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Proposed College Soccer Changes Face Uphill Battle

From the Soccer Observer, run by Ian Thomson:

Top college soccer coaches are finalizing plans and canvassing support for changes that would extend the men’s season over the full academic year.

The proposals recommend a 25-game season split between the fall and spring semesters. Individual conference championships would be held early in May with the showpiece NCAA College Cup following in early June.
Proponents of the switch point to two significant benefits for student athletes – improved conditions to aid their development as players, and a lighter fall timetable allowing for greater participation in other facets of university life.

This is a reasonable and well-considered plan to improve college soccer’s ability to compete for talent and remain a valuable, even unique part of the American soccer development structure. It also has virtually zero chance of ever being enacted.

As the NCAA looks to finally pull itself out of the post-Presidential Retreat doldrums with the new governance structure, the last items on any agenda is adding games, in-season time, and hours to any sport’s schedule. Instead, it is more likely that all sports see in-season hours cut, voluntary workouts restricted, and significant student-athlete discretionary time added. College sports seems prepared to move rapidly away from an environment where soccer could even experiment with being a year-round sport, especially where the breaks are timed so that the best players can use them to go play more soccer.

Thomson posted his story one day before Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby made the following comment at Big 12 football media days:

“We certainly are operating in a strange environment in that we have lawsuits,” he said, “plus we have the [O’Bannon v. NCAA] lawsuit. I think all of that in the end will cause programs to be eliminated. I think you’ll see men’s Olympic sports go away as a result of the new funding challenges that are coming down the pipe. I think there may be tension among and between sports on campus and institutions that have different resources. It’s really unknown what the outcomes will be.”

Men’s soccer is uniquely vulnerable to these challenges. It is not a revenue sport like football or men’s basketball. It is not even a borderline revenue sport on enough campuses like baseball or hockey. The professional league at the end of pipeline is already competing with college soccer to develop players rather than relying on it. And it seems highly unlikely that US Soccer will jump to the aid of college soccer, especially with money, like USA Swimming or USA Track and Field might do if faced with the loss of its huge Olympic pipeline.

In an environment where men’s sports could be first on the chopping block, soccer is already one of the more expensive with 9.9 scholarships and three full-time coaches. Football might be the heart of the battle over concussion liability, but soccer is not far behind. And setting soccer up as a competitor to baseball will limit the ability of the sport to expand in the south. Men’s soccer could be the next wrestling; pushing a proposal that says greater investment is the only way to keep the sport relevant could easily backfire, drawing the wrong sort of attention.

At this point is still a valuable part of the development system and has enough teams playing attractive soccer to regularly make it fun to watch. Through some combination of willful collusion and historical accidents, we provide a free elite development system to many sports at a critical point in an athlete’s career. Some rules like college soccer’s clock that counts down and stops during the game and sudden-death overtimes are appropriate ways to “Americanize” the game while FIFA should study the NCAA’s liberal substitution policies to address the concussion issues which came to the fore at the World Cup.

Despite all that, college soccer is being squeezed out of the US Soccer pyramid. And a proposal to fix that which makes the sport more expensive and has athletes spending more hours on athletic activities is a nonstarter in the NCAA’s present or near future environment.

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