Thursday, March 25, 2004

Soccer numbers rise again

2004-03-25 Morris Dalla Costa, Free Press Sports Columnist

Same old, same old.
For yet another year, minor soccer in London grew at an astonishing rate as it continues to prove it is the most popular and accessible of all minor sports.
It's become a rite of spring. When the snow melts, local soccer officials announce a big increase in their registration. Last year, the league operated with 281 teams. This year that number has increased to 295.
"We thought the numbers would be down a little this year," said Tom Partalas, a director of the London and District Youth Soccer League (LDYSL). "It turns out we have about 15 more teams."
In fact, they have about 30 new teams. With Ontario doing away with OAC (Grade 13), under-19 men's and women's teams are no longer considered to be youth teams. Those players now have to play in senior men's and women's leagues. Partalas says the LDYSL had about 20 under-19 teams.
While hard numbers won't be available until players register with those teams, Partalas expects more than 5,000 will be competing in his organization alone. Numbers also show the biggest increase again is on the girls' side of the game.
"Close to 40 per cent of the league will be made up of girls' teams," said Partalas.
The continuing increase in participants in the sport speaks to more than it's affordability and equal opportunity participation. It speaks to a hopeful future for soccer. Players would drop out of the sport as they got older because there was no opportunity for advancement.
"Now, those kids see there might be a future in the sport," said Partalas. "We have a lot of players, especially girls, who have gone to the States on full scholarships. Schools down there look very favourably at boys and girls from here. There are also a number of boys who have been able to get tryouts in England, Italy, Portugal, as teams like Grimsby and Perugia find affiliations with our teams."
Partalas also alluded to the CIBC's investment in Canadian soccer. CIBC will sponsor all 13 of the Canadian Soccer Association's men's and women's national teams to the tune of $4.3 million. That's a good news indicator to young players wanting to stay in the sport. There are more than 800,000 registered soccer players in Canada.
And just as the news about increased participation in the sport has almost become old news, so is the news surrounding field use.
Over the last year, the city has improved, lighted and manicured a number of fields for the use of soccer teams. It isn't enough since the league still has to rent a number of privately owned fields to accommodate all their teams. But with the money crunch at city hall who knows when recreational facilities will once again be made a priority.
"The city has taken great strides in this. They promised they would build and improve fields and they have. You have to say something good about them," he said. "But I want the taxpayer to know that we aren't getting a subsidy. We're paying for those fields.
"We told them 'build them and we will pay.' Well, we're paying. We're paying a lot.
In 2000, LDYSL paid between $25- and $35,000 in field rentals to the city alone. Last year the soccer organization paid around $250,000.
"When you consider what we pay compared to hockey," said Partalas. "Our fields get maintained once a week or 10 days. They don't get every day maintenance like hockey. We'll pay. In fact, we have to pay in blocks of 18-weeks for a field even though in some cases, a team's season is over in August."
The city budgeted about $1.9 million for improvements two years ago. But with the construction of some additional fields and the building of the jewel in all this, the North London Athletic Fields, the cost of improvements has run around $3 million.
The North London facility included constructing five new fields including an international-sized field. The site also has a building with six dressing room with showers, bleachers, a referee's change room, a concession stand and a garage/storage facility.
Nice and guess who's going to pay for it?
"I want people to know that soccer people are not beggars," said Partalas.
Point taken.


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