Monthly Archives: January 2013

PATHWAYS TO PROFESSIONALISM – A MINOR LEAGUE REVOLUTION

After putting out a couple of posts this week regarding the links between youth and professional leagues and the ensuing feedback challenging us to put our money where our mouths were, we decided we would go one step further, seek the opinions of clubs around the country and provide data that backs up our subtle hunch on what the issues, needs and desires are for our grassroots clubs around the U.S. – while this is a huge undertaking, it’s a step forward and a way of discussing the state of soccer in this country but this time using quantifiable data to help provide educated outcomes.

For those up in arms at the moment. This is not us starting a league by any means. Starting a league is a huge undertaking and regardless of any outcomes generated from this conversation through Futbol Focus, its a step forward, accruing more data from the grassroots and a way of discussing the state of soccer in this country.

Anyways, feel free to contribute and we look forward to engaging with you in the very near future!

PATHWAYS TO PROFESSIONALISM – A MINOR LEAGUE REVOLUTION

INTRODUCTION

It is quietly acknowledged in most circles that the current U.S. soccer market is fractured across many tiers of the national pyramid (a graphical representation of the pathways from youth soccer through to MLS and the US Soccer Administration). This has been the direct result of not only the uniqueness of the sport in this country compared to the rest of the world but also due to a number of competing interests that has now resulted in an inadequate focus on youth development.

An opportunity exists in the professional soccer market to help bridge those missing links between junior soccer and the senior ranks and drive a new cultural shift the sport has long been waiting for.

This opportunity is focused predominantly on youth pathways and creating a stronger and more sustainable foundation for the sport through new found levels of professionalism in our minor leagues, accountability, transparency and continuous grassroots development. The overarching goal is that clubs are then rewarded for this investment in development to ensure they continue to strive for excellence.

THE OPPORTUNITY

It is proposed that a new national competition be created, populated by teams that meet a set level of criteria rather than entering the competition via the purchase of a league franchise.

The criteria would be based on 5 main criteria;
• Governance
• Club Development
• Financial Sustainability
• Coaching Excellence
• Future Planning

The main point of differentiation from other leagues nationwide however is the amount of teams each club would need to be (and remain) eligible to enter.

Seniors: First Team | First Team Reserves

Youth: U21 | U18 | U16 | U14 | U12

Currently many clubs do not feel part of a developmental pathway and many minor league teams (and sometimes the highest level of competitive soccer in the region) have just one team. This new structure would enable teams to enter into new sustainable partnerships and provide a steady stream of talent into the senior ranks for years to come.

We mention regions specifically as clubs are resourced (or have access to resources) to varying degrees across the country. Having this new league will enable clubs to deliver youth and club development programs to a consistently high quality level, build a genuine support base over time and create a sense of culture and belonging to the local communities they effectively represent each week on the field.

It will also address one of the most prevalent issues in the game today by beginning to provide a much clearer picture for players in terms of their own career rather than being confused as to what the best way for their career path to take is. It also gives an alternative to players than are priced out of going to college or come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

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MARKETS

Focus would be given to teams in cities that are not currently serviced by either an MLS or NASL franchise to aid with the ongoing development of the sport.

League Administrators will support its clubs in their local communities through both national and targeted marketing, media and pr support and through the accruement of sponsors. It will also provide all the tools necessary for a club to create strong outreach efforts including access to its own websites and social network.

GOVERNANCE & STRUCTURE

To create professional and sustainable clubs for the future the highest importance will be placed on governance. This will include new levels of transparency in club finance (including fees and annual reporting), the requirements of policy, safety & risk management and club development plans to name but a few.

This level of professionalism will be reciprocated by League administrators who would ultimately support these requirements through training and continued education.

FINANCE

Clubs will be responsible for their own finances but transparency, auditing and ongoing viability will be keys in maintaining their eligibility. It is important that clubs remain financially sound to ensure that youth development is not jeopardized for the future.

Board members for each club will also need to take executive training to ensure that the club is never brought into disrepute.

CLUB DEVELOPMENT

Clubs will have an ongoing commitment to developing a stronger grassroots in their communities and this will be highlighted through club ratings which will focus on hitting thresholds for coaching accreditation and development, field improvements, member recruitment and retention to name but a few.

A new league has the luxury of a clean slate and no ongoing sporting politics. For this reason it has the opportunity to embrace new technologies, seek to use its potential to get more exposure for its clubs through national sponsorship deals and create and exploit marketing opportunities to help attract new fans, players and revenue streams.

FUTURE TIMING

A considerable amount of market research, data analysis and collaboration with interested stakeholders would have to occur over the coming year to ensure the successful introduction of such a concept in 2014/15.

In mid-February it is proposed that the terms of reference be drafted for a review into the viability for a new nation-wide minor league and a timeframe for research, review and reporting prior to more formal structures being established.

Via FutbolFocus.com

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Pathways To Professionalism – A New Standard For Our Pro Clubs

ImageThis is what happens when I think out loud. The last time I did this it was again at the turn of a new year and it was also soccer related. That time we founded a new soccer club that went from an indoor soccer team predominantly full of old high school friends to a club that had under 5’s through to senior men’s and women’s team and two seasons of over 400% growth. This is what happens when you are passionate about what you do and are committed to seeing it become a reality.

I was recently back in Australia and had the pleasure of reconnecting with some of my soccer contacts who filled me in with all the developments in the game, which over the course of 18 months had been significant.

Australia shares many similarities with the sport here in the U.S. – it is a growing sport that is up against a range of more established (and culturally unique) ‘football’ codes and has the largest junior sporting base/participation in the country. It has also gone through some major changes over the past decade or so to help improve the standard of play and administration of the sport.

Embracing the term football, creating new men & women’s national leagues and joining the Asian Confederation are just a few of the positive changes happening ‘down under’.

It has been the changes at the grassroots and minor leagues though that provided the most food for thought, and ones that have ultimately been encouraged by the AFA to make sure they deliver on the need to create a second tier for the domestic league by 2022.

That will mean the introduction of promotion and relegation.

The AFC planned to revamp 22 leagues in Asia, 10 of them by 2009–2012. This was due to the poor performance of Asian teams in the 2006 FIFA World Cup. The reforms include increasing transparency, increasing competitiveness, improving training facilities, and forcing the leagues to have a system of relegation and promotion. [1]

The 10 leagues marked for reform are Australia, Japan, China, South Korea, Singapore, India, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. The proposal represented a radical change in Australia, where professional leagues in all sports are organized on a model of franchised teams and closed league membership. [2]

While I wholeheartedly support this model in the U.S. it is the pathways and professionalism being established in these new minor leagues that have us excited for the future of U.S. soccer.

The first conference to be established in the APL is from my home state of Queensland. The governing body has always been a forward looking entity and this was evident in my dealings with them as President of my club Springfield United. My first meetings with the board were when they fought hard to establish a new association in the booming Western Corridor. This reason behind such a move was to provide local pathways for juniors rather than travelling up to an hour away to play a small sided game. It was cost efficient for families and made sense from an administrative point of view.

Anyways, back to how the minor league revolution began. Football Federation Australia (FFA) took a national review into all competitions from under 12 through to the state leagues (top leagues under the national A-league) and found a number of issues, most centering around inadequate youth development and administrative concerns, but all of which are attributable to the current U.S. environment.

After this extensive review the following outcomes came to fruition;

  • A nationwide criterion/accreditation for clubs
  • A player points cap to help promote young over old, domestic over international and locally developed over purchased players.
  • Clubs to not have just one team but reserves and youth teams from under 12 to under 20 and then onto the first team
  • A football ‘plan’ with improvements in coaching accreditation, finance, governance, facilities etc.

It also saw the establishment of the Australian Premier League (APL) which would effectively become the second tier of the sport nationwide (but broken up into state conferences)

FQ chief operating officer Ben Mannion said the APL, which is first and foremost designed as a pathway for elite players and coaches, was the ‘best thing that’s come out of the national federation for a long time’.

“The game is moving forward. This shouldn’t be seen as anything but a massive step forward for football,” Mannion said.

“The new TV rights deal will help the A-League clubs, no doubt about that, and depending on how long that is (FFA will) look at the next step of the World Cup and the Asian Cup here in 2015 as two tools to actually drive participation and drive kids to those clubs.

“Over time, our game will change. Traditionally we’ve been a funding-up model.

“Hopefully one day in the not too distant future, the funding will start coming up from the top from the likes of TV rights deals and different commercial arrangements that the FFA will work on.” [3]

And this is where we start to think out loud once again.

What if a league similar to the APL was established as a minor league here? Sitting on the fourth tier of the highly fractured U.S. soccer pyramid and providing a more structured approach to minor league soccer and youth pathways than say the NPSL.

For arguments sake let’s call this proposal the U-League.

The U-League would not be a direct competitor to the NPSL as the criteria for entry, ongoing reporting and transparency would be vastly different. Not to mention the national introduction of promotion and relegation.

The league would operate in parallel to the European season but have a winter break as per the Bundesliga.

The establishment of the U-League would provide the perfect test for everything that has long been flagged as being the key to unlocking the sport in this county. It would be of no threat to the ‘establishment’, nor to the detriment or value of current franchises across the nation.

We are not naïve when it comes to promotion and relegation especially from a financial stand point. That why developing it in the minor leagues where going up and down a division will not spell the end of club revenue but a reward for the hard work and progress of new talent.

Do you think this could work? What issue would you highlight as a stumbling block?

This is just the first post on what we hope will be a constructive dialogue about how to improve the developmental pathways from youth to pro.

I encourage people to contact us to discuss these ideas in more detail. I believe this can work and I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is. Email me at ryan@futbolfocus.com with your number and I’ll call you as soon as possible to see how this can become reality.

This is me thinking out loud again, but it’s a real conversation I think it’s time we had.

Ryan Ginard is a General Partner of Futbol Focus http://futbolfocus.com

Follow him @ryanginard

Picture Credit: Mike Firpo, SoccerNewsDay.com

[1] http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/sport/archives/2007/02/14/2003349026

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asian_Football_Confederation

[3] http://au.fourfourtwo.com/news/252498,second-division-by-2022.aspx