Kevin Payne Talks Youth Development, US Club Soccer and the Business of it All (Part 1)

If you were watching DC United’s thrilling match against NYCFC last week then you may have seen, at halftime, the induction of one of North American soccer’s most influential people, Kevin Payne, get his own banner in the DC United Hall of Tradition. If you’ve never heard of Kevin Payne, or are unfamiliar with the extent of his involvement and impact on soccer in North America then you are missing a decent sized gap in your understanding of the beautiful game in the US, because he has been at the center of it all.

Payne’s CV covers work as the USSF National Administrator, CEO and President of DC United in two stints, for a combined 15 years, as well as head of AEG Soccer where he oversaw the management of 6 MLS clubs including DCU, but also the LA Galaxy, Chicago Fire, Colorado Rapids, NY/NJ MetroStars and San Jose Earthquakes. He’s one of the founding members of MLS, has served on the MLS Board of Governors and the MLS Competition Committee, was a USSF board member for a decade and still serves as Vice Chairman of the US Soccer Foundation.

With such an extensive and encompassing career in North American professional soccer, it seems almost counter-intuitive that that his next step would be into youth soccer, taking over as CEO of US Club Soccer. Fortunately, Business of Soccer got an opportunity to speak with Kevin last week extensively about this, as well as his views on youth development and of course, the business of it all.

Soccer in North America

We started out discussing soccer in the US as a whole and his unique perspective having worked for both USSF and MLS in multiple capacities. Given how close MLS and USSF work it was interesting to hear Kevin’s thoughts on that relationship and how it has progressed to this point. He has a lot of faith and belief in the executive leadership of both organizations in Sunil Gulati and Dan Flynn at USSF as well as Don Garber, Jeff Agoos Mark Abbott and Tood Durbin at MLS and appreciates that because of Soccer United Marketing (SUM) the two work very closely but definitely sees opportunities where the relationship can go further.

I would like to see, jointly, more time spent on true strategic planning, about how we can truly go about becoming a competitor in the world on the men’s side on the field…to see a little more of a global effort and a more overarching philosophy of what we want to accomplish as a nation

On the business challenges that face the beautiful game in North America Payne points out that from a branding perspective, both MLS and USSF have done a very good job and that the commercial side of both business are in very good shape but that a specific challenge comes from one of the three major revenue streams for professional sports, television. He describes the fact that MLS aren’t responsible for for fielding the USMNT, rather “…they need to put a compelling product on the field that competes for television ratings with, unfortunately, the best leagues in the world”.

TV deals are sky-rocketing in leagues around the world and while MLS has certainly made advances in that area, they are in a truly unique position competing against the most popular leagues in the world for at least 3 major sports.

Though Payne indicates that it’s not a specific responsibility of MLS to field the USMNT, he does feel that they have a role to play and there are still questions being asked.

Both MLS and the National team program, are reliant on producing more and better American players, and I think we’re producing more players than we have in the past, but I don’t think the best ones are any better, and that’s the problem, that’s something that we have to figure out

The Youth Game

This led us straight into youth soccer in the US and youth development, a topic he’s now perfectly placed to discuss with his new role as CEO of US Club Soccer.

Payne talked about his desire for a new challenge and to “make an impact on what’s happening closer to the grassroots level”. He believes that in the face of improvements to the quality of play in MLS, there’s no way to get better quality players in the USMNT unless the culture changes at the youth participation level of the game in this country. By producing a better experience at the grassroots level, players will remain involved in the game a lot longer.

That’s where he feels youth soccer faces a significant challenge.

There are still, and it’s a much smaller number, but there are some people in the game that maybe don’t have quite the same motivations, people who maybe don’t have a very constructive understanding of the context of youth soccer and where it fits, and what the experience should be like for the players

He’s speaking partially about parents in the game and how many have a “misplaced” passion and fervor for the game, whether proactive or passive, that unintentionally leads to bad experiences and creates the type of environment that impacts development.

A major obstacle that faces youth soccer is player retention. Kevin cites that soccer loses 70-75% of the player base before the age of 13, an age where there’s absolutely no way to determine which player will become elite or not but in proportions as high as 3/4 there’s no way to argue that you’re not losing potentially great and elite players.

This fundamental problem, among others is what Payne is looking to address with US Club Soccer’s Players First initiative. The initiative seeks to change the perspective and culture of youth soccer in the US. Not surprisingly, US Club Soccer’s philosophy is that the most essential element and the most efficient level to affect change in the youth game is at the club level. Players First looks to not just identify and challenge people and organizations to recognize them but also become a resource for clubs to actually address and fix those issues.

Players FirstPlayers First operates on five fundamental pillars that include: Club Development, Coaching Development, Player Development, Parent Engagement and Education, and Player Health and Safety.

What’s disruptive about this approach is that in a youth soccer landscape of fragmented approaches and dis-continuity between numerous clubs and organizations, Players First seeks to become a “shorthand” for a certain way of doing things successfully at the ever critical club organizational level.

There are an extraordinary number of people who are devoted to the game and do great things on an everyday basis and want to do even better, and in many cases are looking for leadership, looking for information and looking for help to do a better job

Even though the program is still only months old, announced just in August, Payne is naturally very passionate about it and about youth soccer. One thing that stands out to him is that the topic of culture in the youth game and what it ought to be, is something that everyone talks about, and yet, there’s very few if any, people who are proactively looking to try to change it.  Payne believes that the programs unique branded experience, and US Club Soccer’s advantageous position in being a national organization will only help in the success of the program.

Business of Soccer was fortunate enough that our discussion with Kevin went on much further about Players First, the partnerships in the program, where US Club Soccer fits in the youth soccer landscape as well as taking it all in through the international lens. Be sure the check back for Part 2 of this discussion next week. If you missed Kevin’s induction into the DC United  Hall of Tradition, you can see video of his reactions at the game in CSN’s on field interview with him. Enjoy!

What do you think about Kevin Payne and US Club Soccer’s role in the North American soccer landscape? Let us know in the comments section below or on Facebook and Twitter.

About Kevin Payne

Kevin’s involvement in soccer goes as far back as 1989 as National Administrator of USSF which led to a role as Deputy Executive Director and Director of Marketing for USSF in ’90. He’s been Executive VP and President of Soccer USA Partners which previously held the marketing broadcast and event productions rights for the USMNT leading up to World Cup ’94. Payne is also a member of the charter group of investors who created MLS, was part of the original investment group for DC United, where he worked as President and CEO until 2001 when he moved to Anschutz Entertainment Group as Senior VP and Managing Director of Soccer overseeing all six of AEG’s MLS teams which included DCU, but also the LA Galaxy, Chicago Fire, Colorado Rapids, NY/NJ MetroStars and San Jose Earthquakes.

He returned to DC United in ’04 as President and CEO again and served until ’12 overseeing the club that, with 13 major titles, is the most successful team in MLS history. He’s also served as President and GM of Toronto FC, was on the MLS Board of Governors, MLS Competition Committee, was a board member of USSF for 10 years and still serves as a board member and Vice Chairman of the US Soccer Foundation.

About US Club Soccer

US Club Soccer is a national whose philosophy is that clubs are the primary vehicle for player development. They’re mission is to create, develop, and grow the best USSF-sanctioned organization to foster the growth and development of club soccer programs throughout the United States. The result of which will be to improve the level of play of the competitive soccer player, and thereby the U.S. National Teams and professional leagues.

Reporting on the business side of the world's game.