SOCCER AMERICA: Has it been difficult to convince potential attendees of the attractions of a virtual convention?
LYNN BERLING-MANUEL: It started slow but we’re now expecting thousands of coaches, administrators and industry folks to join us. We had to paint a picture of what this new convention experience could be. In the beginning, it was even hard for us to imagine.
Now we have had the Scottish FA signing up all of its current cohort of UEFA A and B license candidates, 500 in all, to attend. They bought United Soccer Coaches memberships for each of them so they could be part of it. Our convention is always a member event and, if needed, you can join or renew during registration. Both our U.S. coaches and our colleagues around the world can be part of it. For five days, we are all just united around the love of the game. All the Digital Convention details are available at UnitedSoccerCoachesConvention.org.
SA: What’s been the key to convincing it’s a worthwhile experience?
LYNN BERLING-MANUEL: We had to show this wasn’t just a bunch of Zoom calls. All of us have some video conference-fatigue after months of that being the best way to connect, but there’s also a surprising intimacy with Zoom. You catch people in their homes with their family and personal life around them. I sat in on a webcast hosted by the LMA with England manager Gareth Southgate a few weeks ago and in the middle of it his home phone rings and he’s yelling at his kids to answer it. At that moment, he wasn’t a world famous national team coach, just a dad vexed at his children for their slow response time! Everyone on that call was smiling and knowingly nodding their head. We could all relate.
The digital program is highly curated because it wasn’t practical to have the convention’s traditional 200-plus sessions. That will return next year in Kansas City. However, for this year my colleagues have created an astonishing program that includes dozens of meaty panels plus the glitter of coaching star power like Jose Mourinho (who could never attend an in-person event in January during his season), U.S. national team coach Gregg Berhalter, Sporting KC’s Peter Vermes, North Carolina’s Anson Dorrance, Chelsea’s Emma Hayes, Jochen Sauer, the Academy Director for FC Bayern Munich, and many more. We called upon our contacts and friends and friends of friends to reach deep into our coaching community and ask them to participate in this one-of-kind event. They have all been very generous with their time and talents. Coaches really do like to support other coaches.• Go HERE for a complete list of the convention's presenters, who include Gregg Berhalter, Jose Mourinho, Jesse Marsch and Jill Ellis.
SA: What's the reaction from exhibitors about the virtual convention?
LYNN BERLING-MANUEL: It works fantastic for some. We expect over 100 companies exhibiting and Verizon is sponsoring the Digital Exhibit Hall and Innovation Hub. For others, however, they haven’t seen it as a good fit or don’t know how to take advantage of it. Each exhibiting company has a unique booth/webpage inside our platform that hosts video, live chat, scheduled meetings, custom programming, contests and even special guests. Folks are getting creative and having real fun with it. It will be an interesting place to wander just like an in-person Exhibit Hall. And booth space is still available for any company that wants to jump in.
SA: How will a virtual convention try to replicate the networking and socializing that usually takes place?
LYNN BERLING-MANUEL: It starts with each attendee filling out their convention profile with as much detail as they are comfortable with. Soon after you register you want to get that done. Then you can connect with friends, reach out to coaches you’d like to meet, have conversations, attend sessions together, share convention updates and more. We have found from the community features of our convention apps of the last few years how much coaches like to connect and share the experience. Most of the socials, receptions and awards events will be open to all of our guests. No special tickets are required.
Our Advocacy Groups are hosting open socials that feature activities (I know of a couple of scavenger hunts that have been planned), special guests (for example, Colorado Rapids head coach Robin Fraser is a drop-in visitor at our Black Coaches Advocacy Group’s social) and just plenty of hospitality. The only thing we couldn’t provide was the bar and snacks. It is BYOB!
SA: Are there any upsides to the virtual setup?
LYNN BERLING-MANUEL: To start, the total cost to an attendee is under $200. There is no travel, meals or hotel. And each attendee has complete access to every session (50-plus) for a year. You can “binge watch” the convention live or dip in and out at your convenience. We were also able to get speakers and panelists who would normally be in-season during January and never able to attend an in-person convention. We actually have a live studio with multiple stages in Kansas City with a socially distanced host team of six and anchored by Dean Linke.
Between sessions there will be special guests, immediate analysis of sessions you were just attending and interactive segments. The studio will only be in the live viewing and not part of the Convention recordings. It will be different than anything we have ever done but gives it the sense of immediacy we wanted for our attendees.
SA: It turns out the United Soccer Coaches made the right decision when back July you decided cancel the in-person event and go virtual. (Which gave you more time to prepare for new approach.) What drove that decision back then when one may not have expected the situation to still be so dire come January?
LYNN BERLING-MANUEL: Two lessons I have learned over a lot of years in business are: 1. Don’t delay making hard decisions and 2. Cash is king.
Our exhibitors gave us the first red flag that COVID could stop an in-person convention. They had to make early budget plans and they were afraid to book non-refundable travel. International companies were concerned they wouldn’t be allowed to enter the U.S. or, almost worse, not allowed to get home. We had more than a million dollars in penalties if we canceled in Anaheim but we also realized we needed a Plan B.
By July I, just had to make the best decision with the information we had and Plan B became Plan A. We kept our in-person options open but the City of Anaheim and the Convention Center have been wonderful partners and understood our challenges. We didn’t officially cancel until just recently but we had to move forward with Digital Convention planning. Anaheim has still not been able to reopen its Convention Center and we feel for the terrible situation they are in. We will be back in Anaheim in 2024 and twice more after the 2026 World Cup. We added another date to help Anaheim in its own recovery from COVID and make our contract whole.
To the point that ‘cash is king’ ... Starting in April, I almost immediately made deep cuts to our organization including a 20 percent furlough for all of us on staff. I had hoped it would be short-lived but it has not. However, it allowed us to keep our staff mostly intact and keep everybody’s benefits. We came back to 100 percent once as I got hopeful the worst was behind us but I was quickly proved wrong. We have reserves but when you run out of cash you are done. And every day you delay is just less cash to see you through to the other side. It became clear COVID was going to have a long tail and we all have to roll with that.
SA: Obviously, there's never been a virtual convention because of a pandemic outbreak, but do recall any conventions -- while you were with United Soccer Coaches or in the decades before when you attended -- that had to overcome unique challenges?
LYNN BERLING-MANUEL: I have been to over 40 conventions as an attendee, exhibitor and now as CEO. There have been blizzards, labor strikes and even terrorism incidents that made people fearful to travel. Interestingly enough, we have insurance coverage for all of those (including earthquakes!). Pandemics, however, are the one exclusion in almost every event cancellation insurance policy.
SA: What longer term challenges does United Soccer Coaches face because of the impact of COVID? What worries you about COVID impact and what, if anything, makes you optimistic?
LYNN BERLING-MANUEL: It’s been great to see organizations and companies share information and work together on return to play research and initiatives. Soccer is not fragile and it will get through this. MLS and NWSL owners have hung in there even with over a billion dollars in collective losses. But on the tough side, if kids don’t play, coaches don’t work. And so far this year there appears to be as much as a 30 percent decline in overall fall registration. Big clubs had more cash reserves and the ability to hold on longer while very small clubs could more easily contract.
However, the middle-tier clubs with 300-800 players, we are concerned about some that may just not be able to come back. Clubs where soccer is back have generally seen a high level of return to play with their more elite players, but rec players have not returned in the same way. And that is the top of the funnel that makes our soccer industry run.
Soccer is an eco-system from the bottom to the top. And like all eco-systems, beware as you pull out a piece here and a piece there. College has also severely struggled. Soccer is a non-revenue sport and the entire higher education system has been squeezed by COVID. Cutting expenses has been a requirement and non-revenue sports can be an easy place to target.
I’ve been asked why college soccer matters. My response is: It really is the driver for youth soccer. Parents are looking at college opportunities as they support the high cost of competitive youth soccer. Other than a fraction of players, it’s not MLS, NWSL or the national teams that drive that long term commitment. It’s college soccer. I challenge all of our pro leagues and U.S. Soccer to take very good care of this golden goose. If it is ever gone, nothing will bring it back. Our team has handled it as positively as I could have asked but I have had my share of sleepless nights.
SA: What role, if any, does U.S. Soccer play amid the major changes in the youth landscape (DA demise, launch of MLS Next and Girls Academy, migration of clubs to ECNL)?
LYNN BERLING-MANUEL: At the high end of our sport, there are more options for players than ever. I appreciate the desire by some for a single pathway for players but that just isn’t how America operates. We may be a little more ‘wild west’ post-COVID but the market will tend to shake this out. What I’d love to see is rather than slice the pie smaller, U.S. Soccer focus on making a bigger pie. The public school systems from kindergarten through high school are blue water opportunities for soccer.
High school soccer continues as one of the really healthy growth areas of our game, and it’s a little promotional engine in every community in America. European clubs never had this kind of resource available or they may have developed in a very different way. And, of course, we’ll continue to advocate with U.S. Soccer to make the coaching education pie bigger.
As United Soccer Caches, we certainly support their licensing pathway but for the last six years the federation has tried to reduce coaching education opportunities when we need more not less. Fortunately, coaches have realized that they want more than just a license. Lifelong learning is a quality of every great coach and it’s more important now than ever. Our Coaching Education program continues to do well because it.