Doomed from the Outset: Greed and US Soccer

One need not go far to read about or hear opinions about the shortcomings of soccer in the United States, perceived or otherwise. The ownership system in Major League Soccer is flawed, the U.S. Soccer pyramid is flat, the collegiate system is detrimental, and the quality of players and coaches just isn’t good enough…

Some of those statements may be true. Heck, all of them might be true. But for all the issues that are addressed within these complaints, the biggest and most detrimental issues is often viewed as an acceptable afterthought. The problem with looking solely at the issues of the operational structure of leagues in U.S. Soccer is that the solutions to these problems are solved within the confines of the existing systems. In the process, we miss out on the bigger picture that the system itself is broken.

This is not an indictment on the single entity structure of MLS, or to criticize the NASL for how they operate within the U.S. Soccer pyramid. It does imply, however, that soccer in this country has been hampered by the entitlement and greed of all organizations involved with the development of soccer in this country.

President Joseph S. Blatter talks to FIFA Executive member Sunil Gulati prior to the 64th FIFA Congress at TEC on June 11, 2014 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Credit: Alexander Hassenstein - FIFA)

Greed

The filthy, unquenchable thirst for more and more mounds of money is the true hindrance to the growth of soccer in this country. Unfortunately, the longer we refuse to actually accept the damage that this causes, the further we will fall away from success in the world of soccer. I know the complaint of greed might seem too simplistic, but I believe that is only because we have become so accustomed to it that we tend to become blinded to the real problems that greed creates. The US sports landscape has been ripe with overt and outright acts of greed across all the major sports for decades, Typically, as fans, we view the problems created by greed through the eyes of a consumer.

Whether it’s a complaint about the cost of viewing a game or with the ownership systems of the leagues, the arguments are typically made as a consumer of the sport. We want quality and affordability, so we gripe about the greed of billionaire owners, but we know nothing is going to change. We therefore resign ourselves to the growing cost of being a fan and to the acceptance of greed in sports.

The professional soccer leagues in this country have taken advantage of this acceptance and have attempted to skip many of the steps other sports had to go through to achieve their status in the sports landscape. Twenty years of MLS and a re-established NASL hardly have enough history between the two of them to stand next to the likes of the NFL and MLB.

MLB as a league has been around for over 100 years. The NFL for 95. Even the NHL is pushing the century mark for existence. The NBA is closing in on 70 years. Each of these leagues had to face serious competition and a merger with said competition to achieve their size.

Soccer as a sport has a long history in this country, but that doesn’t allow for an upstart league to skip ahead and stand next to the “Big Four” without going through its own struggles. Soccer leagues want the same status, but they haven’t built the foundations to rival the sustainability and longevity of the other leagues. Simply feeling entitled to the same level of financial compensation and profit because they are in the same basic industry is not an excuse for ignoring the league building process.

It is this type of entitlement that enables a system which provides very little compensation for the vast majority of the athletes in the league while overpaying the few who bring attention with their names, rather than performance. It’s what leads to business decisions being made for the cause of raising the profile of the game and not the quality, instead of the other way around. It also leads to a mad rush of unqualified investors trying to claim a piece of a pie that really is unable to fill those already at the table.

Is it any surprise that MLS has announced a desire to move to 28 teams despite so far being unable to achieve their goal of 24? The NASL loses two teams in the span of a month but is still looking to expand as well. 
No effort is being put into the foundation of the league but rather simply looking for fresh influx of money from new investors to keep the leagues afloat.

It is admittedly foolish to expect a professional sports league to avoid profit (or for a business to operate in a manner contradictory to making money) — but skipping over the basic business practices of establishing a foundation from which to grow for the sake of making the quicker, easier gross profit is at its core a poor business strategy. Not to mention the fact that relying on expansion fees from incoming clubs to support the already established franchises borders closely with the classic practices of a Ponzi scheme.

Discrimination

Unfortunately, a failing business strategy isn’t the only result of greed. Discrimination often follows closely behind the footsteps of uncontrolled greed and not only does it hinder the growth of soccer in United States but is also contrary to the moral obligation of equality we profess as a nation. 
In order to truly excel in any area the best of the best must be allowed to participate but when greed comes in and divides the talent pool into the “haves and the have nots” the best and brightest aren’t always allowed to participate.

This isn’t a new concept in the world as a whole, nor is it new to the world of sports. Baseball was a professional sport in this country for nearly 70 years before the color barrier was broken, but it hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing ever since. Every year, the hiring practices of the NFL are called into question as minority candidates are overlooked when filling coaching vacancies.

For all the good that sports can do and the community it can build, the persistent problem of prejudice seems to always be lurking around the corner. MLB and the NFL are well-established entities that are able to address the issues of prejudice and discrimination without losing ground in the American sports landscape. The are legitimate arguments as to the effectiveness of the means which with these two groups deal with issues, whether it’s the Rooney Rule in the NFL or the R.B.I. program in MLB, but the infrastructure and core talent pool of the sport is well enough established to keep them at the top.

Academy systems that provide opportunities to only those that can afford to “pay to play” dilute the talent pool and put up barriers that can seem too difficult to overcome and are incredibly divisive in nature. The United States Soccer Federation (USSF) should be looking to promote and develop the best talent available through the ranks of the U.S. Soccer programs — regardless of background, financial status, or desire to attend college.

Too often, the purpose of the academy systems seems to be to promote the availability of a college scholarship and not promotion into the professional ranks. While there is nothing wrong with a desire to further education beyond high school, providing an academy setting that is geared more toward professionalism in sport should be the chief goal of development academies.

Decisions are being made on the basis of how athletes can help the bottom line of the clubs as early as their teenage years. If they can’t contribute monetarily, then their path to professionalism becomes all the more difficult. This process is also completely biased toward the male athlete. Despite the success of the U.S. Women’s National team on the pitch, in the arena of growing the sport’s popularity there is an undeniable lack of equality between the sexes when it comes to investment and development.

The common argument is that male sports bring in more revenue than their female counterparts, therefore justifying the disparity in compensation and treatment, however I believe that argument is not applicable for U.S. Soccer. The recent surge of popularity that is the foundation of the current leagues was as much the result of the women’s game as it was the men’s; if the decision had been made at that time to promote the best and brightest regardless of gender, we have no idea what the resulting soccer landscape would be today. But that wasn’t the decision, because that isn’t the decision made by other federations and U.S. Soccer felt entitled to the same level of income and relevance that exists elsewhere in the soccer universe.

Fueled by greed, soccer allowed itself to make decisions to the detriment of the sport itself. The majority of professional soccer players are not compensated fairly for their work, the female athlete is grossly underpaid and under-appreciated, the talent pool is divided unfairly based on social and income status, and the system was doomed from the outset by greed and continually held down by discrimination.

Solutions

This does not mean that things cannot be fixed, nor does it mean that we have to wait for the failure of a league to happen and start over. If the USSF would make a conscious effort to address the issues holding back soccer’s development and if we, as fans, contribute where we can, there is no doubt that vast improvements can be made.

The USSF must insist on a set structure for soccer in this country. There must be a clear and reasonable distinction in division status. Without establishing a promotion/relegation system, they must put an end to the movement of clubs between leagues.

The USSF asserting authority over the division status is a key function of building the framework in which proper development can take place. It also serves to hold the USL and MLS accountable for their partnership and ensures they function in the manner their association implies.

The USL and MLS partnership builds a valuable developmental structure for talent allowing the soccer athlete a stair step approach to the pinnacle of professional soccer. It should not be a stair step approach for a club to reach the pinnacle.

As much as I love the city of Orlando and as excited as I was to see the Orlando City SC enter MLS, I can see now the destructive precedent that has been set by their promotion.

Clubs are formed quickly in the USL and immediately are making their case for promotion. Of course, MLS is eagerly licking their greedy chops at the thought of another $100 million expansion fee and another year of masking the struggles and ignoring the weaknesses within many existing clubs.

Clear, reasonable, and distinguished guidelines for the divisional status amongst the professional soccer leagues and the elimination club movement between leagues is fundamental in establishing the baseline for which proper growth and development can occur.

The USSF must also address the academy system. Elimination of “pay to play” exploitation and the usage of the system to generate college scholarships is vital, as it provides more open and inclusive access to the talent pool. This allows for the athletes to be judged on their talent not financial background or educational desires.

Shared financial responsibility between U.S. Soccer and professional clubs for these academies is reasonable, and signing rights of the athletes can be negotiated to the point of reasonable compensation.

Along with this, the USSF needs to address the inequality in pay and treatment of the male and female athlete. The purpose is to drive and develop the game of soccer to its full potential. For the last two decades, the female athletes have been leading the charge in that department. They deserve praise and acknowledgement for that certainly, but they also deserve compensation. The coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team should not be making pennies on the dollar compared to the Men’s coach. The USSF must financially support the success of the Women’s program and allow the market place to react. The results might surprise you. Which leads to our role as fans in fixing the system.

Don’t write off soccer in the US just because of its flaws. Support your club. Cheer for your chosen league. Celebrate the success of the national teams, whether it be the U.S. or your home country. Support soccer across all levels. Help and encourage the young athletes. Stand against discrimination and embrace the diversity of culture and styles the game has in this country. Be passionate and share your passion.

Be patient, yet diligent, in supporting change. It most likely will come incrementally, but the potential to dramatically improve the landscape of US soccer is very attainable with these changes.

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