There were some basketball camps [in the 1960s] when I started my camps," said Vogelsinger, "but I think the other sports got into it more heavily because of what happened in soccer. The soccer was not the beginning of sports camps - and there were lots of camps where kids played various sports - but the idea of specializing was heavily influenced by the soccer."

Joe Machnik worked at Vogelsinger's camps before launching No. 1 Soccer Camps in 1977 and today Machnik's camps are in 20 locations around the nation.

"More kids began to play, so the camps grew, and then girls started, and soccer camps exploded," says Machnik. "When I started in 1977, if we had 150 kids, we had 10 girls. But now it's sometimes more than 50 percent girls."

Colleges soon recognized the benefits of having their soccer coaches run camps. Jerry Yeagley at Indiana and I.M. Ibrahim at Clemson were pioneers on that front. Universities provided facilities at little or no cost for the camps, and the coaches could supplement their salaries from the soccer camp cash cow.

When John Rennie arrived at Duke in 1979, his assistant coach was earning $500 a season. Launching a lucrative camp program enabled Rennie's assistant coaches to earn a living wage.

"The camps were tremendously important for retaining and getting assistant coaches," Rennie says. "Now the NCAA allows more salary for assistant coaches, but even now the income they get from camps is a major supplement."

The camps also attract players hoping to play college ball. "It's very beneficial in recruiting," says Rennie.

Louisiana product Jason Kreis, currently head coach of MLS's Real Salt Lake and MLS's third all-time leading scorer, starred at Duke after attending Rennie's camp.

"We never knew who Jason was," Rennie said. "He was going into his senior year in high school, he came to camp that summer, and by the end of camp he pretty much had a scholarship to Duke."

Camps don't just help finance college programs. The USL, with more than a hundred pro, semipro and amateur teams around the nation, also takes advantage of the camp income.

"A good majority of the teams utilize the camps not only for their own personal business but to provide the players an opportunity to supplement their income, or to give players who are not being paid an opportunity to earn some money during the summer," says USL spokesman Gerald Barnhart. "It's also an opportunity for players to get their feet wet in coaching while they're still playing."

That Americans send more children to camps than any other nation in the world hasn't gone unnoticed. British coaching firms send thousands of coaches to the USA each summer to run camps. Preceding David Beckham's arrival to MLS by two years was the Beckham Academy in Southern California. MLS itself has a camp network spread over 44 states. And many youth clubs have entered the camp business to provide their coaches and trainers with extra income.

By hosting camps (and soccer classes) year-round, indoor facilities can significantly add to their annual revenue - one firm promises up to $200,000 to arenas that host their programs.

Just how huge the camp industry has gotten is reflected in the trend to attract younger players - however debatable it might be whether 18-month-olds need soccer classes to "build their self-esteem" or whether 4-year-olds are ready to be trained on "dribbling, turning, stopping, passing and shooting."

"Everybody's got a camp now," says Rennie. "Everybody."

(This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)