INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — Nolan Johnston spent Thursday afternoon playing soccer in his backyard. It's really the only place the 6-year-old can play right now after his soccer club on the south side of Indianapolis had to cancel the whole season.
“It's frustrating, but it's understandable with the COVID situation. We kind of expected it,” said Heather Johnston, Nolan’s mother.
What the Johnston family did not expect is what happened next. Hundreds of families were informed the only way they could get even a partial refund from the St. Francis Soccer Club was to apply online for a special COIVD-19 Relief Fund.
“We paid $90 last fall, the day after registration opened. $90 isn't going to make or break our family. We’re still going to be able to have our needs met, but it's the principle of it,” Johnston said. “Members of the club, we want to know where did all that money go? We want our money back.”
Multiple St. Francis families contacted 13News to complain about the soccer club’s refund policy. Club member Hallie Brewer said the emails she received about the SFSC policy – informing parents they needed to apply for “relief” if they wanted to get a partial reimbursement for a soccer season that never happened -- “rubbed me the wrong way.”
Tara Byers, who registered her daughter to play spring soccer at SFSC, said she also objected to the club’s decision to offer only partial refunds for those willing to submit a relief application. “I have contacted them on several occasions asking for a refund, but I’m given the runaround… This is downright despicable,” she wrote.
That policy was quickly revised after 13News contacted the soccer club. But it illustrates the financial challenges and confusion facing both youth sports leagues and parents who are now navigating a pandemic that has wiped out entire sports seasons.
Soccer club offers apology
Late Thursday night – just a few hours after 13News contacted St. Francis Soccer Club to ask questions about its refund policy – the organization announced it would offer credits to all of its players, with partial refunds to those who submitted relief applications.
“The Recreation and Rec Plus spring 2020 members that requested a refund will receive a 50% credit applied to their SFSC account and 50% cash refund via check. Anyone registered for SFSC Recreation or Rec Plus that did not request a refund will receive 100% credit of funds paid to their SFSC account which may be used for any program,” explained SFSC executive director Steve Campbell. He said players registered in the club’s travel program would be eligible to receive partial credits and refunds, and he offered an apology for any misunderstanding about the organization’s handling of refunds.
“Hindsight is 20/20 and there are some things we wish we could have done to improve this process. We apologize to our members for any confusion,” Campbell wrote in an e-mail to 13News.
The announcement now brings St. Francis in line with the refund policies of many other youth sports leagues, which have had to pay overhead and operating expenses despite the cancellations of their spring sports seasons.
“This pandemic has hit our organization very hard,” Campbell told 13News. “As members of the St. Francis Soccer Club, we all share the responsibility for our 35 acre complex as well as many additional fixed expenses such as insurance, utilities, rentals, equipment and staff. This has been a financial hardship to our non-profit organization and we are doing everything in our power to be fair to all of our members while at the same time possess the ability to be viable for the kids in our community for the future.”
Most local youth sports programs contacted by 13News are providing their rec players full registration credits for next season, and many are offering partial refunds. (Most travel sports programs are offering more limited credits and refunds because those year-long sports programs were nearly complete when COVID-19 cancelled the remaining spring season.) Some youth sports programs, such as Circle City F.C. soccer and Eagledale Little League, are giving full cash refunds to all families who simply request a reimbursement. All of the clubs say their parents have been understanding and have expressed few complaints -- even in situations where refunds were not offered as an option.
So what was so different at St. Francis? The problem appears to be indecision and a lack of communication, according to those familiar with the league’s situation.
Leaders from several other Indiana soccer clubs spoke candidly to 13News about the St. Francis refund situation but asked not to be identified. One said the soccer club alienated its members by making refunds seem like a charitable handout from the organization, while another said St. Francis Soccer Club failed to clearly communicate a refund plan to its families when it announced the season was cancelled. “It was badly handled by board members who made an error from the get-go about what to do and how to do it,” a longtime soccer official told 13 Investigates.
The director of the Indiana Soccer Association, which represents youth soccer clubs around the state, said the financial models of the organizations vary greatly, and that necessitates different policies for different programs. But he believes all of the sports clubs are working to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in good faith.
“The one common thread I do find among these non-profit organizations is that they are made up of good people, doing a lot of good things for all the right reasons. I am confident that each of these non-profits will treat their members fairly and will manage the financial impact of Coronavirus-19 on their members and the non-profit organizations respectfully,” Dave Guthrie, ISA’s executive director, wrote to 13News.
Are refunds legally required?
Betsy Denardi, director of the Consumer Protection Division of the Indiana Attorney General’s office, said the obligation that youth sports clubs face after suddenly cancelling their seasons depends largely on their legal contracts with parents. Most sports programs require parents to sign an agreement when they register their children for a sports program. That document should include the refund policy for various situations. Most parents, however, do not read the fine print. And even when they do, some youth sports organizations have not developed policies that cover something as unexpected as a pandemic.
“If there isn’t anything in the contract or the sign-up does not dictate that, then the organization is going to have to look at what expenses they have and their anility to pay back any refunds,” Denardi explained. “If a business does not have additional expenses and is looking at just keeping people’s money as sheer profit, then we have to consider whether that would be an unfair business practice that would violate the Indiana Deceptive Consumer Sales Act.”
Most youth sports leagues do have plenty of expenses that do not simply disappear when a season is cancelled.
“It is difficult to explain how almost all of one’s soccer tuition is consumed before one’s child steps onto the field,” said Tom Geisse, president of United Soccer Alliance of Indiana, one of the largest youth soccer clubs in the state. “Some expenses are obvious: mowing the grass, goals, nets, painted lines, paid coaches, league registration fees, insurance, coach and referee training. Some expenses are less obvious to mom and dad.”
Geisse provided a list of those additional expenses to help parents better understand some of the costs incurred by soccer leagues. The list includes stipends and salaries for league directors and paid administrators; the cost to purchase and service lawn mowers, golf carts, utility trucks, tractors, seeders and top dressers; indoor and outdoor rentals for all winter training locations; and player and family outreach through Zoom calls, training videos and other activities.
When sports clubs have those types of costs, demanding a full refund may be legally indefensible if an organization would prefer to offer a credit or some equivalent compensation that allows it to retain funding to pay its expenses.
“At that point we have to look at and weigh the consumer’s interest in getting their money back versus the business or the nonprofit's ability to continue to operate. It's going to depend on each fact and each situation is going to be different,” Denardi explained.
Bottom line: Each sports club will develop its own refund policy to ensure it can meet current and future financial needs. Read your player contract to see if the policy being enacted is allowable and consistently applied. If it’s not, share your concerns with league administrators. If it is and you don’t like what’s being offered, work with club leaders to try to see if you can agree on an amicable solution.
What other youth sports clubs are doing
13News contacted the leaders of sports organizations around central Indiana to discuss how they are handling COVID-19 refunds. This is a sampling of some of those policies:
Zionsville Youth Soccer Association
The executive director of the Zionsville Youth Soccer Association said his organization offered its 700 rec players two options: a 100 percent registration fee credit applied to the club’s fall soccer season or a 75 percent refund.
“We subtracted a small amount for the costs to keep the fields maintained, which seemed fair,” ZYSA executive director Peter O’Scanaill told 13News, adding that the vast majority of participating families chose the credit rather than a refund. The 800 families that participate in ZYSA’s travel program were also offered a partial credit, although the percentage was much smaller.
“That’s a one-year commitment, and only the final two months were disrupted,” O’Scanaill explained. “I think the way we communicated with families was important. That made a huge difference.”
Circle City F.C. soccer
While it’s uncommon for a soccer club to offer full refunds to all players, that is what Circle City F.C. has decided to do.
“Our Executive Board voted unanimously to refund 100% of fees paid for the Spring 2020 season. This was for all divisions of play, Travel, Rec league and Rec Plus. Those who paid for travel for the entire year (Fall and Spring seasons) received a prorated return to reflect not having a spring season,” wrote CCFC president Anders Weaver. “It was an easy decision to come to when we asked ourselves a few questions that we use to guide our decisions: what is best for our membership (players and their families) and are we being good stewards of the money our membership entrusts us with?”
Anders told 13News his club has built up a “rainy day fund” that allows it to offer the refunds. The organization hopes it can use the 700 uniforms it ordered for the spring season (and now sitting in storage) next season. He said none of the club’s board members or coaches are paid, and that provided more flexibility to respond to the current financial crisis facing many of its members.
“Looking at how our community has been affected with furloughs, or losing their jobs completely, we felt it was necessary to return the fees paid. We also didn't want to offer a credit to next season as that didn't help a family that might be in need of those funds. We didn't want them to feel trapped. Not all kids return, some kids play football or another sport in the fall, some may decide another program is better for them. All that is ok and we wanted to make sure our membership has control of their money,” he explained.
Dynamo F.C. Soccer
Dynamo F.C. Soccer Club in Washington Township offered three options for players who registered for youth camps or to play on rec teams: a full refund, a full credit applied toward another camp or rec season, or converting the registration fee into a donation to the soccer club. Most Dynamo F.C. players participate in the club’s travel program, and those players were not offered a refund because club leadership says they already participated in much of the year-long travel program before the pandemic struck. Instead, travel players were offered a credit toward next season (ranging from approximately $100 to $400 depending on the age group) or the option of converting the credit into a donation to the program.
Dynamo F.C. executive director Ric Huffman told 13News approximately 60 percent of families opted to accept the credit while the other 40 percent contributed their credit back to the club. He said a small number of parents were angry they were not offered a larger credit or refund, but most were very understanding once the club explained its decision.
“We just laid out here’s where the money goes and here’s what we’ve paid and what’s already gone, and I think it really helps when people can conceptualize and understand that,” Huffman said. “This spring we were not playing games or tournaments. We didn’t have to pay referees. So we saved some money and were able to recoup some of our costs. But we made a decision we wanted to still pay our staff during this time because we need our infrastructure to exist. We still have a 60-acre complex that costs over $100,000 a year to maintain.”
He said offering club members no refund or credit was not among the options considered by the Dynamo F.C. board.
“We didn’t just want to say ‘Sorry about your bad luck. See you next year.’ That was never a consideration for us and I would not have felt comfortable with that. We were trying to find that space that was fair to our customers and families and also give us viability to stay in existence and stay afloat.”
United Soccer Alliance of Indiana
USA of Indiana soccer club, one of the state’s largest youth soccer programs for players in Indianapolis and its western suburbs, says the COVID-19 pandemic poses a huge challenge.
“At USA of Indiana we operate youth development programs at breakeven so when the club is hit with unexpected expenses or effects of COVID-19 like the cancellation of the season and income producing tournaments, it is devastating,” said USAi president Tom Geisse.
Yet the soccer club is still offering players in its recreational program a 100 percent registration fee credit for the cancelled 2020 spring season that can be applied toward the fall 2020 or spring 2021 seasons instead. USAI travel league players who return to the program in the fall will receive a 50 percent credit for their 2020 registration applied toward next season.
Eagledale Little League
Spring baseball has also been impacted, with COVID-19 wiping out most Little League seasons throughout the country. Some programs, like Eagledale Little League on the northwest side of Indianapolis, are planning to move their season to mid-summer instead. Eagledale is still offering refunds to any families that want that option.
“We put it all in the hands of parents. It’s not right under the circumstances to just keep the money, so we gave them options,” said Eagledale Little League president Rich Condre. “We have some families with three or four kids registered to play ball. We’re talking about $300 in registration, and that’s money they need in their pocket right now. So we told them they can get a full refund or their registration is good for next year. We don’t want to stand in the way of them getting their money back if they need it to weather the storm.”
Condre said “quite a few” families requested a refund due to their economic situation. He hopes sponsors might help cover some of the lost revenue.