April 19, 2007
Money Ball

The rise of paid coaches is just one reason why it commonly costs an American child thousands of dollars a year.

By Mike Woitalla, Soccer America Magazine

There are a lot of ways to spend lots of money on youth soccer.

You can send your 3-year-old to soccer ''classes'' for $30 a session -- if they don't conflict with his Ring Around the Rosey and Duck Duck Goose lessons.

For $75 an hour, a coach with licenses from three different countries can teach your 8-year-old ''technical ball skills in a nurturing one-on-one environment'' at a park near your home.

Got a spare $180? Hire a ''fully qualified coach'' to come to your kid's soccer game and produce a thorough evaluation of her talent.

Parents can eschew such expenses and kick the ball around in the backyard with their children. But other costs are unavoidable for the parents of children involved in competitive youth soccer.

Elite soccer clubs charge as much as $2,000 just to cover coaches' salaries and the club's overhead costs. On top of that are uniform and travel costs, and league registration fees.

A typical annual expense for a 13-year-old playing for an ambitious travel team is about $3,500.

Depending on how intent the club is on traveling to showcase tournaments, on how far it gets in state and regional tournaments, and if the player is invited to participate in the Olympic Development Program, it's possible to spend $5,000 to $10,000 annually on a child's youth soccer experience.

When youth soccer was taking hold in the USA in the 1970s, one of its highly touted attributes was affordability. You can outfit an entire soccer team for the price of one football helmet, boasted the advocates of this wonderfully democratic sport.

But in the early 1980s, youth soccer went pro. That is, clubs in youth soccer hotbeds around the nation began paying coaches to run clubs and train teams.

Derek Armstrong, the Coaching Director of the Nomads in La Jolla, Calif., figures he was the first paid youth coach, having been recruited from England in 1981 at an annual salary of $17,000 ($38,000 in 2006 dollars).

The club's founder, real-estate developer Joe Hollow, paid Armstrong to turn the upstart Nomads, who had depended on parent coaches, into a fully staffed, multi-team organization. By 1985, all Nomads coaches were paid.

Other clubs around the nation followed suit, especially in Dallas, which became a magnet for former professional players -- often major foreign stars who had played in the NASL.

By the mid-1990s, Dallas-area select clubs employed more than 100 coaches, a number that may have doubled in the last decade with the rise of girls soccer.

Last year, the Dallas Morning News reported the salaries of the area's highest paid youth coaches. It listed 12 who earned more than $60,000 annually.

Sam Snow, U.S. Youth Soccer's Director of Coaching, estimates that about 10 to 15 percent of the approximately 300,000 youth coaches affiliated with USYS are paid for their services.

''The beautiful game has been commercialized,'' says Manny Schellscheidt, head of U.S. Soccer's U-14 program. ''It's pay for play.''

THE PERILS OF PRO COACHES? When Schellscheidt coached the Union Lancers to McGuire Cup (U-19) national titles in 1987 and 1988, he noticed he was among the last of the volunteer coaches at the elite youth level.

''Children's playtime for enjoyment has been turned into to paid-for, organized labor camp,'' says Schellscheidt. ''In labor camp, children's imagination and ingenuity and self-expression are not required nor welcomed.
Instead, drills, instructions and lectures fill the agenda.''

He accuses ''self-proclaimed experts of selling false hopes and dreams and expectations'' to kids and their parents.

''Paying $5,000 to $10,000 to play youth soccer, that's not good,'' says Schellscheidt.

But Schellscheidt concedes that there are paid coaches who do ''a wonderful job with kids.'' He says that many coaches wouldn't be able to dedicate their time to youth soccer without compensation. While coaching the Union Lancers, his job at a tool and die factory enabled him to coach as a volunteer.

''The young guys who want to coach youth soccer can't make ends meet unless they are subsidized,'' he says.

But with parents paying serious money for their children's soccer come expectations that may not be in the best interests of the players' development, especially when they believe scorelines are the overriding indicators of good coaching.

''There's no greater issue facing anybody than that issue,'' says former U.S. Olympic national team player Don Ebert, who has been the Irvine (Calif.) Strikers' director of coaching for 14 years. ''We have made a concerted effort to educate our parents. We have moved to a development first-and-foremost format in our club.''

Doing so comes at the risk of losing players to other teams with better records. And losing players means losing income.

The competitive structure only makes it more challenging to convince parents to focus on development over scores.

''With my 17s, we start emphasizing the importance of trying to win,'' says Ebert. ''But we have State Cup in this stupid state for U-10s. We have a U-9 State Cup!''

The Dallas Classic League uses a promotion-relegation system for its eight age groups, beginning at U-11.

''The expectations and high pressure start at U-11,'' says Horst Bertl, coaching director of the Dallas Comets. ''If you say let's play nicely and not worry about winning, and you end up in the third division, the talent you have on the team will probably get recruited away.''

Recruiting -- or player poaching -- is a major issue that also drives the excessive travel of many clubs. Several coaches who believe their kids play too many games admit they go to some tournaments mainly because if they didn't, they'd lose players to the clubs that do go, because the other teams invite them as guest players or because parents believe they'll miss a chance to be spotted by a college scout.

YOUR MONEY'S WORTH? There's no denying that many paid coaches work hard for their pay. Bertl coaches four of his club's teams, each of which practice twice a week.

His U-17s alone may play more than 30 games a year, including trips to tournaments in California and Florida.

He takes teams abroad, to places such as Germany, Argentina and Costa Rica.

''When I have a team that pretty much stays together for eight years,'' he says, ''their parents become a tight knit group, the players develop strong camaraderie -- they don't leave no matter how much other clubs recruit them
-- and when they 'graduate,' they say, 'What a ride. What a great eight years.'''

Bertl keeps track of their school grades and arranges college counseling sessions for the club's players.

''A vacuum was filled,'' Armstrong says about the emergence of elite youth clubs and pro coaches in the USA. ''In other countries professional clubs handle the development of kids.''

But when pro clubs run youth teams, the players are spared exorbitant fees and the coaches are judged by how many top-level players they produce, not the scorelines.

Some clubs do offer scholarships to talented players who can't pay the fees. If they help the team win, kids who can pay will flock to the club. But for every child who can't afford the fees, money must be raised to pay for the coaches, the facilities, travel, etc.

Shortly after joining the Nomads, Armstrong became a part-time college coach -- he's won national titles at UC San Diego -- so that he wouldn't have to depend too much on his Nomads' salary, because he wanted to keep players'
fees down.

The Nomads, who employ 15 coaches at about $30,000 a year, charge annual fees of $1,200 -- among the lowest for elite clubs. They raise money by hosting tournaments and spend at least $100,000 on scholarships, which they call work programs because recipients work at the tournament or on chores such as field maintenance. An array of fund-raising projects help pay for travel.

''Half our kids can't pay,'' says Armstrong. ''We've tried very hard not to be registration fee-based.''

The median household income, before taxes, in the USA is $51,000 for non-Hispanic whites, $36,000 for Hispanics and $31,000 for blacks. Those figures indicate that large sectors of the American population cannot afford elite club soccer for their children.

As the American youth soccer system is now, those children's hopes of aiming for the highest levels are at the mercy of coaches who believe they should be welcomed.

(This article originally appeared in the November 2006 issue of Soccer America Magazine.)