Over the last couple of months, I have been involved in many conversations about the pathway to the professional level for young female soccer players in the USA. Obviously, this is not a brand-new topic, and I am sure loads of people have tried to flip the puzzle piece in all different ways to come up with a solution that makes sense for families and players while being financially affordable.
After leaving Africa at the age of 11, I was recruited to the Toulouse Football Club academy system at 12 years old. I remember the meeting at my house as if it were yesterday: two club representatives sitting at my dining room table, having a conversation with my parents about me joining the academy and heading off to their full-time residency program an hour away. Needless to say, my excitement level was very different than my mom’s. My experience at the academy was probably the single most valuable of my life; it taught me independence, respect, and tolerance – as well as how to maneuver friendships, how to share space with teammates, how to always be aware of your belongings, and how to think ahead. It was a true blessing to grow so fast as a soccer player in such a high-quality environment, but looking back, it was the growth as a young man that was most impactful. I stayed in this environment for five years and left a confident, independent young man – so much so that a year later, at just 17 years old, I flew to America and never returned.
So, I’m thinking, why can’t we build a similar model here in the US for elite young female soccer players? It already exists in the MLS, and young boys do have access to a fully funded program that also offers great education through the high school level. These boys have a true pathway to reach the professional level, so what are the limitations and constraints that prevent it from coming together on the women’s side?
In the USA, the private sector is dominating the landscape of sports in breeding athletes. The pay-to-play model is just a consequence of this system where everyone is paying to play in a private club, paying for a private coach, paying for strength and conditioning, paying for a private academy, etc. It is a fine model, but it is obviously not affordable for everyone. The power of an elite academy system – like the ones in Europe – is that the clubs alone hold the decision on who they recruit into their academy regardless of their family’s financial situation. They provide a fully free service and will decide on who is the best to enter the environment. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t all nice of an environment, but it is based on skills and performance. It is highly competitive, highly selective, and completely cut-throat, but it does produce loads of professional players and, therefore, generates revenue from the investment. Benfica is arguably the best football talent factory in the world: João Felix, Ruben Diaz, Enzo Fernandez, Angel Di Maria, Ederson, and the list goes on. They are reported to have over 500 players within their ranks and over 300 staff supporting them day to day, year-round, to help develop future stars!
After spending the last eight years in the professional women’s soccer system, it is evident that financial resources have been the most influential limitation. In some markets, the pros are still dealing with mediocre facilities, limited staffing, and, in some places, a workflow that involves two or three different sites to attend daily. This lack of financial investment is also limiting the bigger vision of what this youth system could become. If, hypothetically speaking, we were to build an elite academy system like the ones in Europe, what could be the projected return on investment? What kind of money can a club make by selling two players per year out of the academy? Perhaps $50-100k per player – and maybe a bit more if the player has proven their quality in the first or second team? The numbers are slowly growing but remain too low to become a serious reason for investment. So, what is the solution?
If the women’s game is to continue to grow, we must start thinking about the big picture and turning these professional teams into a true club pyramid that includes a second team and a whole academy below. Sponsorships and outside investments could become the best way to fund these pipelines that will help support the first team without leaving the team owners burning at both ends. The business side of the club is truly the key to making this vision work, at least for the next 10 years, as we put this vision on its feet. Then, hopefully, the game will reach new heights, and academies will be able to generate revenue on a yearly basis through their players’ assets.
A recent example: on this side of the pond was the sale of Alphonso Davies, who was sold from Vancouver Whitecaps to Bayern Munich in 2019 for $22 million. This single transaction can fund the academy system for another six or seven years until the next Alphonso comes along. Imagine the day we can witness this type of transaction on the women’s side!