Development Academies: How funding works

Pictured: the money US parents spend on youth sports...Well not really, but it's still a lot.

For anyone who’s been involved in any kind of youth sports, we all know the drill: parents have their kids register or try out for a team so they’ll stay in shape, stay out of trouble and maybe stay off the phone or computer for an hour or two a day. And once those guardians sign on the line which is dotted (Glengarry Glen Ross anyone?), they’re almost always scribbling out a sizable check so little Johnny or Suzie can nail a couple lay-ups or record a few hits when the weekend comes.

This is the system here in America and it often transcends talent. In other words, if you can knock down jumpers like Ray Allen or execute defense-shredding passes à la Xavi, that’s terrific! But even then the dirty maxim “pay to play” is still the norm.

However, part of the USSF Development Academy’s initiative to nurture the next, even better, wave of great American footballers is for DA clubs to cover as much of a player’s expenses as possible.

Sometimes though, this is easier said than done. Only a minority of the 78 clubs manage to be cost free (shameless self-promotion: check out my Development Academy map and learn more). 

One of them is the Revolution, among the first fully funded clubs when the Development Academy was created in 2007.

With sponsors, a fan base (some bigger than others. RCTID) and owners with deep pockets, MLS clubs have a distinct financial edge compared to academy clubs with no or sparing professional affiliations. But where does the money come from?

Bryan Scales. Photo by New England Revolution

“[The Academy] is funded by ownership. It comes right out of the organization’s pockets,” says Bryan Scales, Director of Youth Development and the Revs’ U16 Head Coach. “So it’s an expense but they’ve always felt it’s a worthy expense.”

For most Development Academy clubs though, finding the money to pay for about 40 kids comprising two academy teams is not so easy. Yet, according to Tony Lepore, Director of Scouting for US Soccer, the number of clubs rendering free play for academy kids is growing.

“We’ve made great strides. Next year, I think we’ll have 25 of our 78 Academies that’ll be at no cost to players. I think when we started in ’07 and ‘08 it was something like eight or nine fully funded clubs,” Tony told me as he was in transit to O’Hare airport. (He was on his way to see the US U23s suffer an embarrassing loss to our northern neighbors. It’s a good thing I caught him before the match methinks). “So in five years we’ve more than doubled the number of cost-free clubs, but there’s still a long way to go. Hopefully in another 5 years it will double again. There’s a lot of solutions [to mitigate the pay to play system], but none of them are easy solutions.”

Scholarships are a big one for many clubs. A player that shows promise, but can’t afford the costs and doesn’t have an alternative club is usually awarded money to play. Lepore also said some clubs have increased fees at their large recreation base in order to pay for the top of the pyramid: the academy. MLS clubs are also developing affiliations with clubs outside of their own academy.

Tony Lepore. Photo by Seacoast United

“And we still have the ‘sugar-daddy model’ where there’s one philanthropist or investor that wants to fund a club,” Said Lapore, who is also the Head Coach of the U15 National Team.

Competition to attract the best players among neighboring clubs is another factor leading to lower costs for players too, said Lepore.

“For example, in the last year we expanded to two more clubs and both are no longer pay to play,” he said. “Georgia United was free, so this year, their neighbors the Concord Fire — hats off to them — found a way to do it too. Similarly when FC Dallas came into the league, the Dallas Texans followed suit with cost free programs.”

Bryan says part of the club’s decision is in line with their philosophy that the Revolution — at all levels — is a professional soccer club, not a youth one. It’s certainly a professionally-sized expense: Scales said the Revs spend roughly $10,000 annually on an academy player.

As I’ve mentioned before, players definitely train and play like they’re salaried professionals, and the cost-free aspect is yet another imitation of the European model. But for many free academies, at this point there is rarely any kind of financial reward; few players have risen to the first team and none have been sold off to bigger clubs for millions. Results in this regard won’t develop for awhile though, says Scales.

“It’s an investment. You have to make a deposit before you can make a withdrawal…Obviously Deigo is here and he is on the first team and as more and more players hopefully come through then I think our goals for the Academy start to become a lot clearer.”

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