What Causes USA Soccer’s Pay-to-Play Problem?

USA soccer has a massive “pay-to-play” or “rich sport” problem. Thousands upon thousands of eager and talented young soccer players are priced out of, cannot find, or are never scouted for high-quality playing and training opportunities.

But get this:

Pay-to-play itself does not need to be touched. It is NOT a bogeyman that needs to be destroyed.

“Wait, What?!”

There is an important distinction to remember in the effort to solve this problem:

It’s not about destroying the “pay-to-play” system itself, it’s about INCENTIVIZING the creation of a separate, free-to-play pipeline that is normally seen in other soccer nations around the world.

“Paying for soccer” has to exist at some level of any nation’s soccer ecosystem. Resources, infrastructure, and services cost money. Markets do not function on charity alone. The key difference is WHO is paying for the soccer opportunities.

In normal soccer nations around the world (98% of the free world), TWO youth player opportunity pipelines exist:

1) A free-to-play training and scouting pipeline established by professional soccer clubs striving for competition achievements and financial profit.

2) A pay-to-play pipeline where participants exchange money for organized soccer activity.

What on the surface looks like a “pay-to-play” or “rich sport” root problem is really just a symptom of one single bad governing policy: a closed USA soccer market.

In an open USA soccer market (read: promotion/relegation and an open division 1), America’s thousands of soccer clubs would have incentive to build and invest in free-to-play academies and scouting networks. This chance of a return on investment could come from the financial reward of winning promotion to a higher division (increases in merchandise sales, TV deal shares, attendance etc.), or the sale of “homegrown”, senior-level players to other clubs for financial profit (spend fifty-thousand dollars on a player “X’s” development from age 11-17, then sell him on at age 18 to another club for a fee of ten million dollars).

Imagine if 500 open system USA soccer clubs fielded academies with a rough average of 60 player slots each. This would result in 30,000 free-to-play, high-level player development opportunities (not to mention many job opportunities for coaches, scouts, and administrators). USA has an estimated 9,000 soccer clubs through the youth and pro levels under the current closed system, so the above projection is ultra conservative. There is potential for hundreds of thousands of club player and staff opportunities.

The pay-to-play soccer pipeline would simply fill the remaining vacuum in the ecosystem. There will still be a massive swath of players seeking a soccer recreational experience or a fallback competitive outlet just below the pro academy cut line. Americans have a huge appetite for youth sports entertainment and plenty of disposable income. Pay-to-play soccer is not going anywhere. It is very healthy for American soccer in this scenario.

American soccer has been forced to rely solely on its pay-to-play pipeline for the development of professional and national team players.

The lack of a free-to-play academy and scouting pipeline means that a multitude of players are never discovered or properly developed. Players in good economic or geographic situations have a leg up on the rest. Open systems serve just consequences for both success and failure. Closed systems simply cannot filter talent as efficiently as open systems. Basing promotion and relegation on the arbitrary decisions of coaches and scouts carries far greater potential for human error than the normal procedure of letting matches on the field serve as main driver of promotion and relegation.

The fact that USA – despite a crippling closed market policy – is able to salvage some success at the senior level is a testimony to its raw soccer potential. In a 2006 global soccer census, FIFA estimated that USA soccer had over 24 MILLION soccer players. That’s one soccer player for every 14 people you meet in its population of 325+ million. Even if that player estimate is off by multiple millions, it is still a number that matches the general population totals of many great soccer nations. Leave pay-to-play alone and give soccer clubs the opportunity to build the free-to-play opportunities that American soccer desperately needs.

Have your say in the comments below!

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  1. I think this article is on point for sure. Without an incentive from US soccer and the MLS, such as paying the youth clubs that develope a player which the other 98% of the world does, pay to play will always be the only model and keep US stuck where it is on the highest stage


  2. You are correct that the closed, pay-to-play system is discriminatory and anticompetitive. You are also correct that it is responsible for the sorry state of US Soccer, particularly the USMNT. I think you come up short on the reasons this system is protected and persists.

    I call it “The Youth Soccer Industrial Complex,” and those in control of it comprise the youth coaching cabal, many of whom are ex-pat brits. The largest economic driver of the closed pay-to-play system is the stunning amount of money that wealthy, suburban (mostly white) families pay these clubs and coaches for their kids to play soccer. Many of the big youth clubs pay their coaches more than $100K/yr. to coach two or three teams. These clubs and coaches market their services as providing college scholarship opportunities for their kids who are not athletic freaks like those American kids who excel at basketball and football. The cite their “licenses” (despite the simplicity of the sport and its rules, soccer is the ONLY SPORT that requires licensing of coaches, which is anti-competitive) and the fact that all college recruiting is done via these expensive clubs and their closed tournaments. Unlike other sports, high school soccer is systematically ignored and bad-mouthed by these club coaches — despite the fact that nearly all of the varsity players on these high school teams come from private clubs and most of the high school coaches also coach at clubs.

    This system that benefits the club coaches is what is being protected by this anti-competitive, closed system. Players coming from outside this system are heavily discriminated against because the system cannot tolerate examples of players “making it” without a club’s expensive, “licensed” expertise.


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