USYS CEO Skip Gilbert's advice for all youth clubs: 'Stay connected with your parents, be transparent, be honest and be sincere'

Skip Gilbert was only into his third month as CEO of U.S. Youth Soccer when the coronavirus was declared a pandemic. USYS is the USA's largest youth soccer organization, with 3 million players and 55 state associations.

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.

4 comments about "USYS CEO Skip Gilbert's advice for all youth clubs: 'Stay connected with your parents, be transparent, be honest and be sincere'".
  1. R2 Dad, April 25, 2020 at 2:54 p.m.

    USYS reminds us We Are Youth Soccer (when it makes them look important), it's been around a long time (forgetting what a disaster ODP became), and that many of their clubs are going under (as if they can do nothing). The main benefit to being a large entity is your are represented by Skip Gilbert to walk the halls of Congress to lobby for SBA loans and bailout bucks on behalf of all the clubs (and millions of  children) registered under his flag. It doesn't sound like USYS is doing that, or that he senses any responsibility to address this sporting existential crisis. "Good luck, clubs, you're on your own. Do let us know how it turns out for you. If you make it out the other side, we have Club Certification and marketing assistance." 

  2. Jack Smith, April 25, 2020 at 11:31 p.m.

    USYS cannot be expected to 'bail out' clubs across the United States.  That is financially impractical/impossible.  For the COVID crisis, which no one saw coming, there is not a large enough pot to handle this.  USYS is being hit by financial headaches, just as the majority of U.S. businesses are having to do.  Virtually no one has 'spare' money.  There are also clubs that operate outside of the 'norm', in that they spend a good deal of money attempting to be seen as an 'elite' club, and better than other clubs.  In this regard, they charted their own passage down the wild COVID river ride.  With paid staff, they would be operating with a higher cost, depending on how their contracts with their paid staff are written, whether soccer play is happening or not.  All clubs in reality should be working directly with their state soccer organization, who should also should be addressing methods for 'reaching out' to their clubs, helping to formulate mechanisms for a 'normal' organization to navigate through the COVID-19 crisis.  The state organization should know how their member organizations are weathering the COVID crisis, and providing alternatives for an organization that is having difficulties.  When looking at future soccer season reopening, organizations should consider if there is a different operating manner for specific items, where they could possibly work with near-by soccer organizations, to seek reduction in costs for needed items, through combined buying power.  It will be important for all organizations to keep registration costs under control, in order to get financially hard hit families back onto the fields.  Their will be a good number of families that may not be able to play initially, while attempting to reach financial stability.  Put bluntly, an organization could not seek to increase their registration costs, to make up for previous loss of income, as this will cause the number of people signing up to decrease.  The financial status of American families cannot handle it currently.

  3. John Polis, April 26, 2020 at 10:01 a.m.

    Like many of Mr. Gilbert's comments, I too have long been rankled by the term "competitive" and the word "rec." Who can really say a nine-year-old who's running his hardest in a peewee game is not competing? And then there's the attitude of snooty parents who tell other parents that their kid is on the travel team or that he's moved up to competitive. Actually, I found all this quite disgusting for decades. And then all of soccer has itself in a bit of a fix because so many people are using the game as a way to make money. Youth soccer I would say must have more paid coaches around the United States than any of the other youth sports. I could be wrong on that, but it seems to be true. And then there's what must be millions of dollars spent on unnecessary travel, tr-purchasing uniforms every season, expecting families to fork out large sums of money on a regular basis. This has been done through the years under the guise of making the game better. So we are now facing a time of reflection and reevaluation. It can be a good thing. I hope that Mr. Gilbert's comments about investing in soccer as a game for life for all kids is carried out and then in the future we aren't so top-heavy on advancement and so quick to separate our players by ability. The really good players will rise to the top soon enough. There's no need to carrying on a charade of large groups of average players (whose parents have money to spend) in what are supposedly elite leagues. It's a waste of money and frankly it's a waste of the kids'time. Good luck, Mr. Gilbert. Stay the course. 

  4. Jack Smith, April 26, 2020 at 2:35 p.m.

    John, I absolutely agree on what you have stated.  For far too long, competitive thoughts have been running rampant and driving up the cost to play for families.  It has become a field of 'egos', for coaches and organizations to clamber about their 'winning records', while increasing the costs so that a family, especially with multiple players, cannot play soccer, just to have 'fun'.  Strange concept, for a kid to want to play, just to have fun, be out enjoying the game with no stress, enjoying being around the friends that they have made, and having guaranteed playing time afforded them.  This is verse the stressful, costly, and no guaranteed playing time of those wishing to hawk the competitive banner.  To easily see how this form of thinking has polluted the soccer playing atmosphere, just look around to find a basic 'recreational' tournament, where the players who are playing just for 'fun' can go have 'fun'.  There used to be a large percentage of such tournaments and now you are lucky if you find one.  I an not counting the competitive tournaments who 'graciousliy' will allow a recreational team to play, by 'playing up', if they wish to do so.  I am speaking of a totally non-competitive tournament, which is ONLY composed of players that play recreational soccer.  The other dirty secret, which is very rarely spoken about, is what coaches heavily titlted to the competitive side (and yes, this even includes some recreational coaches) will do to give themselves an 'advantage'.  These coaches will go around 'recruiting' players from other teams, by using unscrupulous tactics (such as tellling a family that their coach is not properly training the player and THEY see that the player can do so much better, with them;  to tell a player to request THEM at registration, if they want to be on a winning team;  and any other tactic that they can use to recruit what they seek as a 'good player' to their team. 
    One thing that I believe is that IF there were more recreational tournaments for the older players, more of them would stick around.  Not all recreational players want the hassle of playinig in competitive play, and their families, especially these days, cannot afford competitive play with the higher costs associated with traveling around, and typically requiring more than one uniform and sweats to go with that. 

    I agree with Skip on getting back to basics.

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