I didn’t really get it until I was in the throes of it, but youth soccer has become a business. Like a giant sized insane business.
I’ve been on a bit of a documentary kick lately, and I can’t help but start to see that once any industry starts to grow and make a lot of money, quality starts becoming the least of the concern, especially if it is at the expense of the profit margin.
While we accept and understand this for something like clothing, or food, it’s kind of weird to think about soccer in the same context, and especially difficult to reconcile the imagery of an adorable 9 year old in pigtails being connected to a mega million dollar industry.
But just like when we start getting sick from our food, or our clothing starts falling apart or we hear about awful working conditions for those that make them, do we start examining what is going on and it usually has to do with integrity and quality getting thrown down the drain in the name of the almighty dollar.
Although I am not directly equating the consequences of bad soccer with the perils of child labour or cancer causing chemicals, it also makes me think a very eloquent “duh” when people wonder why North American soccer is nowhere near what it should be for the abundance of resources and numbers that we have.
And because of this, I now present 3 Reasons Why The Business of Youth Soccer is Stifling Player Development
1. Dolla Bills Kills Spirit
It’s a cheesy cliche line, but it’s true. TEAM: Together Everyone Achieves More.
Money in my opinion has killed this spirit of togetherness as unfortunately greed and insecurity rule the day.
Instead of believing that there is more than enough of the pie to go around, and that a person is good enough to attract the numbers to have some pie, instead the youth soccer scene has become vicious. The more money at stake the worse the behavior.
In an ideal world, for the benefit for players, when I say spirit I mean working together with others, showing integrity in the competitive process of competing fairly against other clubs, showing respect for others, all those wonderful intangibles that when they are functioning properly make for a good collaborative experience for all involved, even with those on the competing sideline.
I didn’t get the full insanity of it, until another local club waged a full out assault on the 9 year olds that we had committed on our roster last year. I had to see it to believe it, but there was 5 paragraph emails that threatened doors closing and no college future if they weren’t going to join their club to nightly phone calls being dodged until the parents had to listen to the sales pitch on the phone, that resembled a nasty political campaign, fraught with disparaging the competition.
Call me naive, but I thought the voracity of the relentless calling and emailing was a little crazy and excessive, even by the standards of the winning loving United States, to put so much weight into pursuing 9 year olds.
That was, until I stepped back and did the math.
In this era, top level youth soccer clubs charge around $2500 per player. For a 10 year old that has another 8 years until she graduates into college, that is a $20,000 win assuming that in all likelihood that player will stay with the club. All of a sudden it is evident to see how greed has oiled fear mongering of parents of naive 10 year olds and whereby creating animosity with other clubs is an accepted part of the job,
At the end of the madness lies a very fat paycheck, often the dirtier you are willing to do your job.
From the professional women’s game standpoint, often times, these clubs are seen as direct competition for the youth clubs and the players that they hope to inspire.
It seems like common sense that if my business could be adversely affected by something, even if it was positive role models to my players, that I would do what I could do not promote this competing business. I’d argue that that is one reason why pro women’s soccer has struggled in the country, especially in areas where there are a lot of girls playing.
It’s not about what’s best for the player or a respect for the beautiful game. It all goes back to doing whatever it takes for a bigger bottom line.
2. Quality Development Clashes with the Bottom Line
When a soccer club is looking at their budget there are certain things that stand out as major expenses.
Things like coaching staffs and field costs would be two big expenses, which also happen to be 2 of the more important things in player development.
For young players where by development and technique correction is key, having a large number of coaches on the field correcting is an important component to developing fantastic soccer players in their crucial development years.
So too is having the field space and time to properly execute technique and training.
Yet, how many times do you see five teams smashed on to one field, or one overwhelmed coach standing alone with 15-20 young charges in front of him. Often the solution is to just throw the kids on the field and have them play, but this again is like instructing a child to write an essay when they haven’t even learned how to structure a sentence.
And if you are from a place with a nasty winter? Field space costs time, and therefore training once or twice a week max is the norm, which any high level club will tell you is prohibitive for maximum player development.
Quality costs money, and many soccer businesses choose not to spend it.
3. The Consumer Doesn’t Understand What Quality Looks Like
If I’m a wine connoisseur and I can put hundred dollar grapes to make a glass of wine (I’m obviously not a wine connoisseur and have no idea how this process works, but work with me here), but the people that I’m serving the grapes to, have no idea how to decipher a 3 dollar glass from a 300 hundred dollar glass, is it really that motivating for me to put together a top quality product?
With soccer, and I do think it is changing somewhat, but historically, parents watching sessions or signing their children up for programs, have no idea what a good program looks like. If I had a son who played baseball, I too, would have absolutely no clue what to gauge as a good program.
Therefore, if I am a business owner, I have no accountability for a good product, since my consumer has no idea what it looks like. I can just tell them its top notch wine and they will believe me because they don’t know any better.
Subsequently, what is my motivation to put together an expensive, top notch glass of wine, when I can serve 2 buck chucks and no one knows the difference.
Except for in soccer the 2 buck chucks (Grocery store wine for my Canadian friends that are totally confused about what I am talking about) turn out to be lacking players.
That being said, I think this will start to change as more people who have played college soccer start watching their kids practice, such as my All-American roommate from UConn who has three little ones.
She told me the other day when she was in town for a visit, half laughing, half horrified that she had to nicely tell her son’s club that she was switching to go somewhere else, when she watched a weeks worth of practices where a bunch of 6 year olds played a game called “The Kill Drill” where a ball would be put into the middle and the little boys would run out and smash into each other while trying to win the soccer ball.
Chances are little Messi never played a game of Kill Drill in his life and most consumers of the product would see it as a competitive drill, when a true soccer developer would watch the hands of time tick with wasted time to help that child reach their potential.
The question becomes then, what needs to change to improve the development of soccer players?
We’ll save that for another blog coming soon.
Any feedback? Find me on twitter @ciaramccormack