BY SKIP GILBERT
In January, Rick Burton and Norm O’Reilly’s column addressed how the pay-to-play model in sport is going to destroy the natural involvement of children entering the youth sport ecosystem.
The premise is that the pay-to-play model is creating a barrier to entry. Years ago while I worked within the Olympic Movement, many of the NGBs and youth sports in general discovered that creating 12-month programming led to a constant revenue stream. That provided the ability to hire coaches, trainers, and other staff. To support this infrastructure, pricing increased, they labeled the program elite, and the economic engine was off and running.
Today, we have elite programming for players that are ages 8 and above, with the sales pitch being that this “club” is the only way the child will get the Division I college athletic scholarship. Ridiculous yes, but parents buy in.
The points raised by Rick and Norm are valid and, clearly, I don’t disagree with the premise as this economic disparity affects every youth sport. The narrative is correct. However, the impetus and key is to find a real solution.
Let’s look at another youth-focused institution: Education. At all levels, you have parents that are more than willing to pay for private school or to send their kids to prep school. In college, plenty of parents will gladly pay to send their children to Harvard or Cornell. We might add that the economic engine around private schooling has risen faster than any other segment of society.
More entry points are needed that don’t need to always lead to elite competition.
While nobody is writing articles about ending the pay-to-learn crisis that keeps most children from being able to attend these private institutions, education has one major advantage over sport: They have public schooling. There are 24,000 public high schools and 87,498 elementary/middle schools in the U.S., and 34,576 private schools serve 10% of the PK-12 market.
At the college level, there are 1,625 public colleges, 1,660 private and 697 for-profit institutions. The point is that if a student can’t afford to go to a private school, there are plenty of public institutions that will serve them extremely well. Unfortunately, we don’t have the public-school ethic in sport outside of high school programming.
So, the narrative has to change. How do we develop programming for children that provides a good alternative to the clubs that have priced themselves out of the market for so many? We need a revenue stream for fields, equipment and referees. We can find volunteers to coach.
Our programming at US Youth Soccer already focuses overwhelmingly on soccer development beyond the core elite level. In fact, of our 2.4 million registered players, most play the beautiful game for the love of it and not an eventual payoff to play collegiate, pro or for our country.
Given the focus of most SBJ readers, the question is how can a company invest its sponsorship dollars to support public sport? To help build the base that every community can embrace and benefit from?
Can we find a technology solution to allow a child to find a field by her or his home, find a time they can play and sign up with the appropriate age group? Too many kids on the roster? There is a wait list. Someone drops off, another steps in. Create a system where the family still pays something per session to have skin in the game but it’s nothing like the cost of the elite clubs. It’s public school pricing over private.
At the end, a public sport system identifies public fields in every community, generates a mentor/coach to be on-site for safety but this model is more “free play” with small-sided options (3v3, 5v5 for example) over structured coaching. It creates a fun entry point for all children and for those that play for social benefits and don’t want to follow an elite path. It allows them to stay in the sport throughout their teenage years.
In the school market, taxes help fund the cost to support the existence of these institutions at the high school level and below. Sport does not have that luxury. But we can build it if we all come together to develop a way. This is not a soccer-only solution, as I firmly believe in multisport play until teenage years. For most of the families that can really take advantage of this model, having a choice of what to play will keep their children involved in sport their entire life.
This model still allows the economic engine of private sport to thrive, but it provides an alternative that might just change the overall shape of youth sport in this country. More important, it incentivizes Corporate America to truly give back at a community-based level that will benefit society for generations to come.
Skip Gilbert is the CEO of US Youth Soccer Association, the largest youth sport organization in the country, and one of the founders and current board member of the Association of Chief Executives for Sport (ACES).