Pay to Play? Or Pay to Progress?

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What am I paying for? Perhaps one of the most common questions in Australian youth football. Supplemented with further questions …

Why does it cost so much?

Where is my money going?

What do I get for my money?

As a parent, I have asked myself these questions many times. In fact, as a full-time professional football director and coach, I continue to ask myself these questions. But now, given my years of involvement, I ask them from a different perspective. One which is designed to keep myself and our organisation accountable and on track.

As I sit here, I’ve just finished watching a video of our ‘Golden Generation’ discussing this same topic. And it would seem the topic isn’t confined to our shores. I’ve also just read an interview with Zlatan Ibrahimović raising his concerns (in true Zlatan style I won’t even attempt to reproduce) around the cost his kids had to pay to play football in LA.

So maybe it’s a biproduct of western culture? Another ‘first-world problem’ we have created for ourselves? Perhaps the cost of living plays its part in driving costs up? Perhaps it is just poor management of finances within football entities? Or worse, misguided management of finances?

In any case, I wanted to provide my own context here based on what I have seen. Both as a parent and in particular over the past 3+ years of full-time directorship and coaching in the game.

Fundamentally, I believe the discussion is flawed. Or at the very least, unclear. For me, there are two discussions at play here. One is “pay to play”. The other is “pay to progress”. And understanding which one I am actually paying for.

Most parents – as I did 10 years ago when I registered my daughter for her first year in grassroots football – assume (in my experience) that they get both when they hand over their hard-earned money. E.g. In my case I thought I was paying for my daughter to both play the beautiful game of football – and develop as a footballer. I was shocked when I found out my fees did not include a professional coach. As the club started its recruitment for volunteer mums and dads (something I might add I think is one of the most beautiful things about our game at a grassroots level – and I applaud every Mum, Dad, Brother, Sister and Carer who gives up their time every year to serve their local club in this way).

But what I also realised very quickly – is that I wasn’t paying for the development of my child as a footballer. I was, in basic terms, just paying for ‘a shirt on my child’s back’.

Of course, this led to further questions associated to the cost of what I was therefore paying for. Because, for me, a few hundred $$ for 16-weeks of games with no professional coaching or development – just simply didn’t add up. And, 10-years later, it still doesn’t.

To clarify, that’s not to suggest that the costs inside association grassroots clubs are not legitimate. Having now spent many years inside and assisting grassroots football clubs I know that the vast majority of clubs are run by volunteers that graciously give up their time to serve their local community and club. A noble act that I absolutely commend. And generally speaking, whatever money comes into these clubs goes back out. So, the costs, I believe, are what they are.

What I wanted to clarify here, for parents mostly, is exactly what we are paying for. So that they can better understand the conversation.  And in turn make educated decisions for their child’s football development and enjoyment.

Using the example of my daughter playing first year grassroots football – at that point, essentially, I’m paying for the privilege for my child to run out on a football field. On a Saturday or Sunday. And run around on a hired field one night a week. No more no less.

What I’m not paying for is development. For her progress as a young footballer. Because fundamentally that’s just not part of the package I’ve purchased.

Of course, I might get lucky. With perhaps one of the parents having a little bit of football knowledge to draw from. But in any case, that’s far from structured professional coaching (I can attest to that personally myself – despite my years of experience as an elite / professional level player it was only when I started educating myself on the art of coaching through studies, licences, and full time experience that I properly understood what coaching really looked like).

Or perhaps the team might be fortunate enough to get a qualified professional coach as one of the parents willing to give up their time and expertise for free. But that’s just the luck of the draw. And in any case, also not something that sits right with me personally as I believe it to be unfair to that individual and devalues the industry. In the same way I wouldn’t expect the parent lawyer with a child in the team to provide free legal services to the families in the team.

But I digress. The question therefore remains, what am I paying for? Essentially, in this case, I was paying for the privilege for my child to play the game.

Is it too expensive? That’s a blog for another day.

Can my child develop in that environment? Maybe. But probably very slowly.

How do I then get my child to develop and progress? Well, as with any industry, professionals would be required for that. And at Spark Futbol, we go that little bit further, believing that a holistic professional environment is also required to maximise football potential and love for the game.

For, it costs money to hire, train up, and utilize the services of industry professionals. It costs even more to create an environment with direction and leadership that is centred around a clear methodology, approach, and curriculum(s) that is outcome-driven. And is built from decades of football knowledge, experience, time, and expertise.

Where it gets even more complicated, however, is when we get to a selective / representative level and we are in fact seemingly paying for both – to play and progress. But, sadly, the delivery and experience falls well short.

Usually this just comes down to simply not being provided a professional coach and/or environment required to deliver both. Because, well, both are very hard to come by (at the volume required). But the parent and player expectation remains nonetheless. As do the costs. Which can unfortunately lead to a dissatisfied parent and player. Or worse, at both a micro (player) and macro (the game) level, have a detrimental impact on a players development, their love for the game, and the level of player we are producing at large.

So, the question for me is not should people be paying for football? Or are the costs too high? I don’t think I’ve ever asked those questions of myself when paying professionals to teach my children ballet, tennis, or how to swim.

The question is what am I getting for my money? At any level.

Is it a shirt on the back? Ok, no problem, what is that worth then?

Is it the privilege to be selected for a rep team? Ok, also no problem, but am I getting a level of professionalism in that environment that leads to development for the price paid?

Similarly, can I find (or create) an environment that can do both?

In any case, let’s not simplify the conversation to the point it becomes misleading for parents. It’s far too complex for that.

Registration fees don’t necessarily lead to development. Or enjoyment for that matter. Only the right environment can do that. And is exactly why we exist at Spark Futbol. To fill those gaps and create an environment that maximises football potential and love for the game!

The only other (much bigger) question left remaining then is … How do we as a game support those who cannot afford to pay to both ‘play and progress’? And more generally, how do we get the costs down to make professional outcome-driven coaching and environments more accessible, more often, to more people.

Another blog for another day. But also, something we are acutely aware of at Spark Futbol and are working behind the scenes to play our part in fixing.

Until then, I hope the game can start separating the conversation of money in junior / youth football development. Helping educate parents on what they are actually paying for. And holding ourselves accountable as football entities – private or public – to delivering outcomes of development and enjoyment for the player and their family. And for the future of our game!

See you on the pitch.

Be the Spark!


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