ATHENS -- The question comes up every so often, especially this time of year, to Steve Holeman, the head coach of the Georgia women’s soccer team. He runs a summer soccer camp at Georgia, and a boy camper will ask if he can come play soccer for the Bulldogs.
Holeman has to shake his head. The men’s soccer program is nonexistent. Oh, there’s a club team, but if players want a scholarship they will have to go somewhere else.
And if they want to play men’s soccer under an SEC banner, well, forget it. The conference that rules American college football doesn’t sponsor a men’s version of the football that rules the globe.
The World Cup begins this week, and the state of American soccer is unquestionably better than it was two decades ago: MLS is a respected and viable league with good attendance, and the U.S. is a factor at the World Cup.
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But at the college level, especially in the Southeast, men’s soccer is nearly dormant.
“I would like to see men’s soccer in the SEC, for sure. I think it would be phenomenal,” said Holeman, who played on Wake Forest’s men’s soccer team from 1986-89. “I think we have an incredible base of talent on the boys side in the state of Georgia. I think Georgia would immediately become very successful.”
So why is it not even discussed? Title IX, with its requirement for gender equity in college athletics, is most often cited as the culprit. One of its tenets holds that the ratio of athletic scholarships given to males and female must be roughly equivalent to the student body ratio of the school.
Georgia’s student body is 57 percent female. So when football takes up 85 scholarships, that makes it hard to have a bunch of men’s sports; Georgia currently has 11 women’s sports and eight men’s sports.
“As long as the demographics were in that direction it would be very, very difficult to add any male sport,” said Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity, whose school also doesn’t have wrestling or lacrosse.
Then again, men’s soccer is an official sport in the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12, which are governed by the same Title IX statutes. That’s why finances play a role in the South, where soccer is perceived to not have many followers.
Two SEC schools do have men’s soccer teams: South Carolina and Kentucky, which play in Conference USA. In October, the Gamecocks and Wildcats played to a scoreless tie in Lexington, before a listed crowd of 396. When they met in football eight days earlier, the crowd numbered more than 82,000.
That points to the reality of it. If there was enough demand for the sport, college administrators likely would try to come up with the funds to make it work. But rich alumni aren’t exactly beating down McGarity’s door demanding that he come up with the money to sponsor men’s soccer.
“Once the World Cup hits the scene, people get excited about it,” McGarity said. “But it comes and goes so quickly that it’s like other sports that, especially in the Southeast, are not dominant.”
There are only three Division I men’s soccer programs in the state: Mercer, Georgia Southern and Georgia State. There are five more in Division II and six more in Division III.
But soccer supporters in Georgia say there is enough of a demand to sustain more, especially at the two biggest schools. Greg Griffith, the executive director for Georgia Soccer, points to the changing demographics in the Atlanta area: the growing Hispanic minority and refugee communities from Africa and Asia.
There are more than 85,000 registered youth soccer players in Georgia, most of whom (53 percent) are male. Georgia Soccer estimates there are an additional “tens of thousands” in unaffiliated local community leagues.
U.S. National Team member Brad Guzan, the top backup goalie, played at South Carolina. Clint Dempsey, a forward and one of the top Americans, played at Furman, so it’s easy to imagine him suiting up for an SEC program.
“There’s no question that the talent is here,” Griffith said. “We would love for there to be a program at the University of Georgia. I’m even more surprised there isn’t a program at Georgia Tech, seeing as how the ACC is one of the best conferences in the country.”