In the first part of this series, we discussed the pay-to-play system in our youth landscape and its influence on our clubs. We were talking about our grassroots clubs in a $5 billion-$6 billion youth soccer business. The chance of a player in one of those clubs becoming a pro is very close to zero and the chance of getting a college scholarship not much higher. Let us not forget that there are only 77 professional men’s teams and 10 professional women’s teams in a country the size of Europe and with a population of 330 million. So one can say it is peanuts in quantity if you compare it with Europe or South America.
Youth clubs will have to redefine themselves and go through a transformation in order to do better or survive.
The previous article ends with the following sentences: “Unfortunately, it has taken the COVID-19 pandemic to accelerate the exposure of and our collective understanding of the fact that most of our small to mid-sized youth clubs are in very dire straits, due, in large measure, to what appears to be an antiquated and unsustainable business model. Their very existence is under threat. This is where our youth soccer landscape is currently. It is now time to look towards longer-term, sustainable solutions, which I will be discussing in my next piece.”
Although various bodies have extensive curricula, standards and licensing for coach and referee development there is extraordinarily little done in club development. We believe that well managed clubs yield better leaders who develop better players. To make our players, better we need to improve the clubs.
Let us not forget there is an academic area called Sports Management. Managing a sports entity has its own idiosyncrasies and is very much different than managing any other business even though most youth soccer clubs are not-for-profit organizations. Managing a pro club and a not-for-profit club has differences but it has also commonalities.
I believe there are five areas in which the clubs can improve and here are some suggestions.
Starting with the mission, vision statements and the core values, clubs should develop a 2-4-year strategic plan with the contribution of all stakeholders. This strategic plan should encompass Business Planning as well as Developmental Planning. Through the Strategic Plan the Board will be more transparent and accountable to the members. It will make their youth soccer business entity more proactive – rather than reactive - hence transformational and durable over the years.
As said earlier, “a great majority of the clubs who participate in this mammoth business are “non-profit” organizations who receive a tax exempt status via 501(c) (3). They are run by volunteer boards whose members are nearly always parents of kids who play for the club.” Since most of these board members do not have the skill set and/or time to run a sports business, there are two alternatives for the board to pursue.
One of the most important aspects of any successful business is effective communication with all the stakeholders. Youth soccer is a player development business that is financially supported mainly by the customers who are the parents of the consumers. Consumers in this case are the players. So the communication between the club and the parents are of paramount importance for customer satisfaction. Every club needs a communication strategy to understand and satisfy the needs of the customers. An effective communications strategy is essential for the retention of the players. This is such an important topic that it cannot be left to the monopoly of the coaching staff who are not necessarily trained properly for effective communication.
Also, the club should have an effective and proactive communication strategy with the community that it depends on for recognition and support. Most of our mid-sized soccer clubs identify themselves with a township, district or city. Support of the community is of great importance for the success of the club.
Most youth clubs rely mostly on players’ fees. As the pandemic proved, relying on players’ fees is not a sustainable model. Clubs should diversify their revenues. They should look into sponsorships, alliances, fund raisings, grants, merchandising etc. All these require robust business planning along with a simple 2-4 year strategic plan mentioned above.
Since the core business of clubs is player development -- physically, mentally and emotionally -- as well as volunteer and coach development, they must have a development plan to reflect a club culture. Ideally, they should have teams for both genders and age groups to fit the skill level of all the players. Team structures are very key elements in satisfying the needs and ambitions of players. All these require extensive planning, including the appropriate curriculum development as well as proper job definitions for all coaches whether volunteer or professional.
All the listed five areas have their academic counterparts in sports management: Business and Strategic Planning, Developmental Planning, Sports Marketing, Communication, Sports Governance, Organizational Development, Financial Management, Facilities Management, Risk Management, Crisis Management, Customer Relation Management to name a few.
It is not easy to find a person or a group of persons -- whether they are professionals or volunteers -- to fill all these slots especially for small and mid-size youth soccer clubs. Optionally, they should consider outsourcing some of these areas on a project basis. Clubs should to put aside funds in their budgets for the issues defined above. Tackling even some of the areas will increase their customer satisfaction, which in return will increase their revenues.
Once boards realize that they are running a sports business with its own rules, then they could look for solutions. The solutions themselves are not rocket science but still unfortunately cannot be solved with the current common youth soccer governance models: An all-volunteer board with a few professional coaches. Since most of the board members are successful business people, perhaps they should consider what they do when they face problems in their own businesses: Look for professional help. The youth soccer business is not that different than other businesses.
Ahmet Güvener (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Georgetown, TX.