Pay to play and beyond

USYS is the largest national youth organization in the country with around 2.4 million registered players of all youth ages. Recently, under the helm of the new CEO, Skip Gilbert, USYS has been transformational. They came out with a 5-year Strategic Plan which makes the organization accountable and transparent to its stakeholders. They formed a USYS university, which is a gathering of educational resources for its membership. Recently, they partnered with Florida State University to help soccer education. Gilbert very recently wrote an article on pay to play. The article is enlightening and raises valid questions and proposes possible solutions.

I decided to have another look at the pay-to-play system after reading Skip’s article In short, while pay-to-play has been a controversial topic of conversation for years, with many weighing in with passionate arguments on both sides, the inconvenient truth is that the pay-to-play system is here in the USA and likely not to go anywhere anytime soon. There are a quite a few people that are against the pay-to-play system. Their arguments usually refer to other soccer ecosystems in Europe and Latin America. 

Let us make something clear. There is no such thing as free soccer – just like there is no such thing as a free lunch. Somebody has to pay for the fields and usually that is the taxpayer. The cost of staff, travel and others are always born by the organizing club everywhere. The issue is how they generate revenues for those items. In Europe, central government or the cities build facilities for the youth and adults to play soccer or any sport for that matter. Here, we have the schools systems and park and rec departments who provide facilities with taxpayers’ money. Some soccer clubs benefit from one or both of those entities with the use of fields at little or no cost. 

In Europe, the professional teams only recruit talented players for their academies. They pay all the costs of the youth development system knowing that if they develop a few good players their investment will be returned through training compensation and solidarity payments as well as providing some young talent to their professional teams. These academies are free to play. The same academies might have “football schools” in their country or internationally for which parents pay for their kids to play for that club’s crest. Those clubs actually market their brands through those ” football schools or academies.” The goal in those schools is not to develop players for their pro teams but rather generate revenue for their developmental academies. The idea that pay-to-play is a USA-centric system simply doesn’t hold water. The truth is that it is in place and thriving around the globe. 

On the other hand, according to Aspen Institute’s “State of Play 2021” report: ”Wealth still factors into who plays: This was true before the pandemic and true today. In September 2021, 24% of parents in the highest-income bracket ($100,000 or more) said their child had resumed sports at a higher level than before COVID-19. Only 13%-14% of kids from the two lower-income brackets returned to sports at a higher pre-pandemic level.”

In our landscape, the only organized free-to-play system exists in MLS developmental academies. The owners pay for the expenses and unfortunately since both training compensation and solidarity payment issue has not been resolved legally, they try to return their investments by selling some players that they developed with a transfer fee. I know that there are some club or organizations outside the MLS that try to deliver free-to-play or affordable pay-to-play soccer for the kids. One good example is USLA (Urban Soccer Leadership Academy) in San Antonio. Unfortunately, this type of programming is more the exception than the rule.

The soccer clubs usually pay for facilities and always pay for coaches – unless they are voluntary coaches-referees, registration fees -- travel costs and the list goes on. A child might cost to the parent anywhere from less than $1,000 a year to several thousand dollars. Mostly, the expectations of the parents are limited for the kids to have playing time and socializing. But quite often for some of the parents of non-pro youth soccer club players, there is an expectation for talented kids to get a college scholarship. That expectation justifies the investment by parents. Whether the return of investment is realistic is yet another dilemma. The percentage of boys graduating from high school in 2020 and playing at a D1 school -- that doesn't necessarily mean on a scholarship -- is 0.8% and it is 2.1% for girls.

The key problem in this system is for the kids whose parents cannot afford the pay-to-play system fees. Those parents are usually from immigrant families who have a deep soccer culture.  Those kids start to play unorganized soccer with pick-up games from very early ages. Those kids are in general more talented than suburban kids who play organized club soccer. Many soccer clubs generate sponsorships so that those talented kids can play in their clubs.

So, we must look in how to make organized soccer accessible and affordable to all without condemning the pay-to-play system, which is here to stay with us.

  1. Create synergy between club and school soccer.

Although some secondary schools do charge a fee to play soccer, school (middle and high school) soccer in general is a free-to-play environment funded by the taxpayers. It is a great social environment for kids to enjoy soccer. Unfortunately, instead of recognizing and embracing school soccer as a constructive form of, and supplement to, "organized" soccer, club soccer organizations have traditionally distanced themselves from (and very often looked down on) school soccer.  Very recently, Development Academy players were prohibited from playing school soccer.  At least trying to minimize the differences between NFHS rules and Laws of the Game would be a great stride forward. U.S. Soccer, USC and NFHS can work together to supply ongoing soccer coaching education in schools. School soccer is an excellent platform for kids who cannot afford to play in the pay-to-play system to display their talents.

For soccer to flourish in the U.S., we need to cast a wider net.  We can do so by starting to heal the rift between club and school soccer programming. In the end, school soccer is an excellent platform for kids who cannot afford to play in the pay-to-play system to enjoy the beautiful game and have an opportunity to go as far as their talent will take them.

  1. Find ways to offer underprivileged kids “organized” soccer under the system.

               There are many unaffiliated leagues in which immigrant and underprivileged kids play soccer. Although one of the reasons for the kids to play in these leagues is the fee structure of pay-to-play system, there are other reasons -- mostly cultural -- which must be investigated. We need to make a concerted effort to find/develop a seamless pathway to move these youth players into more organized soccer programming. U.S. Soccer announced that they started a research project to identify the barriers into organized soccer for underprivileged kids. The public is waiting for the results to be published. The findings, I am certain, will highlight the multi-dimensional nature and well-engrained societal, cultural, historical, and economic realities associated with this challenge. Bringing those kids into the system will elevate the talent pool of soccer clubs which in return will enhance competition. 

  1. Development of clubs.

Soccer clubs are non-profit organizations but still they are small -- sometimes mid-size -- businesses. They have revenues and expenses, and they should be run like businesses. Typically, they are not. If they can reduce their costs and increase their revenues, then they will be able to sponsor more talented kids whose families cannot afford the fees. They are often competing with other clubs to secure and maintain members- locally, regionally, nationally. Parents who have expectations for their kids to get a college scholarship will prefer clubs who are successful in leagues and tournaments. Those clubs who have more talent on their roster through scholarships will be more successful on the field and hence will attract more parents, or let us say customers.

As such, clubs of every stripe should strive to develop their organizations and lead and run them like for-profit businesses. Paying attention to issues of organization development, business development, along with player development and incorporating sound management and leadership practices will lead to higher levels of membership engagement. This, in turn, will lead to organizational success in the form of solid finances, retention of members, a burnished brand, etc.

Soccer club leaders should view their roles as transformative and realize that they need to have a 30,000 foot look at their club. Doing a simple needs analysis will tell a lot of how and where the club should go, what the assets and liabilities are. The leadership can then reorganize and plan for the future where they minimize costs, maximize revenues, make parents happier and be more successful in competitive soccer organizations. Perhaps, most important for our discussion on ways to work within the pay-to-play system, clubs that effectively manage their finances may enable them to keep fees low and also offer more needs-based scholarships to make their clubs and programming more accessible to families who would normally be shut out. If the focus on running a club more efficiently and effectively like a business was more widespread across the country, perhaps we could make real inroads on the accessibility front.

The bottom-line is that pay-to-play youth soccer is here to stay. The question is how to offer good quality soccer experience for those who cannot afford it. The answer lies in the triumvir of clubs, schools, and the Federation.

Ahmet Guvener (ahmet.g@thegameplanners.com) is a Partner with The Game Planners, LLC and the former Secretary General and Chief Soccer Officer of the Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as a 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.

23 comments about "Pay to play and beyond".
  1. John Elliot, May 14, 2022 at 9:57 a.m.

    Atlanta, Georgia high school state championship was forfeited by school accused of several things, one of which was a coaching connection between high school and club. The high school is appealing the forfeiture. 


    https://www.ajc.com/sports/high-school-sports-blog/ghsa-strips-chamblee-of-girls-soccer-championship-school-plans-to-appeal/7FILJ3JRVVA4TG2FH2PCS5ACEE/

  2. Greedy Striker replied, May 14, 2022 at 11:40 a.m.

    Btw, maybe you all should get an actual player who grew up in the US system to write an opinion article such as this one because I would hardly call a Turkish referee an expert on ghost things are in American soccer.

  3. Greedy Striker, May 14, 2022 at 11:36 a.m.

    You are making a very broad generalization to say that immigrant's kids are more talented. This shows a lack of understanding about what our real problem is in America. Those players are generally more passionate than US homegrown players but that is changing rapidly due to the growth of the sport and "lower tier" clubs such as USL 1, 2, etc. Furthermore, NHSF is an anti-soccer organization. They rake in boatloads of money and do nothing to help the sport with rules that are asinine and do not support student-athlete development or growth compared to clubs. Case in point, the high school rules are dramatically different than normal FIFA laws played by in every other country on the planet! Why would you change the laws of the game such as they did in high school! A clock that counts down from 40 minute halves (shortening games by 10 minutes, substitute laws are different, extra time rules are different, the field dimension s are different (sadly most fields are barely the width of a normal field and offer are played on American football fields!!!!). We're getting it all wrong in America and it's reflected in our overall level of play as a country and system. Don't even get me started on the college game and how ridiculous the rules are there! Most hs and colleges are limited in how much they can even train as a team, thus further hampering development of players and thus the clubs fill an important role because the high school system is so behind the times and stuck in a Stone Age approach that does not benefit players who want to get an education AND possibly play professionally or have that opportunity. The soccer system in US is similar to basketball and the differences between high school hoops and the thriving AAU basketball circuit that is largely funded by the big athletic shoe companies such as Nike and Adidas!

  4. DS Rollin replied, May 14, 2022 at 12:47 p.m.

    Good stuff in this comment. 

  5. Ric Fonseca replied, May 14, 2022 at 3:36 p.m.

    Mr. Greedy Striker:  AAAAMEN, AAAAMEN,AMEN, AMEN!!!  As someone above pointed out, what and how does a Turkish referee "exprt," know about soccer's growth in this country?   Aaaand, who in the heck is this guy "Skip Gilbert?"  

    But jees and golly willikers, it seems the entire gist of "pay for play soccer" scenario hjas been talked about for monht, years, and yeas, a couple decades.  And lastly give me break vis-a-vis the "inner city" structure of play....  por favor, mis amiguitos!!!

  6. Kent James replied, May 14, 2022 at 3:50 p.m.

    While you are correct about the problems of HS soccer rules (in PA, I think they can still have 3 refs with whistles who rotate), I don't think Ahmet is prioritizing HS soccer, but rather it should be seen as another resource, and not dismissed.  HS soccer plays an important role in the athletic system; first, it provides an outlet for players who can't afford to pay the fees of club soccer, and since it is available to everyone, it creates opportunities for soccer to reach communities it would not otherwise reach.  Second, HS sports are important for creating American culture (like the influence HS football has with "Friday Night Lights").  If soccer is not part of that landscape, it will struggle to have an impact culturally, which is vital for soccer development.  Kids need to see soccer valued by society, so they will be inspired to be part of it.  We need all the resources we can get, and working with HS soccer is much more likely to bear fruit than looking down on it.

  7. Ben Myers, May 14, 2022 at 12:25 p.m.

    In my state, parents of school soccer players pay modest fees for their sons and daughters to play, essentially funding the coaches' salaries, uniforms, paying for referees and busing players to away games.  I doubt that taxpayers in most states would authorize free soccer or any other school sport for free.

  8. Ric Fonseca replied, May 14, 2022 at 3:39 p.m.

    Mr. Myer:  How does a school funs the travel costs for a 60 or 70-plus football team, basbeball team, basketball, etc.  Do schools demand the parents pay up so their kids can be possoible recruits to a major college/university?

  9. George Rogers, May 14, 2022 at 1:32 p.m.

    This is one of the best articles that I have seen on this subject matter.  Just as a loan always has to be paid back (either by the borrower or the lender) there is no such thing as free soccer or free anything.  The question is who will pay.

    The more waste that can be eliminated with the goal to maximize the opportunity to kids should be the goal, and I totally agree with Ahmet that soccer clubs need to be run as a business.  Good businesses understand this.  The government doesn't, and my observation is that government (ie City) run programs can't do what private programs do.

    We also need more successful business people who have a passion for kids soccer who are willing to balance the need for profit vs the desire to help kids develop who they are through the benefit that comes from sport.

  10. Ric Fonseca replied, May 14, 2022 at 3:47 p.m.

    One factor that is misunderstood, is that at the high school level, sports coaches - for whatever sport - are oftentime recruited from the actual teachers, and paid an extra fee, or their assignment is negotiated by the teacher unions.  Same is applicable for community college coaches in California - not unlike what some school districts would REQUIRE a teacher of Spanish or History or wood shop, to coach a specific sport.  This changes immensly at the four-year level, 'cause all we need to see just how many millions of $$$ are paid to "football coaches," or how much some high fallutin basketball coach gets paid.  State universities and coaches must report their salaries to the public as state taxpayer money goes to fund the state-univerity, while universities such as USC, Stanford, Pepperdine, and others do not get "public funds" are not required to report how much their millionaire coaches get paid.  And here I recently retired after almost 40 years in the college teaching trenches, and get but a pittance in retirement....   oh well, I digress, .... again!!!

  11. Kent James, May 14, 2022 at 3:59 p.m.

    Ahmet, thanks for the update on the current situation.  Seems like we're moving in the right direction.  One thing I think we need to focus on is spending our resources wisely.  Instead of focusing on spending a lot of money on coaches for highly selective competitive youth teams at the younger ages (below U14), we need to use those coaches (if they've been trained in age appropriate training) to oversee volunteer coaches who are overseeing inexpensive local opportunities for kids to play, in order to get the maximum number of kids on the field.  With the right system (focused on ball skills and fun, instead of winning), keeping the maximum number of kids involved provides the greatest opportunity for the exceptional players to stand out.  Higher level training could be available for those interested (through training centers, where kids can be matched with other kids of like skills, but only on an occasional basis, to avoid burnout while still exposing players to the opportunity for growth).  Providing the opportunity for pickup soccer would also allow kids to test themselves against better players (even adults) so they could be challenged, without committing to expensive tournaments and year round training sessions with paid coaches (and the expenses those involve).  

  12. Wayne Norris, May 14, 2022 at 4:43 p.m.

    Lets start by stopping these ridiculous cross country tournaments and similar events that require flights and hotels for players and families.

    Plenty of competition within 1-2 hrs for most teams...

  13. R2 Dad replied, May 14, 2022 at 10:11 p.m.

    Way too logical. Teens need their frequent flier miles!

  14. James Madison, May 14, 2022 at 7:16 p.m.

    Someone should tell Mr. Guvener about Socceer in the streets and AYSO.

  15. Bob Ashpole, May 14, 2022 at 7:19 p.m.

    So many simplifications and generalizations that I don't recognize the problem. The problem is the system is exclusive and not concerned with developing creative highly skilled senior players.

    When I talk about pay-to-play, I am not talking about 2 million USSF registered youth players. I am not talking about scholastic soccer. I am not talking about professional players. I am talking about amateur clubs and coaches that operate for profit "elite" teams for which they charge parents for their children to join. Under the pay to play system vast numbers of talented players are excluded from the opportunity to play on an elite level due to advantaged parents prejudices and economic disadvantages of the excluded players. Their logic being that their children's chances of success are promoted if talented players are excluded. I am also talking about youth coaches who focus on developing winning teams instead of developing players. Early bloomers are exploited until their temporary physical advantages vanish.

    I thought that was the problem we all saw with pay-to-play.

  16. R2 Dad replied, May 14, 2022 at 10:30 p.m.

    I don't think we can get rid of pay-to-play. I'm more interested in getting value out of the dollars we DO spend. Are parents receiving value? If they don't know the sport, they won't really know until the end of the process and then it is too late to give feedback to the clubs to revise their player development process (if there is one). It's my contention that clubs do NOT provide value, and the players do not fully develop, because clubs can't be bothered to teach the basics. Yes, it would be preferable if youth players could run around on the fields all day playing pick-up and learn these details on their own. But that is not the reality of today's society. So the kids need to be taught. There is no reason why kids can't, by the age of 14, be able to trap the ball with their chest, trap the ball with both feet, and kick the ball 5 different ways with both feet. Maybe this is just in the SF Bay Area, and other hotbeds of soccer deliver much better value than I observe in my area. But it seems to me that the Bay Area has been underrepresented at the national level because all the clubs are serving the same cold gruel while charging top sirloin prices.Can the coaches demonstrate proper technique? In most instances, the answer is no. And the product is there for all to see in the decision-making and pass selection of the players. Raise the bar, clubs. Your coaches aren't up to snuff, and it has nothing to do with their USSF badges.

  17. Guy Walling, May 15, 2022 at 9:35 a.m.

    Bob Ashpole you hit the nail on the head! One additional comment I would like to add is that our kids will develop better and we would be a stronger soccer nation if and only if the so-called elite clubs work together with high school and even college system instead of excluding each other similar to how ECNL does by making room in the schedule for the HS season! There is a psychosocial aspect of the HS game that the MLS-Next system is neglecting as well. The bottom line is that the school system and elite club system must assimilate for the success of our soccer nation and individual development of the player!!

  18. humble 1, May 15, 2022 at 12:18 p.m.

    If pay-to-play did not exist wouldn't USYS fail to exist?  If so, how can one accept any discourse from USYS about the viability of pay-to-play?  Isn't USYS HQ are just up the road from Austin?  Please.  Thank you. 

  19. humble 1, May 15, 2022 at 12:28 p.m.

    Don't fool yourself to think the talented players with limited resources are excluded from playing.  They are playing!  Organziations like USYS and their membership, have created barriers to exclude them from playing in their leagues.  How? By requiring clubs to own/lease 10 teams and 10 pitches to participate in their leagues.  Why?  B.C. these teams are parent-coached and only need 1/2 a pitch or park to train their youth team, until U13/14, and so charge a pitance, but, the consistently beat the pants off the USYS member teams and threaten their pay-to-play structure.  You go to work for USYS with all the good intentions in the world, but the reality hits hard, no pay-to-play, no pay-for-you.  You then start talking nonsense and doing what you have to keep up the cash flow.  Thank you.

  20. R2 Dad replied, May 15, 2022 at 9:31 p.m.

    Humble, I see what you are talking about, but not the league requirements. In my neighborhood the cities control field schedules, not the leagues. So even tiny clubs get fields, especially if their players/coaches are brown/black. What I do see regarding these tiny local teams playing against the bigger clubs, is that they have 1-3 key players coached by a parent living vicariously through their sons/friends of their sons. Those parents retard the development of these key players by just going route 1 over and over because it's all about winning winnning winning. Those key players hit 15 and the fun and games are over--better developed-though-weaker players out-play these tiny teams, the key player's potential is delayed/deferred. Maybe they go to college, maybe not. Without pro-rel/training, solidarity payments and training compensation, those key players are much more likely to whither and/or slip through the cracks. 

  21. Bob Ashpole replied, May 15, 2022 at 11:07 p.m.

    In my big picture view, the problem is after U13/14 do the USYS clubs select the best talent of all the local players or do they favor their own club players to the exclusion of others? We know the answer to that. That is at the heart of what makes player development an exlucisive rather than exclusive process. There has been some mention of "scholarship" players. Does anyone think that having 1 scholarship player on a pay-to-play team of 17 makes the practice "inclusive"? The practice is not inclusive in the big picture view and on the micro view it promotes the view of soccer that a team only needs one skilled technical player who will then carry the team of lesser skilled players to victories by using specialized tactics. That is at the heart of what I see wrong with US player development. The pro clubs will select the best talent, but at U12 that is a far too small net to cast for creating a pool of elite players. The pool becomes determined by who was playing "elite" soccer at age 12. Street soccer (unorganized soccer) used to provide a large pool of pre-teen players for the break out of elite players. Not any more. The pool is largely determined by the pay to play system.

     One side comment. Don't assume that all "scholarships" go new families. Lots of families who pay for soccer for one child, can't afford to pay for two. (The average number of kids per US family is still around 2). A lot of tuition breaks go to families with multiple children. And that is not what I consider an inclusive practice. 

  22. Patrick Duffy, May 16, 2022 at 1:16 p.m.

    Your first proposal, that clubs and high schools work more closely together, is a pipe dream.  High schools do not seem themselves as developing potential professional players or even potential college players.  The soccer field is an extension of the classroom.  Many school districts, either by policy or by contract with their teachers' union, will give coaching assignment priority to anyone on their staff who wants the extra duty pay for coaching, even if they know nothing about soccer.  Essentially, schools say 'soccer isn't that important to what we do.'  

    Clubs, on the other hand, see development of soccer skills (and winning games) as their goal.  If development is their goal, then year round play is necessary.  You don't get better as a soccer player by playing basketball for a third of the year.  That's not going to happen in high school sports!  Even the NCAA can't bring themselves to have college soccer in both the fall and spring.  If the two groups have different goals, there is no institutional reason for either of them to 'work more closely together.'  Soccer isn't even on the radar for high school administrators, unless there is some embarrassing misconduct at a game.

  23. Bob Ashpole replied, May 16, 2022 at 2:13 p.m.

    First para I mostly agree with. Physical educations is important to them, developing athletic skills is not. Team sports help develop character and social skills. 

    Second paragraph I don't agree with. Cross training is an important part of youth athletic development. A rest period in the yearly cycle is also extremely important.

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