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

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