How rabid capitalism helped sink USA Women’s World Cup campaign

Photograph: Scott Barbour/AP

The popular question in the wake of the US women’s early exit from the World Cup is a basic one: Has the rest of the world caught up?

It’s a simple question with a complicated answer. A full explanation includes fraught topics such as American exceptionalism, stubborn individualism, a lack of trust in institutions, and basic litigious behavior.

But the common threads that either cause or result from those traits are as follows:

1) US youth soccer is an expensive playground, and the number of players is stagnant or even dropping.

2) Instead of developing programs to change the status quo, US Soccer has had to focus its time, energy and money on the select groups of women and men who bowed out in the round of 16 of their respective World Cups.

The result is a soccer-industrial complex in which a lot of people and institutions – airlines, hotels, administrators, coaches, and yes, national team players and their lawyers – make a lot of money. And yet the country lacks the resources to develop 23 players with the skills to match the best players in Europe and South America, let alone break down financial barriers that would make the sport more accessible to millions.

Related: USA’s World Cup rock bottom was a downfall years in the making | Jeff Kassouf

US Soccer and its would-be reformers are fully aware of the problem. When the US men failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, many knights in shining armor galloped to replace outgoing federation president Sunil Gulati. The candidates were a diverse lot, but they identified the same problems. The biggest is the USA’s “pay to play” youth system, in which families must pay thousands of dollars – or petition for financial aid – to give their kids any shot at advancing in the sport.

They have a point. The growth in TV viewership and attendance for the pro leagues and national teams has failed to cause a youth soccer boom. Analysis of the problem by a group called Project Play mentions those high fees.

“(P)articipation in all three sports [soccer, basketball and baseball] remained considerably lower than it was in 2008 – a byproduct of early-sport specialization, high costs to play, fewer quality recreational opportunities, and the nation’s declining birth rate,” reads the Project Play State of Play report for 2022.

In 2008, the report says, 10.4% of the country’s children aged six to 12 played soccer on a regular basis. Just before the pandemic, that number dropped to 7.7%. It dropped again during the pandemic year of 2020 but recovered the next year to 7.4%.

US Soccer’s registration revenue has also dropped. In the fiscal year ending March 2022, youth registration revenue was $3,765,038, according to the federation’s audited financial statements. In 2008, that number was $4,098,953.

The good news is that registration fees are only a small part of US Soccer’s revenue these days. In the 2022 audited financial statement, the federation reported revenue of nearly $120m. The bad news: it spent more than $145m.

On the top line of the expense list: national teams, at $96.5m. Their game revenues were nearly $42m, and sponsorship stood at $47.5m – a total that falls short of the $96.5m in outgoings. The $96.5m includes youth national teams ($9.5m) and what the federation calls “extended” national teams ($1.7m) that compete in various disability disciplines, beach soccer and futsal. The statement also adds $800,000 for administration expenses for the National Women’s Soccer League. Then there’s a figure of $24m for “Women’s Senior National Team – Legal Settlement.”

At least that’s a one-time thing. The share of Fifa prize money and commercial revenue that will go to the top of the player pyramid is not. In the landmark collective bargaining agreements that made equal pay a reality, prize money earned by the US men and women is dumped into one pot and split between the teams. They’ll take 90% of the prize money from the 2022 and 2023 World Cups, 80% from the 2026 and 2027 World Cups, and 70% from other competitions – on top of substantial fees for friendlies and shares of commercial revenue.

By comparison, Norway reached a heralded “equal pay” deal in 2017 that really wasn’t equal, given that it paid each team the same flat percentage on the money that team earned – 25%. A stronger deal in Australia pays each team 40-50% of World Cup prize money. Fifa stepped in to guarantee minimum payments directly to all players in the Women’s World Cup, but later cast doubt on its ability to guarantee such things.

A typical federation takes a large chunk of Fifa prize money for itself. Some federations use this money wisely and invest in the grassroots, developing the next generation of stars. Some federations don’t. US Soccer doesn’t have an opportunity to do either as a huge proportion of the prize money goes to its elite men’s and women’s players.

So, when the pandemic hit and US Soccer, still paying a lot of legal fees and anticipating a big settlement payout, decided something had to be cut from the budget, the federation saw one ripe $10m line item – the Development Academy, not really an academy but actually a league that set rigorous standards for participating teams. The boys’ operation was immediately replaced by a Major League Soccer youth venture. The girls’ league wasn’t. It hadn’t quite succeeded in establishing itself as the top dog in girls’ soccer anyway, so the frenzy of competing “elite” leagues just kept on churning.

“We have five different ways that you can supposedly make the US national team,” Real Colorado executive Jared Spires lamented to Yahoo’s Henry Bushnell. “Why?”

Perversely, the battle between all these competitions only drives prices up. Clubs are competing to put players in front of college scouts (and, increasingly, pro scouts), and they’ll rack up the miles by air or land to get there, costs that are passed on to the players and their families.

Wealthy families are always willing to pay. They know they’re not likely to make enough in college scholarship money to make up for the thousands of dollars they invest annually in these programs, but they also know that athletic skill can help a kid get into college. Harvard and MIT might not offer athletic scholarships, but they always need a good left-back.

If a family lacks the money or flexible work schedules to get their kid to whichever youth megaclub within a day’s driving range offers a spot with its top team, there’s also high school soccer. But good luck convincing a scout from any college, let alone a pro club or the federation, to come out and take a look. The system of (mostly) affordable youth teams and high school play that works for football, baseball and basketball somehow won’t work for soccer.

Can US Soccer step in and stop the madness? Probably not. The pandemic-fueled cuts helped the federation hold on to a solid pile of assets, even after running into the red in recent years. But it can’t suddenly pay every family’s travel soccer bills. Nor is it likely to risk antagonizing anyone any further by laying down a bunch of rules.

But the federation can direct more grant money to grassroots programs. It can make education for coaches more affordable – moving up from the lowest levels to the C, B and A levels costs several thousand dollars on top of whatever travel plans a coach must make. It can provide more support for referees in an effort to stop them leaving the game because of abuse by belligerent coaches and parents who scream at officials at nearly every game. It can expand talent identification programs, going out to underserved areas to try to find players who haven’t forked over their parents’ life savings to play for Local Elite Premier Cashcow FC .

Through all of this, the US women have remained the team to beat. They won back-to-back World Cups in 2015 and 2019. One could always argue that if not for the bad breaks this team got – a rash of injuries that sidelined players such as Catarina Macario and Mallory Swanson, a heartbreaking millimeter of green space between the goalline and the penalty Alyssa Naeher thought she had kept out – the US would be preparing for further action at this World Cup.

But this result wasn’t a fluke.

The US bowed out of the last Olympics in the semi-finals. In 2016, they were out in the quarter-finals. The Under-20 and Under-17 teams haven’t been on a World Cup podium since Julie Ertz captained the U-20s to a championship in 2012. To put that in perspective, Ertz just announced her international retirement.

In all that time, dazzling players all over the world have burst onto the global stage. The number of US players in The Guardian’s list of the top 100 female players has dropped from 16 in 2018 to 11 in 2022, and that number seems destined for single digits at the end of this year with Megan Rapinoe retiring, Alex Morgan struggling and Becky Sauerbrunn facing injuries near the end of her distinguished career.

So the question of whether the rest of the world has “caught up” to the US hardly seems worth asking. The real question is how the US can keep up. And who’s going to pay for it.

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