The Pay-for-Play Paradox

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Written December 1st, 2012 by Mike Slatton

Pay for Play – In the Beginning

My first experience with pay-for-play was in 1977, when I first began playing soccer in Sand Springs, Oklahoma. My mother signed me up because it was less dangerous than football, easier than baseball and every child was guaranteed to play at least half the game. Soccer was just $30 a season and uniforms were another $25. Most of our coaches had never played the game before and were volunteers. Practices were twice a week with games on Saturday mornings. None of us understood what the World Cup was and really had no idea that people played this game in other parts of the world FOR MONEY.

 The world has changed a lot in the last 35 years.

Today, every youth soccer coach in America coaches for the same team – Team USA. We are (or should be) developing players to create a National Team that is the “best of the best” players we can train, to represent our country in the World Cup every four years. However, the current system in America actually undermines our ability to develop and produce the best soccer players possible. If you read the article Understanding Potential, you grasp the theory that we don’t have the best-of-the-best professional athletes playing any sport in the U.S., but instead have the best-of-what-is-left. Most player potential is lost through bad coaching, bad parenting, a failure to recognize that potential, tragedy and/or sheer laziness. Somewhere between “bad coaching” and “sheer laziness” lies the Pay-for-Play Paradox.

In America, our time is measured by the hour, in dollars.

In the United States, we’ve created an environment that prioritizes monetary compensation for EVERYTHING we do. A dollar value is placed on every task, every product, every service and our time is measured by the hour in dollars. It’s so bad that bending down to pick up a dime (quarter if you’re my wife) is measured against the time lost in getting back to work. It’s no wonder that we now pay youth coaches of every sport to do something that just 20 years ago was performed by volunteers, who did it strictly for the love of the game (whatever game that was). What’s even worse is that volunteerism is frowned upon so much in these sports clubs (especially soccer) that the obvious volunteers (high school kids and parents) are actually DISCOURAGED from participating. So instead of having coaches, administrators and directors with a vested interest in the development of the children participating, you end up with skyrocketing player fees, trespass warnings, and a political culture that focuses on the bottom line first and player development somewhere behind trophies and awards.

Now, let me clarify the “volunteers” statement: The level of coaching we have today is light years ahead of what we had 20 years ago. To say otherwise would essentially be saying that in my 25+ years of coaching and 35+ years of playing and watching soccer, I’ve learned NOTHING, and that all of the other players and coaches I’ve met and encountered along the way have also learned nothing. We all know that’s not the case, but is there a NEED to pay recreational youth soccer coaches?

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Note: The term “recreational” refers to ANY club that is not part of a professional club.

In the United States, there are literally only a handful of clubs that feed professional soccer clubs, in either the MLS, NASL, or USL. All others are in fact, RECREATIONAL, though they may insinuate that they’re more.

The only real difference between “competitive” recreation and recreational soccer are that some clubs pay their coaches in the competitive divisions, and they’re allowed by the club to practice a couple more hours each week.  In the end, after all the years and thousands of dollars, the best your child can hope for is to play in the next pay-for-play venue: College.

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The same types of personalities that were coaching 30+ years ago are still coaching, but now we’re paying them. Is this just a phenomenon brought on by a bad economy, or is this the influence of large corporations that overvalue and overprice every product and service they offer?

Here’s the dilemma we face: Since clubs have started paying their volunteers and managing the city or county fields they use, soccer club fees have multiplied 10 to 20 times. Now, access to the “publicly owned” fields is limited to club members, so casual kick-arounds are completely eliminated. That means that the monster just continues to feed, as ANYONE who wants to play soccer must pay to join a league or club.

Sorry

Today, soccer and most other sports are only available to those who can afford it. Lower income families are limited from participating as these programs are not only out of reach financially, but out of reach geographically as well, as few people are interested in starting a club in a low income area. Therefore, lower income athletes with GREAT potential are completely stonewalled from most athletic programs – especially soccer. For the U.S. to have a National Team made up of the best soccer players we can find, we have to have programs that EVERYONE can afford. That, of course, requires good soccer coaches who do it for the love of the game – not just a paycheck – and good clubs that are available and ADVERTISED to low income families .

Today, athletic development is only available to those who can afford it. The paradox is that we can NEVER go back to the way it was just 20 years ago, because once you set the standard of paying everyone for everything, you’ll never find another volunteer.  It’s the equivalent of paying your kids to do their homework… or play sports.

Last year (2010/2011) our local under-8 “Academy” program was paying HIGH SCHOOL kids to coach the players. Parents were vocally displeased as they were paying a premium for the director (a former professional player) to teach their kids the game of soccer, and he went out and HIRED high school kids to manage the practices! This program was an even bigger challenge for the new teenage “coaches” who struggled with dividing their attention between their mobile devices and the action on the field. Needless to say, that director and the teenagers were removed from the equation the next year and replaced with adults.

The Solution

So, is there a solution? No, but one isn’t needed. The problem is actually fixing itself RIGHT NOW. Pay-for-play is gradually fading away, just like it came in. Over the next decade or so, as the American way of life continues to deteriorate, pay-for-pay clubs will also deteriorate (read article Where Does All the Money Go? to get better insight into the future) and will be replaced by smaller clubs with less administration and expenses, casual pick-up games and after school get-togethers.

The great news for lovers of the game is that, while today’s high priced recreational clubs are the problem, they’re actually the solution for creating the soccer culture that the U.S. currently lacks. 20 or 30 years from now, kids will be “playing” soccer daily, in parks and on school grounds, instead of “practicing” twice a week. The game that their fathers and grand-fathers paid-to-play, will be part of their everyday lives.

The saddest part of this story, though, is that the United States still isn’t any closer to winning a World Cup, as right here, right now we have the absolute best player development resources of any country and the fastest growing population of players in the world. Yet, all we can think about is how we can CAPITALIZE on soccer’s growing popularity.


Mike Slatton is the Chief Editor of the Soccer Mom
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About Author

Mike Slatton is a 2nd generation American youth soccer coach since 1984, and the son of one of the nation's first female licensed youth soccer coaches (Anita Slatton, 1978). He's also a professional soccer scout, a player since 1977, and the father of three adult and teenage children who all play or have played the game. "My job as a youth soccer coach is to develop detail oriented problem solvers who can react quickly under pressure. This relates to life - not just soccer."

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