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Op-Ed \ Jim Sheldon

Proposal to increase youth registration fees raises many questions.

(Tuesday, June 15, 1999) -- Tim Schum touches on a potentially explosive situation when he writes about the prospect of raising youth registration fees to pay for the United States Soccer Federationís ambitious Project 2010 and Project Gold.

Letís be clear about something right from the start. This wonít be the only means of paying for the two projects. The USSF will look for others sources, including event revenues, grants from the USSF Foundation, sponsorship dollars and moneys from new and existing revenue streams.

However, the first estimates on Project 2010 call for a $30 million budget with approximately one-third coming from player registration fees. Presumably the pros and amateurs will see increases as well. But, thereís little doubt that the bulk of that money will come from the three million youth players registered with the USSF.

Is potentially raising the current $1 fee (half of which goes to the USSF) to $3, $4 or even $5 really going to be that big a deal? Surely the white, suburban, middle class families that dominate youth soccer in this country can afford that. Of course they can and relatively few parents will probably complain. But there will be complaints, largely from youth soccer administrators, and theyíll likely focus on two issues.

First -- and Iím skeptical that this one will be given its due -- is that any increase further hampers efforts to bring more economically disadvantaged children into the sport. For the beginning player, the registration fee is a minor and often the only expense. But, even then, there are usually "add-ons" by the league or club to cover uniforms, balls, field maintenance and officials. Your $1 player registration fee multiplies to $30-50 when you add in these costs.

If your son or daughter moves up the current soccer ladder in this country, that expense can increase a hundred fold when travel and paid coaching become part of the equation. Weíve simply priced the sport out of many inner-city and rural neighborhoods, and adding a "pittance" to the player registration fee does nothing to make soccer more attractive to families who already are stretching every dollar just to put food on the table.

The second issue is the one that will attract the most debate. It basically will center around the following question: "Why should we pay extra fees to develop one percent of our players?" This is the old recreational vs. elite argument.

For the pro-recreation proponents, the argument will go something like this: "Why should the average soccer mom or dad fork over an additional $2 to $4 to be spent on developing players who can contend for the 2010 menís World Cup title (Project 2010ís goal) or keep our womenís team No. 1 in the world (Project Gold)? Heck, very few players are ever going to be part of a national team pool at any age level and only a fraction of those will ever set foot on a World Cup pitch. All most of those moms and dads want is for their child to get some exercise and learn about being part of a team. Letís keep expanding the recreational base and the elite level will evolve naturally."

For those pushing for greater emphasis on the top end, their argument will fall along these lines: "Individual clubs in Europe spend more money than weíre talking about here. But we need to start somewhere if soccer is ever going to be a major sport in this country and truly become ingrained in American society. Americans like winners, but we will never win if we donít devote greater resources to developing elite players. Make our pro leagues stronger and our national teams more competitive, and youíll see a return at the grassroots level."

In some respects, itís a classic Catch-22 situation. You donít want to stifle the recreational base. That top one percent starts at this level after all. And, for the other 99 percent, letís make sure they have a positive experience, one that will develop them into lifelong fans if nothing else.

On the other hand, we are woefully behind the rest of the world when it comes to identifying and developing our elite players. Without a major commitment, soccer will remain just another "niche" sport in the U.S., one based on participation, not passion. If we donít develop a strong professional game and winning national teams, American soccer in the 21st century will be little more than our childrenís alternative to adult slow-pitch softball.

Both arguments will have passionate supporters. And itís a dialogue that needs to take place. In fact, Bob Contiguglia, USSF president, has put the brakes on both projects -- particularly the discussion of funding -- to allow that dialogue to proceed. Outlines of both projects have been circulated to state associations and both are available on U.S. Soccerís web site [www.us-soccer.com]. Heís encouraging feedback.

As one of the major organizations in American soccer and having a role in the development of both projects, the National Soccer Coaches Association of America similarly needs to be clear on how its membership feels about these issues.

Jim Sheldon is executive director of the NSCAA. This article originally appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of the NSCAAís publication, the Soccer Journal. For information on subscriptions, contact the NSCAA at (800) 458-0678 or by visiting www.NSCAA.com.

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