American Soccer Reformers Must Learn How to Force Real Change

Frustrated reformers need to take away one key lesson from the recent U.S. Soccer Federation presidential election: Passion doesn’t matter unless you channel it into powerful incentives. Unless they organize into an active constituency that must be reckoned with by those in power, advocates for a more grassroots, club and athlete-centered model of American soccer will continue to fail to achieve real change.

2000px-U.S._Soccer_Team_logo.svgIt’s a fundamental tenet of public policy advocacy that the overriding priority of people with power is to retain that power. Politicians of whatever stripe and in whatever environment value reelection over everything else. That’s why elected officials need to believe the support or opposition of people sharing a point of view will play a meaningful role in that equation, or else they will be set aside in favor of interests with more perceived power. Given this reality, American soccer reformers must organize the amorphous mass of frustrated fans, supporters, players, parents, club owners and other stakeholders into a functional constituency for their shared interests. Only then will they have the power to demand and expect meaningful change from the people with power over the sport’s official structures in our nation.

If they don’t, the future will hold more of the same.

I’m a professional public policy advocate as well as a supporter of a fourth-division semi-pro soccer club. As someone who spends his time when he’s not in the supporters’ stands looking at how elected officials and the voters who choose them make decisions and trying to influence those choices, I watched the USSF election play out with the inevitability of a U.S. Men’s National Team loss to Brazil. Soccer reformers – among whom I broadly count myself – didn’t lay the groundwork for victory and paid the price for ineffectiveness.

20180210 US Soccer AGM Carlos Cordeiro
New USSF President Carlos Cordeiro

Longtime USSF board member and incumbent Vice President Carlos Cordeiro was chosen this past weekend as the organization’s new president, in an election notable not only for the fact that there were eight candidates but for the fact that there were any at all. That’s because it had been 20 years since US Soccer had witnessed a contested election for its presidency. This Putinesque approach to four straight USSF presidential elections bluntly demonstrates the lack of any existing organized constituency for organizational change, as well as how far reformers have to go.

Cordeiro did defeat the “most” insider candidate, Kathy Carter, the president of the Soccer United Marketing USSF/MLS joint venture that is widely blamed among reformers (and named in lawsuits) for creating an inappropriate set of financial incentives between the national federation and its top professional league. According to the MLS website, Carter “oversees the revenue business for Major League Soccer’s commercial subsidiary. Carter and her team are responsible for all development and monetization for some of the premier soccer properties in the United States, including MLS, U.S. Soccer, the Mexican National Team and multiple CONCACAF properties.” Amazingly, given the vocal appetite for change among multiple constituencies, this ultimate insider only polled 1.7 percent of the vote less than Cordeiro on the first ballot, while beating leading “reform” candidate Eric Wynalda by more than 20 points. Had the preferred MLS candidate not been quite so much of a Bond villain stereotype to American soccer fans as the person in charge of “monetization” of a Men’s National Team that failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the election might have gone even worse than it did for the pro-reform community.

(Fortunately for those financial insider stakeholders concerned monetization of soccer will take a back seat without Carter’s election, Cordeiro’s platform does say one of his first priorities will be “…developing a plan to significantly increase our budget over the coming decade so that we can invest more in all players at all levels over the long term,” and “Money alone is not the answer to the many challenges facing our sport.  But without major new investments, we will not be able to reach new heights.”)

But however bittersweet it might be, Cordeiro’s road to victory does hold important strategic lessons for reformers. Under USSF’s structure, the professional soccer interests hold 25.7 percent of the votes in its elections, as do the adult and youth soccer councils. Athletes get 20 percent, and the remaining three percent or so are split up among the soccer equivalent of “superdelegates.” Cordeiro gained the unified support of the athlete vote as well as strong support from the amateur council, which was enough to offset the unified pro-Carter professional bloc led by MLS.

The key takeaway from this is that while MLS and its associated professional leagues and corporate partners are assumed to “control” US Soccer, their actual voting strength is not a majority. While the corporate interests had to settle for slightly less of an insider than they’d preferred in Cordeiro over actual MLS employee Carter in this election, reformers can visualize a viable path through the youth and adult councils – as well as the athletes – to create a powerful majority constituency for meaningful change in organized soccer in the United States.

Most importantly, organizing the soccer reform constituency will have grassroots benefits reaching up the “pyramid” of the sport in America far beyond the ultimately trivial question of who holds the top title at the national federation. It’s easy to focus on the person with the biggest title, and the run-up to the election played out on social media as an American soccer-themed remake of “Waiting for Godot,” in which we would all be saved as soon as the right USSF president came along. However, lasting change doesn’t come from putting the right person in a leadership position. Rather, it’s the result of changing the incentives under which any officeholder – regardless of whether they’re the “right” or “wrong” person – goes about making their decisions. As Nobel laureate economist and political philosopher Milton Friedman once explained:

I do not believe that the solution to our problem is simply to elect the right people. The important thing is to establish a political climate of opinion which will make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing. Unless it is politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing, the right people will not do the right thing either, or if they try, they will shortly be out of office.

In other words, reformers can’t just keep Kathy Carter or similar MLS-first stakeholders from being elected to run U.S. Soccer. They need to create an environment where Cordeiro or Carter or whomever else is given power within the system knows that their position is dependent on working in the best interests of the broad mass of kids, adults, clubs, supporters, companies and communities that make up “American soccer” instead of MLS or any other singular interest.

People come and go. Organized constituencies that hold whomever is in office accountable to their interests are far more enduring. In non-soccer politics, organizations like the AARP or National Rifle Association or Right to Life or the National Education Association have power not because of who their president is or even how much money they have, but rather because of their ability to engage and activate members to vote for or against politicians based on their record on key issues. The ultimate objective of grassroots soccer activists needs to be this kind of carrot-and-stick capability throughout the organized structure of the sport in America.

So, how does this work? Building an effective constituency for change is a three-phase process:

  1. Your audience needs to be unhappy with the current situation.
  2. They need a shared vision of an achievable better option.
  3. They must believe their actions will make a difference in achieving that vision.

Reformers have the luxury of fairly broad agreement on the first phase, but significant work to put into the second in terms of laying out a consensus view of what a reformed American soccer environment looks like and how to get there. Once that’s been largely completed, advocacy can begin to make progress against the third phase of engaging people and getting them to take necessary action.

I know essentially no American who cares about soccer who thinks, “things are fine.” There’s a broad and deep group of people of all sorts of interests and with all kinds of opinions, and that makes finding a shared vision for what the USSF and American soccer broadly “should” look like a real challenge. (Cue pro/rel battle here.) But with that done, reformers can start at the local level, in their clubs and youth leagues and around the table at the post-rec league bar, in engaging their friends and teammates and communities in their local process and then expand outward. Every candidate for positions in youth leagues, state associations and up could and should come to recognize that there’s a price for their power: support for the community vision for a better American soccer structure.

Achieving this vision will require organization, it will require strategy, it will require compromise and eventually it will require real resources. But it’s necessary, it’s important and it can be done.

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