While youth soccer is huge in the U.S., over the past few years the percentage of kids ages 6 to 12 has dropped significantly. Partly that's due to gains in baseball and basketball participation. Partly that's due to the burnout that results from pushing kids into highly competitive travel programs at a young age.
And of course, cost is also a factor that limits participation in underserved communities.
But then there are entrepreneurs like Mickey McNeill, the president of Global Football Connect and the executive director of the Mid-City Lions Futbol Club. McNeill's mission is simple: To help kids not only stay in soccer but to reach the next level.
And to become better people in the process.
To date, over 500 of McNeill's players have gone on to play (and more important, go to) college, and 14 play professionally.
If that success belies the stereotype of pay-to-play soccer, that's because McNeill's model is also different. His goal is to create a fully sponsored club business so youth players don't have to worry about having enough money to travel.
In the meantime, the players themselves bridge the gap: For a recent team trip to Germany -- to train six hours a day, play matches against quality sides, and visit sites like the BMW factory and the Dachau concentration camp -- most of the U-17 team raised the money for the trip themselves. (And more than a handful raised enough money to be able to attend school in England for the next year.)
Which comes as no surprise given McNeill's background. The son of immigrant parents, his father passed away when he was 6. His mother worked multiple jobs to put Mickey and his sister through prep school and then Dartmouth and Brown, respectively.
"My mother passed away 20 years ago," McNeill says, "and seeing how hard she worked, how much she cared about us, that's driven me to try to give back. And has enabled me to do what I love: Coach soccer, travel the world, and see the affect our organization can have on our players' lives. Soccer is an extension of life -- to see our players get law degrees, become professionals, it makes me incredibly proud. And I hope it passes on my parent's legacy in some small way."
That legacy also extends to player backgrounds. While the percentages change, the average team is 70 percent Hispanic, 20 percent African-American, and 10 percent Caucasian. That diversity results from a "quality people first, quality players second" approach.
"For a long time I thought I could 'change' people," McNeill says. "I still give it my best effort, but there are times you have to say, 'I'm sorry, but you don't fit our core values. At the end of the day, if the player doesn't realize they represent their family first, then the club and the badge, there's another club for you. We're not better. We're just us."
That's why teams travel in blazers. They look professional and act professionally. "They need to be able to look other people in the eyes and present themselves in a manner that garners respect, and makes them think well of you. Our club got noticed by an English academy, which led to building a relationship with that academy, because we're based on character and education first, then soccer."
Many entrepreneurs start a business for reasons beyond revenue and profit. Many have at least a partial interest in social entrepreneurship: The desire to do good, to give back, and to benefit others.
It's a business -- but one based on helping others.
"A player's 'job' is to be a good person and have an extremely high work ethic, because those things will take them wherever they want to go, on the field or off. When they see older players go college, go on to do great things, then come back and be mentors, they see the value in what we're doing. Especially for them. And hopefully that inspires them to someday go out and drop a little bit of Mid-City football on whatever part of the world they find themselves."
That's why, if you want to blend a social cause element into your business, make sure you care about the cause, and that it's addressing a problem you see in your community.
Start small and think of ways you can help solve that problem. Then, slowly, you can mount an effort -- and maybe a business -- around it.
Just make sure it's something you believe, not just something you do.
"I want to help our kids refuse to put themselves in a box, and do things they never thought they could do," McNeill says.
Which is a great definition of social entrepreneurship.