The Unlevel Playing Field
- Created: Friday, 12 October 2012 17:02
When TSS Academy first opened its doors over 16 years ago, the soccer landscape in BC was very different. Soccer clubs were largely volunteer-driven, particularly youth soccer clubs, and the price point for participation was reflective of that volunteerism. TSS Academy, at the time, was an uncommon organization, one that charged fees for coaching services and game play.
Fast forward to today and we now see a very different soccer landscape, one in which paying for coaching services and game play is the norm, particularly for higher level players. In other words, the divide that used to exist between the nature of soccer clubs and organizations like TSS Academy has largely been bridged. Soccer clubs have essentially become businesses, sometimes charging upwards of $2500 for league play, plus additional fees for tournaments, kit, supplementary training, etc. Soccer clubs cannot cloak themselves under the veil of non-profit status when these kind of fees are being charged. Club “academies” have also appeared all over the Lower Mainland, often necessitating participation as a pre-requisite for team selection.
The primary problem surfacing today is that competition in the youth soccer market is not taking place on a level playing field. Soccer clubs and/or youth districts are severely limiting access to the youth soccer market through their control of the British Columbia Soccer Association (BCSA). Exclusionary rules that prevent participation from private academies like TSS have essentially created a closed market. Youth leagues are not open to groups like TSS Academy. Worse yet, BCSA members are instructed not to play games against groups like TSS as this is considered “unsanctioned” soccer and therefore a violation of BCSA rules. To compound this imbalance, new criteria around provincial team selection has essentially mandated that payment be made to specific youth soccer clubs under the BCSA .
Organizations like TSS Academy have no issue with competition. On the contrary, TSS feels that competition is healthy for the soccer community. It helps create accountability and accountability leads to a continued march towards quality improvement.
The Soccer Club Oligopoly
An oligopoly is described as “a market structure characterized by a small number of large companies that dominate the market, selling either identical or differentiated products, with significant barriers to entry into the industry.” There’s little doubt that youth soccer clubs in BC fit this description well. The notable distinction to this oligopoly is the nature of the “barriers to entry.” The reason this market is virtually impenetrable is not due to the size or efficiencies of the soccer clubs. The reason is simply because this market has been granted exclusionary access through its membership in the British Columbia Soccer Association (BCSA). The BCSA and its members are essentially controlling access to the youth soccer market through its sanctioning powers. Organizations such as TSS have attempted on numerous occasions to gain equal access to this market through membership in the BCSA but those efforts have been thwarted at every turn.
It should be said that nothing prevents an organization from running soccer programs in this province. One doesn’t need membership in the BCSA to do so. However, once a player registers with the BCSA, that player is completely beholden to the Association and its members. Rule 4 in the BCSA Rules and Regulations clearly explains the power of affiliation:
The Association or any affiliate shall have the power to prohibit the teams and players under its jurisdiction from playing with or against any team which is not a member of the Canadian Soccer Association or an affiliated association.
In other words, once a player registers with a BCSA affiliated soccer club, the power resides with the club. An organization may run supplementary training programs or summer travel teams but that organization is only “borrowing” another club’s customer.
The Club Academy
Over the last 10 years, more and more youth soccer clubs are now running their own club academies. With the advent of BCPL, these club academies have grown in size and strength. The reality is that most of these “club academies” are in fact private academies hiding behind the non-profit status of the soccer club. Many technical directors run these academies as supplementary income sources. In many cases, the club awards the technical director a percentage of the proceeds generated by the academy. It’s also become a source of income for many of the staff coaches in the club. While some would argue that the clubs have the right to run these academies, the question again arises over the uneven playing field since these clubs provide a sanctioned game outlet to their players. Many of these academies populate their programs through the veiled threat that players need to be “seen” by academy coaches in order to make certain select teams.
The only way to level the playing field is by allowing academies a legitimate game outlet. Excluding academies from league play, exhibition games, and tournaments effectively prevents them from running full-time programming and thus prevents them from competing business-wise against BCSA soccer clubs. TSS currently has 3 teams of youth players competing in local adult leagues because these leagues have no issues with organizations like TSS. Players on these TSS teams play and train with the academy full-time. It is the only program that can effectively compete against BCSA soccer clubs because it allows for a consistent game outlet.
After TSS was denied involvement in the BCPL league, the academy sought entry into a US youth league in Washington state. This US league openly embraced the idea of TSS joining the league but required a letter of consent from the BCSA so as not to “upset the federation.” When TSS asked the BCSA for consent, it was denied. So even though TSS Academy is prepared to participate in league play in a foreign country, the BCSA will not allow the academy to do so.
It’s clear to TSS that the BCSA is actively preventing the academy (and other private academies) from providing a consistent game outlet. It can only be assumed that the motive for such obstruction is to stop private academies from competing against BCSA soccer clubs for players (customers).
Fighting the Future
Just recently the Ontario Soccer Association (the largest sport governing body in the country) passed a motion that effectively embraces private soccer academies into the youth development system. This ruling, among other things, allows private academy players to be eligible for provincial team selection, allows for sanctioned exhibition games between academies and club teams, allows for academies to participate in showcase tournaments, and allows for academies to travel to competitions outside the province. In other words, the Ontario Soccer Association is embracing the future by bringing all stakeholders into the fold in order to help players develop in the game. The BCSA, on the other hand, is doing the opposite. The BCSA is enacting rules to restrict the landscape from both a development perspective and a business perspective.
TSS has tried at every turn to gain equal access to this market but to no avail. The academy applied to participate in a local elite league but did not succeed. TSS even tried to start a local spring league with partnering soccer clubs but was told that its participation was not allowed. Finally TSS decided to join a league in United States, but the BCSA would not provide consent for TSS to participate. TSS Academy has been left with little alternative but to take legal action against the BCSA in order to gain equal access to the youth soccer market. This is not an action the academy wishes to take but as a successful business operating in the community for 16 years, TSS cannot sit idly by while these anti-competitive practices take place. In the meantime, it’s our hope that BC will come to see private academies as allies in the development of the game rather than a threat to their control.