Are The Best Payers Replacing the Best Players?

Which countries have the biggest sporting influence on Australia?

This is a very hard question to answer, at the turn of the last century the influence came very much from the United Kingdom. Despite denial from many, some sporting historians believe that Tom Willis, the man credited with creating Australian Rules football, is unlikely to have come up with the idea for the game had he not attended Rugby school and Cambridge University.

How big an influence is the United States of America today? Some would argue that they are now the biggest influence on Australian sport. If not through the programming format of Fox Sports then via the NBA, NBL and NFL. All of which are now sports with a big following in Australia and the merchandise sold here is another factor.

However if we look at the USA they too face many of the problems faced by Australian sports, the distances that teams have to travel. Where they have an advantage is they have a larger population, so have bigger potential audiences.

The USA also has sports that are perceived as being “American” that dominate the media and the airwaves, American Football, Baseball and Basketball. Australia has the same issue with Australian Rules Football and Cricket.

If we look at soccer in both nations there are again similarities, both the Major League Soccer (MLS) competition in the USA and the A-League in Australia have no relegation and promotion, both have salary caps.

As with the A-League, the MLS has embarked on signing high profile international players to raise the profile of the league. They have been in a position to offer far greater salaries than their A-League counterparts. In the USA the short-term impact of the influx of international players, especially at the top of rosters as “Designated Players” and “Targeted Allocation” signings, has meant an improved product on the pitch. It is questionable whether some of the high paid Marquee players in Australia have had a similar impact on the pitch.

With the USA failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1990 attention is now being turned to the long term impact these high paid players have had on youth levels of the game, and beyond the homegrown players already in the MLS system. Australia has its last roll of the dice against Honduras over two legs before it finds out if it will be competing in Russia in 2018, or whether it too will be evaluating what has gone wrong.

In both nations there are talented athletes who are taken away from football to play other codes. However this is not the issue, as there should still be enough talent to go around.

Where some in the USA see the problem in a country of 330 million is in the non-identification of talent and “a youth soccer system that excludes low-income and non-suburban families from participating at the same rate as higher-income families.”

The issue has been that rather than playing the game as children and developing natural skills to deal with problems they face on the pitch, many children are standing around until they are then put through a set of repetitive drills, before finishing with a small game and heading home. The problem is, as has been stated by many esteemed people in the game, the children are not having fun.

What is a bigger concern is that it is the commercial side of the sport that permeates through every aspect of the youth game. Research presented Rick Eckstein in his recent book on college and youth sports (How College Athletes are Hurting Girls Sports – a Pay to Play Pipeline) shows that family income is highly correlated with youth soccer participation. He states that in the USA approximately 25 percent of American families have incomes over $100,000 annually, yet they produce 35 percent of youth soccer players!

It would be interesting to do a similar analysis in Australia.

If these statistics sound familiar then there is more. According to Mr Eckstein, the 25 percent of families with incomes below $25,000 account for only 13 percent of youth soccer players.

One of the big complaints we here in Australia have is that we lose so many players in their teenage years. In the USA “forty percent of youth soccer players will leave the sport between ages 13 and 18.”

Is this a coincidence? Are talented players being excluded from playing and being identified simply down to the cost to play?

In 2016 the USA’s First Lady Michelle Obama attended the Aspen Institute’s Project Play summit. The aim of the summit was to get more children involved in sports. The simple reason being that there are so many benefits to children playing sport, and not just for health reasons.

The Summit explored the possibility of allowing children to sample sports. To not have to pay a registration fee for a whole season, but to be able to try out and see if it was for them. As we all know children change their minds a lot, some like team sports, whereas some thrive in an individual arena. It also had a session on “Re-introducing Free play” with a sub heading, “Can large orgs drive de-organization?”

Ms Obama was quoted as saying at the Summit, “So are we saying that some kids are worthy of that investment and physical activity, and then there are millions of others who aren’t? And what’s the role that we as a society have for making sure that kids have equal access?”

In Mr Eckstein’s research he found that many young players leave the sport based purely on financial reasons.

Children who wish to play for clubs now have to pay for match-day kit, equipment, team-fees, coaches etc. All of this hidden in “registration fees.” Each year the list gets bigger. In the USA, Eckstein found that it was “not unusual for families to spend over $10,000 per child, per year to play organized youth soccer.” `

The effect of a system such as this, apart from losing players, is as he says it becomes a matter of “identifying the best payers rather than the best players.”

What is also interesting is that in the USA, just like Australia, people from a football background bemoan the fact that there is little or no scouting system. How is American likely to find a Pele, a Maradona or a Messi if they prevent these players from playing organised football and have no scouting system.

When it comes to Basketball in the USA, they have a very different approach. Here the view is the bigger the pool of players the more good players will come to the surface. More good players means a better competition, as those players are spread across the league, which in turn means more success for the sport financially, and in terms of participation. Basketball also has a comprehensive scouting system in place, and one that does not exclude players who may be struggling financially.

The powers that be at the MLS, just like the FFA in Australia, have adopted a top-down approach. They have publicly stated that the plan with these high priced international players is ‘to be able to showcase an improved product that will draw more eyeballs and eventually result in higher salaries for local players.’ As one senior official was quoted as saying “That, in turn, might begin to draw more athletes away from sports like baseball and football.” It ‘might,’ but it might not.

The powers that be in the USA have said that “The ultimate goal is to sign and develop homegrown players and be able to sell them for a profit, ultimately making MLS a more-involved league in the global market.”

Again this has a familiar ring to it closer to home here in Australia.

Yet there is one major fundamental flaw in such a plan, and that is if you are only identifying players whose parents can afford to pay for their children to play for their clubs, and play in representative teams, then you are going to reduce the talent pool, and with it the standard of those playing at the top. The consequence of that is a failure to be a part of the greatest show on earth, the World Cup Finals, and it will in time have a huge impact on the standard of your top competition at home.

Football has been used as an example here, but sadly there are many sports in Australia which are currently facing the exact same problem. They are losing talented players over players who can afford to play. Some clubs are working hard to buck this trend and they should be applauded, however it is an issue that needs addressing and much discussion if Australia is to stay a dominant sporting nation on the World stage in years to come.

Are The Best Payers Replacing the Best Players?

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