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How to address the issue of money over quality in the U.S. game

Part 1 of a three-part series looks at the metrics that define success in soccer in the U.S. and around the world

68th FIFA Congress

The world is becoming increasingly measurable. We track more things than ever and have that data closer to us than ever. For example, you can set calorie, exercise or sleep targets and easily track the data and your progress toward the goal. Companies also set targets as well and they are increasingly better at developing algorithms that tell them how to most efficiently achieve those targets. Just set that target and start measuring.

But anything that simple is also dangerous.

While tracking data is getting easy, pointing these systems at the right target is anything but. It’s hard to argue with calories, exercise and sleep but what if you are the government managing an economy or the USSF trying to improve the USNT’s? What exactly are the right targets?

The U.S. government, for example, has pinned their hopes for decades on Gross Domestic Product with the ultimate goal to guide the United States to a sustainable 2 to 3 percent growth rate every year. GDP is a proxy for well-being, to be sure, and we also know what bad things happen when it’s growth stumbles. When growth is too slow the valuations of companies crumble and along with valuations go wealth and jobs. But if the economy grows too quickly a recession is still likely to occur. Companies are making good money in those times, but there are only so many appropriately returning projects to reinvest their profits in, which often results in an asset bubbles, and those don’t end well either.

So GDP must be a focus if we are to avoid unemployment and large losses of wealth. It is in our best interest, yes, but as we’ve seen more recently the metric also has it’s shortcomings. It doesn’t include a measure for impacting the planet, or managing inequality, poverty, the health of its people. or a long list of societal issues. This is not to say that those things aren’t measured but how are they prioritized as targets?

Of course it must be said that different measures and targets are set up all around the world and there are many worse ones out there. But regardless of target none has lasted forever. The average duration of all 187 empires in world history is 272 years. That points to the fact that all of these targets need to evolve. The U.S. and the USSF are two such entities faced with a needed evolution.

So what are we to do?

I can think of two things. We distract ourselves with sports (or insert your form of entertainment here), and we revolt. Luckily we have soccer to keep us focused on smaller games, rather than bigger ones. We also have groups of people who want to change the measures and realize that success will come with changing how the targets are determined.

Groups like the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, The Global Happiness Council, Gross National Happiness USA and state legislators like those in Vermont are examples of people trying to change the way we think about setting targets. Oxford Economist Kate Raworth recently gave this TED Talk on the issue. The objective is to highlight metrics that might be more suitable than GDP, and to do that the two former examples have developed the annual World Happiness Report, which is an attempt to measure the overall well-being of people around the world. I don’t necessarily agree with the term “Happiness” with regards to these efforts, but I do understand the benefit of using an understandable, marketable term.

In 2018’s report they selected Finland as the happiest country in the world. Finland actually ranks a relatively modest 37th in the world in GDP per capita, which is one of many metrics used to determine well-being. But Finland ranks 2nd in social support, and a healthy life expectancy of 71.7 years. They rank 3rd in corruption perception and the freedom to make life choices. These types of measures are a move in the right direction.

The United States, leader of the free world, ranks 18th overall. As great as this country is and wants to be, I think we all agree the rules of our game need to be redrafted.

What’s interesting is that the U.S. Soccer Federation has fallen into the same trap. Leadership seems to subscribe to the idea that money is the ultimate source of resources, which will beget player and coaching development, which will improve the National Teams and the overall profile of the sport in the states. At one point on the Presidential campaign trail SUM executive Kathy Carter said, “I’m in favor of what will drive the most revenue into our sport.” That sums up internal thinking quite succinctly, although there is hope that Carlos Cordeiro will develop a different mentality. They believe that a $150 million war chest and attracting the money from investor interests will improve the game. It will, no doubt, but the pitfalls of pinning your hopes solely on financial success has already been tagged as a problem. Quite frankly, it’s now lazy and shows a clear lack of vision. Soccer needs people like the Global Happiness Council to develop targets that take a higher priority within the administration.

Leadership at the USSF uses money as an excuse to differentiate the pay of a World Champion women’s team. They use it to focus our efforts on Development Academies, leaving the Olympic Development Program to fend for itself. We allow returns on investment calculations to drive fully priced pay-to-play systems that further enable the advantaged.

It’s easy to let the money do the work, but it will become its own undoing as a sole focus. A more complicated, more complex system needs to be put in place. And that system needs to have metrics that track progress that come with goals that will drive the mission. The Federation’s mission, as stated is “To make soccer, in all its forms, a preeminent sport in the United States and to continue the development of soccer at all recreational and competitive levels.”

What exactly are the metrics that will achieve that mission?

Perhaps metrics can be borrowed from the happiness efforts. What is the healthy soccer life expectancy of a player? Should we place value on a kid who plays soccer as an adult into his or her forties? Should we develop programs that monitor those statistics and drive towards that goal?

What about borrowing from the concept of social support? Are we monitoring progress with players outside of the preferred Development Academy funnel?

It’s likely that U.S. Soccer does track these kind of metrics in closed way. But the vision and the metrics that should be monitored and the progress made against them should be part of the public discourse. The Federation is a non-profit. What do they have to lose by showing the fans and players they support what they value? Why not hold themselves accountable for progress, not just on the balance sheet but on the field?

The public is to blame as well. One of the fan bases’ issues has always been the reliance on World Cup results as a guidepost for success. While this metric shines a positive light on the women right now, it happens to be a terrible metric to judge the men. While professional sports leagues get to assess progress across multiple playoff games every season, the national teams are judged on what could be three games every four years, and the difficulty of those three games is highly variable. Too often pressure is placed on these outcomes without a honest look at the underlying progression of talent to the team.

The bottom line is that focusing on metrics drives outcomes and a focus on financials is not good enough. Everyone knows this, but little ever changes. Simple minded and self serving interests are at the core of the problem both politically and within the state of soccer. We need new rules that look out for the marginalized and the passion we each have for the game over the course of our lives. We need to think carefully about the right metrics. It’s not easy. We put out audited financial statements because the law requires it. How about thinking deeply about how soccer really matters to people and publish actually important metrics, because it’s the right thing to do?

Part 2 of this 3-part series examines metrics that impact success in men’s international soccer. Look for that tomorrow. Part 3, which will come later this week, will examine metrics that impact success in women’s international soccer.