Episode 266: Do You Know What “It’s Just a Game” Really Means?
Have you ever found yourself saying the phrase It s just a game ? Well, I know I have. But, over the years, and even more so recently, I ve realized that it s so much more. And today we re going to talk about why that phrase is so prevalent in American soccer and the realities of what sport actually means to individuals and entire ecosystems. First off, soccer is an economic market like any other. There are businesses in play, livelihoods at stake, communities to consider, and consumers that should be looked after. This is an ecosystem with real people, with real consequences, who depend on responsible governance. This is an ecosystem with real people, with real consequences, who depend on responsible governance. Clubs (independent businesses) get affected. People working with or for those clubs get affected. Members and customers of those clubs get affected. Every community and the general consumer gets affected. While the relative magnitudes vary, anyone who has an economic, social, political, or cultural touchpoint with this market gets affected. You might not even realize how big of an economic effect it has you and your family. A coach wanting to pursue US Soccer s educational pathway will be asked to invest a far greater percentage of their net worth compared to what most MLS franchise owners invest in purchasing a franchise. We ll have more on that later. The economic aspect of the sport is measurable, which is why it s easy to talk about, but it s only one piece of the equation. The other pieces include all of the ways individuals have spent their time and energy on the sport in a myriad of ways. You likely know someone whose life is defined by their involvement with soccer. Young players who work to be recruited by professional and college teams. Coaches who travel all over the world investing their hard-earned money into education. Parents who drive their kid’s hundreds of miles to play the game they love, for years. Journalists and media members who are able to put food on their tables and provide for their families by covering the sport. Is it just a game to them? I don t think so. You can t measure that stuff, though. More Than a Game I m sure you ve heard someone say, it s just a game . How does that make you feel when you hear it? When I asked Gary Kleiban, 3four3 s founder, about that phrase, he had this to say: I kind of liken it to the phrase The American Dream. Because just like the American Dream, there are so many layers beneath that that make it what it is. He went on to say that, it s an ecosystem just like any other ecosystem. Gary used the examples of manufacturing products, such as paper, or coffee beans, or doorknobs. Because all of those things have an ecosystem built around them, too. All of those things have people who dedicate their lives to them. Whether those be the engineers who design them, or technicians who test them, the distributors who distribute them. Then, of course, there is the consumer who buys these things. The point here is that all of these people are affected by what happens in the ecosystem. It s part of their livelihoods. Soccer is the same way. You have business owners who own the clubs and franchises. You have business owners who create jerseys and cleats and socks that go into the game. You have the coaches, players, agents, trainers, doctors, front office, ticket booth, stadium staff, vendors, and so on. All of which support and are supported by the ecosystem that is soccer. And that s just touching on the professional side of the game. We could go on to include examples such as the local soccer shops that are supported by the hundreds of customers who shop at their stores ahead of each recreational season. Or the backpack manufacturers that sell their products directly to youth club teams. Or the youth soccer referees which have unions to ensure they aren t overworked and underpaid. You see, the ecosystem is loaded with touchpoints. For further dissection of the phrase it s just a game , it s best to divide into two parts. The micro-level, which is the role of one person in the ecosystem and how they participate and are affected. Like, for example, one tiny organism in a South American rainforest. Then we have the macro-level, which is how groups such as teams, communities, cities, countries, and the World as a whole operate in and are affected by the ecosystem. I d like to address the micro-level and share what the phrase it s just a game means to me. To me, it s incredibly degrading. As someone who s invested a ton of time, energy, and money into making soccer my career it s like getting a knife in the heart. For example, when I paid over $3,000 to participate in a US Soccer coaching course, I invested a far greater percentage of my personal net worth compared to what Atlanta United s owner, Arthur Blank, paid for his MLS franchise. Arthur Blank, whose net worth is reported to be north of $5 billion, purchased his MLS franchise for $70 million. That s 1.4% of his total net worth. The median net worth of the average U.S. household is around $100,000. Meaning, for the average household to participate in just one course offered by US Soccer (the C course), they would be investing double what Arthur Blank invested in purchasing his MLS franchise. And I think we re being quite generous here because I think it s highly likely that your typical soccer coach has a substantially lower net worth. Again, economics are just one piece of the puzzle. There are so many immeasurable s, though. After suffering a career-ending injury in late 2019, losing my dad in early 2020, and then global soccer coming to a screeching halt due to the global pandemic – I realized just how much soccer meant to me. I was unable to coach, play, or referee the sport that has quite literally defined my life. I lost the person who introduced me to the game, spent years teaching me the game in the backyard, and who is largely responsible for my obsession with the game. Even watching replays of classic games on TV drummed up incredible emotions, some of which were very hard to stomach because the first thing that I used to do after a big game was call my dad to dissect it. These emotions alone solidified that it s certainly more than just a game to me. I have to believe that some of you would feel the same as I do, but maybe some of you don t. How Did We Get Here? How did we, as a nation, even get to this point where we re thinking it s just a game ? As we ve discussed before, the sport itself is so much more than just a game throughout the rest of the world. But here in the United States, we re made to believe that soccer shouldn t be taken too seriously. Here s the thing, Incumbent American soccer culture has a recreational mentality a property that is the antithesis of the hardcore culture the rest of the world has. And by hardcore, we simply mean people who recognize the fact that it s not just a game . The soccer structure we live in has been built of, by, and for a casual soccer demographic. It extends from youth all the way to the pro level. When something is casual, there are no stakes. When there are no stakes, nobody gets too heated over things. After all, if it s casual, it s just a game . There s that pesky phrase again. That phrase right there is the convenient foundation upon which American soccer has been built. One could argue this is more a strategic move by the power brokers – whether conscious or not – because if they re able to keep the masses thinking along the lines of it s just a game , then that enables the power brokers to maintain power while operating as they wish on the business side of things. Because, remember, if no one gets too worked up about things, then there is nothing to worry about – business, as usual, can continue. So, it s no wonder we re mediocre at scale. Anybody with the mentality of it s just a game will not achieve excellence. Contrast that with the rest of the world, where a portion of people s very identity and self-esteem is hinged on their clubs and national teams. Now, before you robotically react and think that s sad, reserve judgment until you understand that clubs and national teams across the world represent people at a social, political, economic, and cultural level. It is their flag. Most soccer-first households (the largest and most critical of demographics) in the United States aren t paying attention to American soccer. Because well, it s low level, inauthentic, and most importantly has historically discriminated against them preferring instead to cater to the soft suburban soccer-mom demo. As a consequence, it s that soft culture that both dominates the narrative and creates policy when it comes to the American game it has inculcated that softness into the very fabric of American soccer. Therefore, the phrase it s just a game has tragically become woven into our soccer, too. But it doesn t have to remain this way. Soccer Governance, Incumbent Media, and Protecting the Power Structure. First things first, if soccer is just a game – why does it require such a powerful global governing body whose decisions have geopolitical ramifications? Not just a global governing body, like FIFA, but each and every country has its own Federation. Where their decisions have social, political, economic, and cultural ramifications at the national, and at times international, scales. And the higher up the food chain you go in these organizations, the further removed you are from the actual playing field, and you enter a realm that is far more than just a game. Actually, it s barely about the game at all at that point. For example, why did our US Soccer Federation President, Carlos Cordeiro, and our board of directors, team up with President Donald Trump to meet with FIFA President Gianni Infantino at the White House? That sounds like a lot more than just a game, doesn t it? That exam