SOCCER AMERICA: How are you doing? Your town of Westport, Connecticut was hit hard and early by the coronavirus.
SKIP GILBERT: Like everyone, this is a tough road and hard to navigate as you can’t really see the future. We have three kids, a senior in high school, a senior in college and our oldest works and lives in New York City. They are all at home with us, which is great, but they’d love to have their lives back. Westport was an early hot spot thanks to someone who had tested positive, had no symptoms, ignored the warnings and went to a large party infecting almost everyone.
SA: There's much uncertainty in youth soccer and there already has been a major change: U.S. Soccer dropping the Development Academy. We've reported on clubs moving to the ECNL or considering taking part in the development league that MLS said it's starting. Where does U.S. Youth Soccer fit in for elite clubs? Will former DA clubs be moving to the National League?
SKIP GILBERT: We are an option certainly. People forget that we’ve been in this space a long time. Our national championships started in 1935. The ODP [Olympic Development Program] is decades old and until U.S. Soccer launched the DA, ODP was the only developmental pipeline for anyone who wanted to play with college, pro or international teams. I went through ODP so that should give you a sense of how old it is!
The point is, USYS is a non-profit governing body maneuvering through a marathon, not a sprint. So we’re not putting intense pressure on clubs to sign with us today because we’re in this for the long haul. My feeling is that ultimately, the only real decision a club and coach should make is not where to play, but does the playing environment allow every kid an equal opportunity to reach their fullest potential on and off the field of play? That’s what’s important. So with almost 3 million players who are a part of the USYS family and a long history of success, we know kids will succeed with us because of their skills, passion and commitment to the game, not because of a marketing campaign that resonates with over-achieving parents.
Specifically, our elite pathway is our National League consisting of 13 conferences and over 3,000 players.
SA: USYS launched the National League, for girls and boys, in 2007. How is it evolving?
SKIP GILBERT: We’ve been working on changes because we believe travel and its respective costs have gotten out of hand and due to the DA demise, we had to speed those changes along and announced them this week. We fully expect our number of conferences to grow, some may be occupied only by DA-level clubs and that will give them a dynamic environment against equal competition plus the autonomy they enjoyed with U.S. Soccer.
In addition, we flattened the National League to remove the top competitive brackets, returning the focus to conference play while launching the USYS National League Showcase Series. This will allow teams to come to these events, play against teams at their level, not have a win at-all-cost mentality, which will allow all of the players on the roster to showcase their talents. That I believe is a huge plus and something that is missing from these types of events. Put everything together, only USYS can pull from every community in every state in the country and provide the environment suitable for any club at any level.
SA: How much can you tell us about how USYS State Associations are navigating the uncertainties they face? What are their big challenges right now?
SKIP GILBERT: I was on a call recently with a number of CEOs from other sport governing bodies. They all said the same thing. We are hurting and it’s about survival.
No sport is immune from any of the conditions any business currently faces. Some are financially strong, some not so. Some are weathering the storm, some face some very difficult decisions regarding staffing. All are worried and all have no idea what return-to-play is really going to look like. But this is what makes USYS incredibly strong. We have 55 State Associations with staff that know their geographic regions better than anyone. They are as passionate, connected and committed as the constituents they serve and when we get the green light to play, I would not want to be guided back to the fields by anyone else.
SA: A Wall Street Journal article reported on an estimate of 25% to 30% of youth soccer clubs perhaps folding by the time it's safe to resume play. Could it really be that bad?
SKIP GILBERT: I hope not. But look at what is happening to businesses around the world, let alone just in the U.S. People are predicting the same decline for restaurants, retail stores, gyms and every other segment of business. Sport is not alone here and soccer clubs specifically are all in the same position. Everyone is checking their financial health, their reserves, cash flow, expenses, earnings and just trying to survive.
SA: Is there anything USYS has been doing or can do to help clubs figure how to plan for the future?
SKIP GILBERT: USYS and our 55 State Associations have provided a wealth of resources to help clubs navigate through these hard times. Looking ahead, we are evaluating a new club certification program that would assist clubs in all business activities off the field. This program would focus on areas such as governance, finance, marketing and management. For many clubs, they all have expertise for on-field programming but may not be as proficient in off-field business matters. A curriculum like this could go a long way to help clubs prepare for the future and the potential hurdles that might derail them.
SA: Does USYS have advice for clubs whose families are asking registration fee refunds?
SKIP GILBERT: We just created a video promoting how USYS is a family and now is the time parents need to support the clubs and the coaches that are there for our kids every day. The issue of refunds is a financial matter every club needs to make on their own. For some families, they may be facing a similar financial crisis and absolutely need the refund. For others, they may understand that the spring season fees are mostly used to cover overhead, like coach and other staff compensation and are open to donating their spring fees. So our advice is simple, do what you can to survive. But the most critical point is to stay connected with your parents. Be transparent, be honest and be sincere.
SA: Do you know how many USYS-affiliated clubs have been applying for and getting Small Business Administration loans?
SKIP GILBERT: No. USYS and many of our State Associations have applied and I hope most clubs have done the same. As for the success rate, I don’t know.
SA: Would clubs merging help them as they cope with the challenges created by the pandemic?
SKIP GILBERT: You can merge clubs together but if there is no revenue, it becomes a short-term Band-Aid. The only benefit to merging in this environment is if one has the cash reserves for both to survive throughout this crisis. Otherwise, if a merger made strategic sense before COVID-19 hit, then sure, keep the discussions going. But if not, does the short-term capital infusion make-up for the seller’s remorse the club will likely feel once we get back to normal?
SA: Are there any other long-term effects of the coronavirus interruption that clubs need to consider?
SKIP GILBERT: We spoke about the core impact drives of a call for reduced travel and the associated costs. But one area not discussed that may impact the future is the break from over-scheduled kids. When I grew up, we learned sports in the backyards of my friends or at parks and schools. Our time was not constantly scheduled with practices and games every week. There may be a move back towards that, or at least more like what we call recreational soccer where the emphasis is on fun and the enjoyment of playing over the win at all cost mentality that permeates every youth sport in our country today.
SA: Is USYS coordinating with U.S. Soccer in any way during this crisis? Is there anything in particular you'd like U.S. Soccer to be doing right now?
SKIP GILBERT: When I first arrived at USYS, someone asked me what is our unique sales position? And after I thought through our decades of programing with ODP, our National Championships, which is the oldest youth championship dating back to 1935, our elite-level National League, running for 13 years with over 3,000 teams today, or the nearly 3 million kids that are the USYS family, I simply said “We Are Youth Soccer.” So at this point in time, U.S. Soccer has so much on its hands, it can confidently leave the youth soccer space easily in our hands.
SA: Can you imagine any silver linings emerging from this crisis?
SKIP GILBERT: Absolutely. We spend way too much time focused on the top of the player pyramid. I personally hate the term “rec” player because it’s usually said that he or she is “just a rec player.” That’s insulting as anyone who steps on a field is a player. When you look at the number of kids 13 and older who leave the sport, we have a huge opportunity to re-focus on local soccer, make it more fun, make it more rewarding, make it life fulfilling. When kids leave soccer because they don’t feel they are good enough, we just potentially lost someone who would play club soccer in college, adult soccer when they graduate, buy tickets for NWSL, MLS, USL or U.S. national team games, coach their kids and become lifelong fans of the game. Our role isn’t just to provide pathways for players, we must constantly be fueling the soccer lifestyle.
SA: Anything else you'd like to add or address?
SKIP GILBERT: My thoughts go out to every member of the USYS family who has been negatively impacted by COVID-19. We’re safe at home and for many this will make them feel very alone. But we are in this together, and together we are going to emerge and build an even stronger USYS to help kids succeed in life through soccer.