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Where does all the money go? (Youth Soccer Fees)

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Written December 2nd, 2012 by Mike Slatton

Volunteers

The history of youth soccer in the United States is a little fuzzy, but goes back to the late 1960’s and early ’70’s.  Soccer was considered the sport of liberals and socialists and the first youth leagues were popular among immigrants & runners.  Games were played on public school grounds on Saturdays, and practices were held wherever a patch of grass (or dirt) was available.  It would be decades before soccer became the most popular youth participation activity in the United States.

In 1974, the United States Youth Soccer Association (U.S. Youth Soccer or USYSA) was formed.  By no coincidence, at the same time, the United States Soccer Football Association dropped “Football” from its name, to become US Soccer. USYSA was built on the foundation of volunteerism. Soccer fees were low and the sport was accessible to everyone, from every demographic.  The modest fees were going to uniforms and fields, with a little going to USYSA.

It wasn’t until 1996 when I first heard of someone in recreational youth sports (“recreational” refers to ANY club that does not feed players directly into a professional club) getting paid to do what was done – up til then – by volunteers.

Paychecks

In 1996, I was coaching with an Orlando area soccer club.  At their general meeting, on the table was the suggestion to pay the club Registrar.  The club was growing fast and registration was a daunting task. The club registrar was responsible for registering players, creating player passes and organizing the paperwork for submission to the league and FYSA  – all usually within a 2 week period.    Nobody on the board disagreed that the task was painstaking, but EVERYONE agreed that they didn’t want to do it.  One person on the board (a former club registrar) was willing to do the job for a percentage of the fees collected.  A vote was taken, the registrar was “hired” and the precedent was set.

Within a season or two, ALL clubs in the area (and probably the nation) were paying their registrars.  Not long after that, I was coaching at another club, sitting in on another board meeting, and again, there was another vote on the table to pay a volunteer.  This time it was the club’s president.  It was a small wage, for all of the hours they were putting in (like a part-time job).  It passed.  The very next year at the same club, there was yet another vote on the table to actually hire for a new position that many youth soccer clubs were filling – “Director of Coaching”.  This individual would collect a weekly paycheck equal to $30,000 per year.  There was a lot of discussion, but – per the club president (who had just started collecting his own paycheck) – this seemed to be the direction youth soccer was headed.  The vote was close, but it passed and a $30k/annually Coaching Director was added to the expanding payroll.

Structure

As youth soccer grew in popularity, and about the same time that Registrars started getting paid, USYSA had instructed their state associations to suggest to their local clubs that they start incorporating a Coaching Director/Director of Coaching (CD/DoC) into their organizations.  The CDs were to be the direct link between their club’s youth coaches and the state organization – which was influenced by U.S. Soccer, which adheres to the guidelines of FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association  – English: International Federation of Association Football): Earth’s governing body of soccer.  The job of the Coaching Director was to pass-on and implement directives and strategies for the betterment of American soccer, as a whole.   Coaching Directors were (usually) significantly experienced youth coaches with state or national youth coaching licenses who were supposed to be mentors and teachers to the other coaches.  At first, CDs were paid like the club  president (part-time job), but somewhere along the line the job became a “professional” coaching position, thereby warranting a professional salary (30k to 50k+).

As Coaching Directors became more popular in clubs, US Soccer and the State Youth Soccer organizations gained more influence in local club operations.  They (the CDs and governing bodies) began requiring better equipment and coaching tools for their coaches.  They wanted every coach to be provided balls, cones and other equipment – paid for with club funds.  The CD’s also wanted their “competitive” team coaches (there are different levels of recreational youth soccer competition) to have coaching licenses.  Since licenses cost hundreds to thousands of dollars, most volunteer coaches balked… so most clubs just agreed to pay for their licensing.  Very quickly, coaching directors were given their own budgets to work with, and soon thereafter, the more experienced coaches began receiving paychecks at local clubs as well.  The idea behind paying their experienced coaches was that the club risked losing them to another club that might already be paying theirs.

[quote]Within a couple of years, soccer fees doubled – and then doubled again, as youth soccer got “organized”.  Soccer club membership fees were going to uniforms, facilities, registration, USYSA, State Youth Soccer Associations, administration, coaches, field maintenance and park facilities maintenance (bathrooms, building, lights).[/quote]

Club registration numbers continued to increase and there became a need for larger athletic complexes, with lighting to accommodate later practice times.  The growing number of teams warranted assigning Coaching Directors to each gender, which of course warranted hiring a Technical Director (TD) to lead the CDs.  TDs usually have years of experience coaching and/or as Coaching Directors, and have National A or B soccer coaching licenses.  Of course, since a TD is MUCH more qualified than a CD, they are deserving of a salary commensurate with their title, experience and responsibilities.  This salary ranges from $60k to $100k.

Today, the costs to play soccer in the United States continue to increase as clubs “improve”, but has the development programs of America’s youth soccer players improved?

The Sad Truth

Many American youth soccer clubs claim to emulate or simulate European style football clubs – and first impressions would certainly lead you to believe it.  Most teams at every age group have PRACTICE uniforms (sometime 2 or even 3) as well as multiple game-day jerseys for home and away games.  Other accessories like equipment bags and club branded balls finish off the picture, but that’s where ALL similarities to the European clubs stop… and the fees start.

The fees parents pay for their kids to play soccer starts out at hundreds per year (under 8 years old) and gradually increases into thousands per year (u-14 and up).  Older, more experienced players need developed, more experienced coaches.  Better coaches cost more money.  Better teams also have to travel farther to find comparable competition, so those fees are just rolled into the overall package that the parents pay.

So what are we actually paying for? In Europe, nearly every youth club either feeds to a professional club team, or feeds an Academy which feeds a professional club team.  What do our youth soccer clubs feed?  College: The NEXT pay-for-play venue.  However, if you consider all the money that you paid into soccer in your child’s lifetime, you could have paid for their college twice over.

Development

In Europe, youth soccer clubs have a system of identifying good players and have incentives to develop youth players into professionals, by way of “Transfer Fees”.

Sometime after the Football League was formed in 1888, the Football League decided that restrictions had to be placed on the ability of richer clubs to lure players from other clubs to prevent the league being dominated by a handful of clubs. From the start of the 1893–94 season onwards, once a player was registered with a Football League club, he could not be registered with any other club, even in subsequent seasons, without the permission of the club he was registered with. It applied even if the player’s annual contract with the club holding his registration was not renewed after it expired. The club was not obliged to play him and, without a contract, the player was not entitled to receive a salary. Nevertheless, if the club refused to release his registration, the player could not play for any other Football League club.

Football League clubs soon came to realize that they could demand and earn a transfer fee from any other Football League club as consideration for agreeing to release or transfer the player’s registration.Definition of Transfer

Ajax Football Club LogoFor over 100 years, the transfer fee has been a way to protect smaller clubs – who might be really good at developing players – from wealthier clubs who would just steal those players away with a large salary, after all of the hard work is done.  Today, transfer fees are widely recognized as a reward to clubs that are good at developing youth players into professional athletes.  The transfer fee is a payment for training and developing players.  For instance:  Aside from being one of the top professional teams in the world, Ajax of Amsterdam is one of the planet’s top producers of professional soccer talent.

The Ajax Youth Academy has earned millions and millions of dollars in transfer fees over the years by training young players in the Ajax method of play.  By contrast, the United States has a system of training that is financed by middle class and upper middle-class parents who are in no way qualified to recognize good training, so they’ll pay whatever they’re asked to pay, and blindly follow the club’s lead.

FAIL!

Our youth system appears on the outside to be organized and committed to excellence.  The problem is that this system is not training, developing and molding young soccer players to one day lead America to a World Cup victory.  (*Read: Why Your Son Will Never Be a Professional Athlete for more info) Instead, it’s doing the exact opposite!  The greed that has permeated our country’s youth soccer programs is holding up the development of our players by requiring every person who wants to play, to pay OUTRAGEOUS fees that get more and more expensive as the players get older.  If you leave out the horrible training and overwhelming payrolls, all that’s left is 4 hours a week of toe taps on the ball, dribbling through cones, shooting on empty nets, and a game on Saturday.  When children are the most flexible and eager to learn, our clubs actually LIMIT how much practice a team can have – usually to 2 nights a week – to keep field space available for more teams to “practice”.   At this pace, it would mean that our players would be in their 40’s and 50’s when they finally have the knowledge and experience to compete against European and South American teams for the World Cup trophy. Even the US Men’s National Team Coach, Jürgen Klinsmann recruits players from European professional leagues, because OUR SYSTEM SUCKS!

Overcoming the Failures of American Soccer

A great example of the American soccer system failing a player is Rise and Shine: The Jay Demerit story.  After being a standout athlete his entire childhood and playing soccer in high school & college, and then training full time with the Chicago Fire Academy he still wasn’t good enough to play in America’s professional soccer league, the MLS.  So at 21 years old, he actually went to Europe to learn how to play the game.  Within 4 years of moving to England, Jay Demerit was named to the US Men’s National Team.

Decline

Today (December, 2012), many soccer clubs have peaked their expansions and are actually starting to consolidate or merge.  Some clubs are so payroll heavy that they cannot afford to adequately maintain their facilities anymore.  Fields aren’t irrigated, bathrooms aren’t cleaned, light bulbs aren’t replaced on the field lights and the once new golf carts and 4 wheelers that buzzed around on practice nights and game days have low tires and ripped seats.  The perimeters of the fields are littered with broken goals and benches.  Bleachers are in disrepair.  Groundskeepers that are needed to keep the bathrooms clean, replace burned out light blubs, repair goals & fences, and replace goal netting have been fired to maintain the outrageous salaries of unnecessary TDs, CDs and ill-qualified coaches.

In the United States, we have one type of youth soccer – recreational. It’s dressed up with nice uniforms (for coaches and kids), big sports complexes and bright lights, with every intention of looking like more, but the sad truth is, it’s all just for fun. Your son will NEVER develop into a professional athlete playing in this environment.

*Note: For more information on the failure of the American youth soccer system, read: Pay for Play Paradox, and Why Your Son Will Never Be a Professional Athlete.

Mike Slatton is the Chief Editor of the Soccer Mom Manual and a 25+ year youth soccer coach.
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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.”

20 Comments

  1. Tired Soccer Dad on

    FIrst, I agree that the costs of travel soccer have gotten crazy and may actually hurt U.S. Soccer. But theres’ one conundrum you don’t address – why does pay to play harm us on the men’s side, but not on women’s?

    We’re told we need more “creative” and talented Latina girls to play, but the pay to play costs keep them out – yet I have seen suburban girls teams just take apart Team America (primarily Hispanic) teams in the Maryland NoVa area. Generally, the pay to play teams aren’t as “creative” but they stay organized, and are able to put speed on the field for the whole game, not just a half.

    On the international front, we continue to see the USWNT dominate, and the best international players come to the US for College so that they can play. Could it be said that Title IX in the U.S. Has created the kind of incentive system that doesn’t exist on the Men’s side? That the fact that there is very little professional soccer opportunity even for the best women’s players means that College, which may ruin our men, actually serves as the professional prep for our women?

    And how do we take the fact that the U.S. has this same system for other sports that we do well in internationally – Youth Football, Baseball, Hockey, Gymnastics, and Swimming all have varying versions of “Pay to Play”, albeit not always at the same price tag,

    In short, I agree that Pay to play is creating real problems for us with youth soccer, but without a functional “farm team” system that actually forces money down into youth development through transfer fees or some other mechanism, merely banning pay to play is unlikely to create that change we want.

    • Hi Tired Soccer Dad, I just came across your question….here are my two cents. Women around the world have not being encouraged and, at least in Argentina where I am originally from, likely discouraged. Here why i think the USNWT is one of the best: 1. It started at the same/around the same time at most countries , not like the male counterparts that are aprox 100 years behind, 2. We have wonderful facilities/resources and the girls have their parents’ encouragement in the states which other country do not have (my daughter can play in nice fields, decent coaches, etc…and I am fully support her desire to play) and 3. The non-US women do not have the hunger for soccer that their male counterparts have in other countries (Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, etc)….Messi, Aguero, Tevez, Maradona …..soccer was a way out of “hood”, a way to make a life for themselves…a girls that puts the same effort won’t have the same rewards.

  2. Great article. I was shocked to learn that competitive soccer in my community was more expensive than travel hockey. I looked into it and found exactly what you described. The club has a Director of Coaching who makes $130k/year and 4 Asst Directors who all make over $100k/year. The total club revenue is only $1.5m/year. So, 33% of the revenue goes directly to 5 guys. Soccer is big business these days. It’s not about the kids anymore.

    • Mike Slatton on

      Thanks, Ken. Recently, one of our local clubs just hired a “consultant” for $250k annually. The fields are a wreck, the goals look like worn out fishing nets, and the bathrooms are filthy, so they hired a consultant for $250k.

      For FREE, I could have told them a better way to spend that money.

      • Wow, think of how many people would do that job for free? It’s really sad where youth sports is going. There is more to my story: These salaries bothered me so much that I decided to push the issue with the club and township (the township has a loose relationship but they allow the club to use the fields for free). Anyway, after asking a bunch of questions the soccer club retained an attorney and kicked me and my family out of the club….all because I dare ask if they conducted a comparability study to justify the salaries (IRS requirement of a non-profit). Guess I touched a nerve.

        • Mike Slatton on

          Ha ha ha! It’s either laugh or cry.

          Sadly, that is NOT the first time I’ve hear I’ve heard that. However, I’ve chosen a completely different path to combat the irony of paying premium fees for “community service” quality of coaching and development. I started my own soccer club. It’s Hurricane Futbol Club, and if you want, we can duplicate it in your city.

          • That is awesome. Congratulations!!! I would love to duplicate that in my area…however the current soccer club has a permit for all the fields in all the parks every day all day (yes, that is actually in the permit). They get this “all access” permit for $20k year. Should be more like $300k/year. So, they’ve made it virtually impossible for me to do anything. I fact, I tried to practice at a park with my sons non local team (in my own township) and the “soccer mafia” ganged up on me, recorded my kids and told me to leave thier fields…so, I’m afraid It will be too difficult.

          • Mike Slatton on

            Ask any millionaire, and they will tell you that making the first million is the hardest. Same thing goes with soccer clubs.

            You’d have to be really pissed-off to start your own soccer club, and right now, you aren’t. However, if you ever do get angry enough, we can duplicate Hurricane FC in Dearborn. There is space.

            Let me know when you’re ready.

  3. renosoccermom on

    I have a ten-year-old daughter who was just ‘recruited’ to a competitive soccer team from her recreational team. (The coach watched her last game of the season with her recreational team and approached us after.) She’s only played three seasons, but she has natural talent as a goalkeeper and is in love with the game. I’m curious about whether or not you think moving to the competitive team would be worth it. She’d go from two hours of practice and a game on Saturdays, four months or so out of the year, to ten months of six hours a week of practice plus games, plus access to pick-up games and a winter indoor soccer team. The cost is more than recreational ($300 per season, so twice a year, plus a couple of hundred extra each season for tournaments–vs. $100 per season for recreational) but it seems in line with the extra time she gets–three times the pay, far more than three times the play. There is no cost during the summer and winter, and the coaches are volunteer. Do you think moving to a competitive team is worth it? The coach of the new team also wants her to try out for the ODP. How do you feel about that program?

    • Mike Slatton on

      Right now, your daughter is probably the best player on her team. When she gets to competitive, she will be just another player on the team. So, I guess you need to think about what your/her goals are.

      The overwhelming majority of competitive coaches are looking for talent that is already developed. They are NOT looking for coachable athletes. The reason is that most youth soccer clubs do not feed a professional club, so there’s no incentive.

      Will she get better playing competitive soccer? Absolutely, but not because the coaches are phenomenal (though they are probably much more knowledgeable and experienced than her rec coaches). She’ll get better because she’s playing with and against better players. Kids learn better from kids. You’ll just need to be very aware of her training environment, as the expectations will be higher and she may be encountering more self doubt than she’s ever had before. You need to make sure that you’re being a parent FIRST. I say that because every athlete’s first coach is their parent, and when you’re raising an athlete, it’s hard to turn "coach" off and "parent" on. Just be the parent directly AFTER and BEFORE every game, practice and training. Analysis can be provided the day after.

      In order to develop athletes, there has to be a certain amount of individual and small sided instruction. There also needs to be slow-motion video analysis to identify failures in technique and mechanics. You will not get this in ANY traditional youth soccer club environment. So, if your goal is to get beyond the youth clubs, then you should invest in an HD video camera that shoots at least 100 frames per second, and shoot video at trainings, the beginning of the season and the end of the season (to assess progress). Compare what you see against goalkeeper training videos you find on YouTube.

      As for ODP: Sure. Again, she’ll get valuable experience, and the truth is that a female goalkeeper with average ability can go pretty far in ODP development programs, because there just aren’t a lot of aggressive female goalkeepers. I’m continuously surprised by the female goalkeepers who make ODP teams. Most have very little talent, but because they are relatively fearless, coaches will take a chance on them. For some reason, girls don’t want to risk getting kicked in the face.

      As far as general GOALKEEPER DEVELOPMENT: She needs to PLAY THE FIELD as much as possible. Youth coaches get excited when they find a player that:

      1. WANTS to play goalie, and
      2. is good at it, but…

      …you are limiting her overall player development by not having her play on the field AT LEAST half the time. That either means playing one half of every game or playing one half of the season on the field. She’ll need to come out of the goal often and will be taking lots of dead balls. Tim Howard was a field player FIRST. In fact, the overwhelming majority of high level goalkeepers primarily played on the field until they were in their teens. Great goalkeepers have very good feet. Qualified youth soccer coaches KNOW this, and should be developing a plan to get her on the field.

      As for COST: It sounds like you’re getting a pretty good deal, but expect to spend 10 to 20 times more as she gets older. On top of that, she will NEVER make a livable wage as a professional player in the women’s leagues (read more: The Truth About Professional Soccer). Financially, you’re better off starting a college fund and keeping her in rec.

      I hope I answered all of your questions, and look forward to hearing about her success.

      Mike

  4. Curious to know if you have any information or suggestions on what to do with a 13 yr old. My son is about to start with his high school program and is a highly regarded player in our district, (he is suppose to be the top rated player for his age and the age above in our area.)

    Don’t know if I should start taking it more seriously or let him enjoy high school and, hopefully, college and then leave it at that.

    Sounds like unless you’re overseas, it’s a done deal.

    • Mike Slatton on

      In truth, if he’s the top rated player in the area, he’s already taking it seriously, and he’s already on someone’s radar. Southern California is one of the hottest soccer regions in the nation, and if you’re son is, without argument, one of the best in the area, then he’s one of the best in the United States, and he’ll be getting attention soon from US Soccer.

      Club soccer is much more respected than middle and high school soccer, so if it’s just the middle school and high school scene that he’s respected, he may not be as good as you think he is. There are over a dozen competitive youth soccer clubs in L.A. I assume you’re affiliated with one of these clubs, but if you’re not, then you should consider sending him to tryouts, if for no other reason than to really gauge his skills and abilities.

      It’s easy to develop the nuances of the game in children under 12, but once puberty hits, only the most dedicated athletes can achieve the fitness and game knowledge to play at the highest level. Club soccer at least establishes a routine for committed players, and promotes an environment of accountability to personal excellence. Of course competitive club soccer also has a reputation for destroying the “love of the game” for many players due to an overwhelming number of under-qualified coaches who are more interested in WINS than they are in developing and TEACHING kids how to play soccer. Even the TOP 5% of all youth soccer coaches are still mostly teaching the game from their own perspective, and ignoring the varying styles and history of the game.

      So, in a nutshell: You’re already in one of the best soccer cities in the nation, and if your kid is truly awesome, then he’s already on US Soccer’s radar or the radar of one of the local pro teams. If he’s NOT playing club soccer, then he isn’t on anyone’s radar and you may be overestimating his abilities. To remove all doubt – go to some club soccer tryouts. Google Los Angeles Soccer Clubs to find a club near you.

  5. Brian Kelly on

    Mike,

    I would be curious to hear of Ernesto’s and Andre’s thoughts. I have been disappointed in the US effort to develop players and think there is a long way to go. What seems like clubs trying to find a solution has progressively steered the ship toward the berg. I would appreciate being included in your discussions with the others, and if other models of development have a chance here in the States.

    Thanks

    -BK

  6. Brian Keenan on

    Interesting reading, on the outside it looks like that us soccer is taking great strides forward in the game. We all enter into underage soccer with the best of intentions but when cash is added it changes the nature of the beast along with the initial ideals of coaches in the game. If a club is broken at the top then there is no chance of fixing it without radical reforms in club policy and procedure. Clubs soon forget their mission statement, they lose their identity in the search for excellence and end up taking their eye off the bigger picture. The kids. If developed and nurtured in the correct environment then they have a greater chance of progressing to higher forms of competition, if they are good enough and rounded then they will progress. This in turn enhances the reputation of the club for its development, which has a knock on effect on the participation. All that said it is broken before it starts because a wage comes in the process of thinking and as soon as that happens the decision making is altered from being the right decision to being a business decision.

    • Mike Slatton on

      Thanks, Brian.

      In the same vein of thought, my younger son is playing in an in-house recreational league this season. The rule is “no practices. Just games.” Of course this has resulted in a real comedy of sorts, as some kids have no idea, and some (like my son) have a real understanding of the game. Well, when parents of less experienced players began complaining that thy wanted their kids to have practices, the clubs solution was for parents to pay for PRIVATE TRAINING! Ha ha ha ha! I’m still scratching my head over that one.

  7. Hi, i’m from brazil and youth soccer coach. Lookin from here we’ve another vision about US youth soccer system. I thought the NSCAA gave some guidelines for the development of sports in the US . And I confess that I am surprised and disappointed because I really thought that soon you would have a excellence in soccer. Here in Brazil we’ve a lot of troubles in our system too. I will appreciate if we could talk about these questions. Respectes form Brazil, André.

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