Some 40 or 50 kids, ages 7 to 19, work on their passing skills on a soccer field northeast of Austin, Texas. The practice is run by Upper Ninety, a youth development program. But what sets Upper Ninety apart from other football programs is that it’s free.
This is a good thing for Samuel Osezua, 18, who left Nigeria about a year ago.
“Programs like this have helped me get set up faster because because it’s free, it’s appealing to everyone,” he said.
In the United States, elite competitive club football tends to be expensive. Dues from a team affiliated with the official United States football organization – as opposed to a recreational league or school team – can cost $ 5,000 per year. Not to mention the travel costs. These could also support a family’s thousands of dollars over the course of a season.
Upper Ninety founder Kaitlin Swarts grew up in Austin and played club football most of her life. She saw football getting more and more expensive and decided to do something about it.
“I’m really lucky to be born into a family that could afford it, but that’s just not the reality for most people,” Swarts said.
When the English Premier League kicks off this weekend, all eyes (at least many American eyes) will be on a 20-year-old phenomenon from Hershey, Pa. Named Christian Pulisic. He’s a little curious as there are only a handful of American men who play football in the elite world leagues.
The fact that football is often unaffordable tends to limit the potential of the US men’s team soccer. Youth clubs do not provide enough players for the national team, which was not even good enough to qualify for the World Cup in 2018. In the United States, the financial burden of developing young players from elite rests with parents.
“In Europe, there is an incentive for clubs to develop these players because once they grow up they can either contribute to the senior team or be sold for millions of dollars to a rival club,” said Tom Farrey, executive director of Sports. & Society Program at the Aspen Institute.
A leading German league team sent young American Pulisic to Chelsea late last year. Chelsea paid $ 73million to sign Pulisic.
If Pulisic were to come from Europe, the youth club he played in before turning pro in Germany would get a big 10% slice of that $ 73 million. This is called a solidarity payment and is not part of the process in the United States.
Tom Cove, president and CEO of the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, said for some American clubs the solidarity payment could mean a lot.
“With that kind of money you can sort of meet a lot of needs, really focusing on the elite and developing that better player, but also coming back into the community,” he said. “It’s a significant amount of money to reach a local club.”
The governing body here, US Soccer, has chosen to opt out of the system. One reason for this: American professional players fear that when a big club like Chelsea have to pay this solidarity tax, they will get less money.
Ultimately, that means PA Classics – Pulisic’s childhood development club – won’t receive a dime from his transfer. Steve Klein, director of PA Classics, declined an interview.
But what about the US Women, who just won another World Cup? Is the financial structure of American football also holding back women? Farrey at the Aspen Institute said not really.
“In a country of 330 million people, we have so many more girls playing football,” he said. “Our ability to put together a roster of 20 or 24 players is going to be pretty good, much easier than in a lot of other countries.”
Back in northeast Austin, Swarts of Upper Ninety isn’t too concerned about elite youth clubs getting money for their star players. His organization is not a club team and would not be eligible for these payments anyway. Its purpose is totally different.
“Football should be a community thing, and you shouldn’t need all the time and money to enjoy it,” she said.