U.S. Soccer 'Special offer' -- A greed-inspired blunder

By Paul Gardner

The latest move by the United States Soccer Federation strikes me as being crass, cheap, tasteless, tacky and thoroughly reprehensible. In addition to which, and in answer to your next question, I don’t like it.

I refer to a breathless press release from the USSF announcing a SPECIAL OFFER. Before the USA vs. Spain game in Boston on June 4, fans will be granted the unbelievable opportunity of attending the practice sessions of the USA and world champions Spain.

So far so good. Then comes the sleazy bit. For this privilege, fans will be asked to fork up $20 or $25. $25 to watch an effing practice session?

No doubt there will be takers, no doubt there are enough misguided souls out there who will swallow the USSF line that this is an act of great magnanimity, when it is in fact a sordid example of naked greed.

I’m not the least bit interested in whether other teams pull this stunt, or how many times it’s been done before, or whether it’s done in other sports. It should not be done, in this country, at this stage of the development of soccer.

If fans, and particularly youth players, want to watch the USA -- their national team -- practicing they should be encouraged to attend -- for free. There are already enough money problems at the youth level with the exigencies of the pay-to-play approach ... what on earth is USSF thinking of that it should want to make money out of youth development? And that thought is clearly in the USSF’s thinking -- why else would they be mentioning “groups of 20 or more” (without detailing any special rates for them) ... what groups would those be, if not youth clubs?

One of my more delightful soccer experiences came in 1982, during the World Cup in Spain, when I drove to a ramshackle little stadium outside Barcelona, where Brazil was practicing -- a practice that was open to the public. For free. The place was jammed with several thousand Spanish fans, the atmosphere was one of pure joy and excitement. “Press?” asked a guy wearing some sort of official Brazil badge, “This way.” I found myself on the field, standing on the touchline ... talking at length with the great Vava, who was an assistant coach.

OK, that was 1982. No one bothered much about security in those days. But the gap between that blissful afternoon and this SPECIAL OFFER from the USSF is obscene. There was a time, not that long ago -- wasn’t there? I’m not dreaming this, am I? -- when the USA would have been only too pleased to stage a friendly meet-the-players, photo-op, autograph-signing event.

Now, apparently, the USSF considers itself and its team above that sort of common-touch approach. You want to watch one of Bob Bradley’s training sessions (an experience that I would not personally rate as an all-time high)? OK, cough up. Someone at the USSF -- let us hope it was one of their marketing geniuses, and not a responsible soccer person -- came up with this bright idea, someone had to conceive the notion, “Hey, we can make some money out of this.” And it would be highly interesting to know if the idea was to charge for watching world champion Spain, with the USA piggy-backing on that attraction.

How much money is to be made? Even assuming that a wild stampede of 10,000 fans turned up, at $20 a pop that’s $200,000. Which is peanuts. The USSF is not in need of that money. It seems to feel a little guilty about it by announcing that the “proceeds” of this fan-gouging will be devoted to ... no, not charity, they can’t go that far, but to “support USSF coaching initiatives.”

Again, I’m not interested in exactly what that means, because, whatever it may mean, it is merely an attempt to put an acceptable gloss on a shoddy venture that should never have been even considered in the first place.

One must also wonder where this might lead. How long before we’re invited to spend $500 for a place at a special “meet-the-coach” gala dinner, with proceeds going to another vague USSF cause?

The ultimate responsibility for this blunder, this unsightly blot on the USSF’s escutcheon, lies, of course, with USSF president Sunil Gulati. He should have squashed it as soon as it came to his attention.

The fact that this sordid idea has managed to become obnoxious reality is a stark reminder of the extent to which commercialism -- and not just commercialism itself, but the commercial way of looking at things -- has leeched its way into the very center of our sport.

That may be OK for the pro version of soccer. But the USSF represents something beyond that, it represents the vast number of players, most of them kids, who are precisely not involved in the pro game. It is the responsibility of the USSF to think of the sport. To ask themselves first -- Is this good for soccer? Not, as the commercial community will always ask -- How can we make money out of this?

I am told, repeatedly, just how important is the business side of the game these days. Of course, of course. I’d have to be incredibly obtuse not to understand that. Understanding that money matters hardly calls for any great intellectual activity on anyone’s part.

But the quid pro quo, the attempt to make the commercialists accept that the sport, soccer, matters too, and that it matters in ways far deeper and more mysterious than any balance sheet can ever reveal ... that is not so easy. My experience is that most of the commercial group, do not understand that at all. There is an awful shallowness to the commercial mind, not surprising when profit dominates the thinking. It’s a mentality that fits nicely into Oscar Wilde’s famous definition of cynics -- Those who know the price of everything but the value of nothing. And it is the value of soccer, and the value of the USSF’s image, that have been traded for a mess of pottage and thus tarnished by this brazen hucksterism.

14 comments about "U.S. Soccer 'Special offer' -- A greed-inspired blunder".
  1. Paolo Jacobs, May 20, 2011 at 4:53 a.m.

    Thank U Paul for making a statement about this crime! When i first read about it on my FB on a US soccer release, I couldn't believe it... Undoubtably trying to capture the glow of the now Great Spanish team, and trying to "Cash In".... I hope u are able to question Sunil about this travesty!

  2. Adam Colaizzi, May 20, 2011 at 8:08 a.m.

    If US Soccer was smart about this, they would ask for 'donations' instead of a flat fee, and give ALL the collected funds to assist the relief efforts in Alabama. They'd probably raise more money, as well.

    Good PR, and a good feeling for those involved.

    Therefore, it won't happen

  3. David Flanagan, May 20, 2011 at 8:43 a.m.

    Thanks Paul, you described the problem with soccer in this country! People like you who refuse to acknowledge that "non soccer" people can make decisions that drive the game. Proven business models work when applied to sport.So called "professional coaches" find problems with rules and blame "non soccer" people for bad decisions, your comments here fuel that argument. Realize that these "professional coaches" who lack success in one program will find a parent with money and move to or create a program that is in the best interest of "player development" US Soccer makes decisions based on one program, the National team, while they made a horrible, horrible choice to charge for a practice session they too find themselves looking additional revenue. $200.000 may not be much in the global soccer world but here in the USA I fail to notice corporate America jumping at the chance to sponsor our National Team programs. Regardless of who made the decision to charge for these training sessions this is consistent with the practices of the European clubs who travel here for summer training. $50.00 for a ManU training session is nothing. While the rabid club fan will pay not all USA soccer people carry the same passion for their national teams.

  4. . Lev, May 20, 2011 at 8:52 a.m.

    Did anyone ask how Spain viewed this "amazing offer"?
    They are team everyone would be paying to see..

  5. lorenzo murillo, May 20, 2011 at 8:52 a.m.

    Unfortunately soccer in this country is doomed because is all about making money.

  6. Glenn Liguori, May 20, 2011 at 9:13 a.m.

    "Amazing offer" my a$$! I was similarly duped on a scam last year when AC Milan played Panathinaikos in Pontiac, MI. My youngest son had "won" a radio contest to supposedly meet the players and kick a PK against one of the keepers. When we arrived, I had to fork over $15 each for me and my older son! I've been a long time AC Milan fan, but to pay $15 to watch about 45 minutes of training and a few autographs was a rip off.

    Yes, I'm whining, but saving grace was that my son got his chance to score on a pro keeper (which he did!) and we got 4 free tickets to the game the next day! Still a scam to pay to watch a practice.

  7. Gerard McLean, May 20, 2011 at 10:03 a.m.

    @lorenzo Soccer may be doomed in this country because too many people think it should all be free! It costs money to build a quality program in time, equipment and people skill. Spending time yapping about how greed is destroying the sport does not help anyone. There is nothing dirty about profit; it helps guarantee soccer will be here for the next generation. Isn't that what we want?

    Unfortunately, the folks in the soccer industry are badly skilled at building value. Maybe because the MLS keeps hiring "interns" to do their marketing. If there were some value in watching a practice session, then you'd have to sell tickets on a lottery and beat back people who couldn't get in. The folks who set up the event appear to not be very connected with the community they are offering the "amazing deal" to. Otherwise, we'd have Mr Gardner writing an entirely different article. Unless he is a curmudgeon who hates profit in all its forms.

    Coaches and developmental folks should be focused on the players and teams. Let the marketing folks handle the "building value" problem. Too many people think that just because they are good at the GAME of soccer, they are also geniuses at the BUSINESS of soccer. My experience proves nothing is further from the truth. To borrow from baseball (cause soccer has no equivalent) pitchers pitch, catchers catch. Only an idiot coach would put his catcher on the pitcher's mound. We should learn from that.

  8. Joe Linzner, May 20, 2011 at 10:22 a.m.

    I agree, wherever you look in whatever facet of human life, commercialism and the beancounters determine behavior based on the profit motive. Here, it is a travesty, especially in a country where this is still a fledgeling secondary sport. What should be done, is that these practice sessions should be opened to youth players. Use it as a training development tool. Not all practice sessions are purely clinical but also builds a personal familiarity between players and this is what makes them a team on the field. It is the overall immersion into that sort of professional practice and interaction that can be a positive influence to turn young athletes into future American stars. Beancounters ruined the American Car Industry and they ruin everything they touch.
    Deplorable. But what an amazing offer??!!BS

  9. David Huff, May 20, 2011 at 10:49 a.m.

    Somehow I can visualize Dan Flynn and Sunil Gulati in the background on this greedily rubbing their hands together in anticipation of the $$ that will come in over this, regardless of the amount.

  10. Luis Montalvo, May 20, 2011 at 11:21 a.m.

    This is totally justified. Look FA are made to promote and support the team and the game second. Rant about why the US can't produce forwards that score or don't seem to have a playing philosophy or why the National Team can't defend for the first 10 min. Or last 10 before the half and let go the $20 buck fee. It could be worse like paying $260 per ticket for a preseason NFL game.

  11. Jeffrey Naiman, May 20, 2011 at 1:14 p.m.

    So true Paul. Soccer has come a long way over the years. I remember for my 18th Bday in 1993 we went to Palo Alto to watch the US play Germany. I remember calling the USSF and getting the hotel info for the US team and staying there and chatting up Tony Meola, Marcelo Balboa, and Fernando Clavijo. What a time. I doubt that would ever happen again.

  12. Steven Erickson, May 20, 2011 at 6:53 p.m.

    Unfortunately all of these comments will never reach the people who should read them. "Bean counters" have the reins and what's good for profit will be the mantra, kids and soccer will be lucky to be in the same thought.

  13. John Burns, May 21, 2011 at 12:13 a.m.

    Paul Gardner is simply a marvelous jewel. This is just the latest example of this extraordinary journalist stating the bald, brash truth to the powers that be in the world of US soccer. I have no clue just how old a man Paul may be but I have a feeling he probably would not pass for any Spring Chicken. The significance of that thought is who is going to step into his shoes to tell the world the emperor is wearing no clothes when Paul puts down his pen? At the moment he is the Lone Ranger and thank our lucky stars he is there day in and day out. Anybody being trained...or at least take over?

  14. Joe Shoulders, May 22, 2011 at 9:28 a.m.

    John Burns you bring up a great point. I have been reading PG for over 30 years and nobody comes close. It's scary thing that the future of US Soccer honest and knowledgeable reporting and critique will be in the hands of one of the "geese" in the fields.

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