Kevin Payne Talks Youth Soccer, US Club Soccer and the Business of it All (Part 2)

In most soccer circles, Kevin Payne needs very little introduction. His reputation in professional soccer precedes him as one of the most experienced in American Soccer History having been involved 25+ years extensively with MLS, USSF, US Soccer Foundation and most recently making the transition into the youth level as CEO of US Club Soccer.

Business of Soccer had the opportunity to speak with Kevin Payne extensively about many of his perspectives on the business of the game as it relates to the youth game. This is part 2 of that discussion.

( If you missed Part 1 of our talk with Kevin Payne, you can read it here – Link )

One thing that stands out for Kevin Payne in youth soccer is that there are many who talk the talk about changing the culture of youth soccer in the United States but few, if any, who walk the walk. Walking the walk is what Players First is intended to do for clubs.

The five basic pillars in Players First, US Club Soccer’s new program that they’ve just rolled out, include Club Development, Player Development, Parent Engagement and Education, Player Health and Safety and Coaching Development.

Photo Courtesy of US Club Soccer

Photo Courtesy of US Club Soccer

For US Club soccer, the club level is the most efficient level to effect change in the game at the youth level. If the club is the most efficient level to effect change though, then the most efficient medium at the club level is naturally coaching.

At its core, Players First takes the approach that if the skill level of player produced in the US is to improve and get better then the coaching needs to get better and the only way to do that according to Payne, is to “provide a better instructional and educational environment for coaches”.

The Player Development portion of the Players First still fundamentally centers around the coaching approach in the sense that coaches are responsible for the environment that enhances the development of every player especially at the younger age groups, which can have a direct impact on the fact that 70-75% of the players base leaves the game by age 13.

La Liga

This is where Players First’s major international partner comes in, La Liga. Contrary to many who make the argument that England’s Barclays Premier League is the best league in the world, Kevin Payne believes that the BPL rather the best marketed league in the world, and that Spain has the best league in the world in La Liga.

…Spain and the La Liga clubs probably produce more top class players than any other system. They have, by a pretty good margin, the highest number of domestic players in their league. According to UEFA, and results in UEFA competitions they have the best league in the world.

While opinions on the best league in the world are plenty and surely strong felt, it’s hard to argue that from a youth development standpoint, going with the country and league that developed players like Xavi, Iniesta, Sergio Ramos, David Silva, David Villa, Juan Mata and of course Messi, would be a poor choice.

…they were very very open with us and very eager to share what they’ve learned about how to systematically improve the development of players. They were really one of the ones that Germany really studied and so it made a lot of sense for us to partner with them.

La Liga Players First Meeting

US Club Soccer representatives meet with La Liga representatives. Photo Courtesy of US Club Soccer

La Liga’s partnership with US Club Soccer goes beyond what many would suspect is simply business related. La Liga’s attitude has not been about simply spreading their brand or simply leveraging youth soccer as an avenue to tap into one of the largest and most important sports market in the world.

 

…they’ve been very adamant with us that they don’t want a lot of commercialization about this relationship, and they want it to be really substantive. These are not in name only programs, we’re talking with them about a 30-hour, 3 and a half day program that is virtually identical to the program they provide to their academy instructors in La Liga. They call it training the trainers.

The US Context

Interestingly enough, pivoting on the marketing angle, it was arguably one of, if not the best sports apparel marketer and US Club Soccer partner Nike who introduced US Club Soccer to La Liga, and vice-versa.

One thing to always consider at every development level is cultural context. Every country and every area has their own cultural contexts and dependencies and it’s always important to keep those in mind when applying and using systems from outside your own. We asked Payne about this and what he felt the biggest defining contextual characteristic was in the US.

I think the biggest difference here is that in most other countries youth soccer evolved from a top down basis especially in the last forty or fifty years. Much of the focus there has been on identifying and developing top talent for professional clubs and then the rest of it is recreational

Payne points out that in the US, youth soccer developed and exploded in the absence of a professional league and with the largest and most concentrated portion of the growth coming between the folding of NASL and the formation of MLS. Consequently, youth soccer developed as an end to itself.

Beyond that, Payne highlights the fact that with such an emphasis on a college education and college scholarships, there’s an opportunity to players to get something of atypical value out of the experience, which changes the motivations of young players.

…there’s something at the end of the rainbow for a lot more youth soccer players, than in a typical [situation] like Spain, France or Argentina where the end of the rainbow is either a pro contract for a small number or recreational soccer.

Consequently, another defining and unique factor in the US is the business model of youth soccer. Looking at the registered player base across all the major youth soccer organizations in the country, Payne estimates there’s probably $5 Billion USD spent a year on soccer. That estimate is not including equipment purchases. $5 Billion is a massive figure which means there are massive stakeholders resulting in an in-ability to just walk away from the current “pay-for play” model.

Compounding this is the scale of the US geographically. The US is roughly the size of Europe, both in size and population and yet while there are hundreds of top division teams across the continent there are only 20 (soon to be 22) top division teams in the US. The real impact of this has to do with supporting the cost of youth development. Going away from the pay for play model doesn’t mean not paying costs, “Everywhere players aren’t paying something to participate, someone is paying, it just might happen to be a professional club”.

The Youth Soccer Landscape

La Liga may not be the first foreign organization the get involved in the youth game in the US, they are probably the biggest though. Up until this point, most of the non-domestic professional affiliations with youth soccer clubs are at the individual club level. Clubs like Chelsea, Inter, PSG, Arsenal, Tottenham, Celtic have affiliations and partnerships with youth clubs across the country. Payne comments though that they’re involvement may differ from that of La Liga.

I don’t know to what extent those clubs are really involved…I think in a lot of cases, those kinds of relationships are based on two things; Marketing a brand, and the potential of player identification. But I’d like to think that there’s also some element as well of trying to help.

This feeds the perception that youth soccer in the US is a fragmented and competitive environment with organizations battling for players but Payne argues that the notion isn’t necessarily true, particularly when it comes to the new US Soccer mandates. There have been meetings and extensive discussions especially concerning the small sided and age appropriate regulations that US soccer wants to roll out. While he says there are many different points of view on the subject the fact is most groups are on the same page and feel the basic concepts are good and are working together to go back to US Soccer with recommendations for the regulations to be tweaked to work better in practice.

While there certainly are sentiments of competition between organizations, Payne feels they’re a bit “misguided” and explains that he’s “been trying to really downplay the idea that there’s direct competition” and instead he wants his staff to focus and work on “things the way we think they should be done and provide the best support that we possibly can to clubs”. Pointing out also that in many cases clubs are dual registered between organizations.

Fundamentally, the clubs are the most important to US Club Soccer and the players are most important, or should be, to every organization. On a final note, one of Payne’s observations about youth sports is especially pertinent and in a way demonstrates what his motivation is in this new venture into youth soccer:

Where youth sports go wrong, is when there’s too great an emphasis, virtually always imposed by adults, on very specific results and then you find a situation where tension increases, fun decreases, individual self-worth declines in many cases.

It would seem that’s something he’s working very hard to change.

 

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. Part I of this discussion can be found HERE

 

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