I have 3 things in my life I really like to read about, talk about, and write about: craft beer, college sports, and US soccer. As it happens, we are in very interesting times for all three of those things. They are all in places that could be called adolescence (for craft beer and US soccer) or midlife crisis (college sports).
40 Years In The Wilderness
I remember the 40 years in the wilderness. The 40 years for US soccer between World Cup appearances. In international soccer, not playing in the World Cup is the wilderness. It means you are irrelevant. Those days saw the NASL burn out like a wayward flare and youth soccer and college soccer become the apex of soccer achievement for players and coaches. Then, in 1989 Paul Caliguiri scores the goal against Trinidad and Tobago (I watched in a friend’s basement as ESPN showed some borrowed feed with Bob Ley and Seamus Malin calling the action from Bristol) 25 years ago. That goal put the US in the 1990 World Cup, the last they could qualify for before hosting in 1994. Without that goal, there is no Major League Soccer, no quarterfinals run in 2002, or the heightened expectations of a country used to winning and dominating at everything it does.
That is why I call this period an adolescence for US Soccer. Modern US Soccer did not begin until the late 1980s. In terms of soccer history that less than 30 year period is a blip. Soccer in this country has taken its first steps, World Cup qualifying and quality professional first division, now it is trying to move from the callow youth with all this untapped potential to a successful adult taking the world by storm. That has led to a lot of the problems that come with adolescence. In that period from youth to adulthood, your adolescence is spent trying to figure who you are, what you believe, and what is your voice.
That is what US Soccer is doing right now. Its constituent members, its fans, and the media who cover US Soccer are all asking questions right now. Should a young player go abroad to play, or stay and work through the US/MLS development system? Should the national team play a more possession based system that values keeping the ball or should it play or a more counterattacking system that absorbs pressure from the other team? How do we get more athletes access to quality coaching and playing in a country this vast geographically? Throw on top of that the inevitable jockeying for primacy and power within the structure of US Soccer and a lot of silly things are being said from anonymous sources to the media.
Just as it takes time and missteps to work through those fundamental questions as an adolescent it will take time and a lot of pain and hurt feelings for US Soccer to answer those growing pain questions.
The beer industry in the US spent its own time in the wilderness with the passing of Prohibition on through the 1970s. That puts modern existence of craft beer in the US in much the same position as US Soccer. What it means to be a craft beer brewer is one of those internal debates that most consumers don’t notice or care about, but is actually important to the future of the brewing industry in this country.
On one level (the level most consumers see it) it doesn’t matter where your beer comes from or who makes it as long as it is good. On the second level it matters immensely. The vibrancy and growth of craft beer in the US is primarily attributed to the idea of the independent brewer making good beer apart from and in many cases in spite of the big brewer’s influence/interference. That is what takes it from merely an industry into a craft.
The oft cited numbers from the Brewer’s Association are this: in 1932 there were 0 brewers in the US, in 1980 there were 92 brewers in, by the end of 2013 there were almost 3000. The fear among many within the craft beer world is that the growing trend of the big brewers buying regional and local breweries will lead to stifling the creativity and therefore the growth of the industry and fundamentally change it at the same time.
This fear is well founded if you look at an industry like movies. The reason most of the movies you see and read about are comic book movies, adaptations from television or books, remakes of previous movies, or sequels/prequels is that there is almost no American independent movie movement anymore. Today the movies that get made are either micro-budgeted shorts that the director puts up on YouTube in hopes of attracting a studio’s attention or a superhero yarn that costs triple the GDP of a third world country to make.
However, just as I think some kind of market correction is coming to the movie industry where enough people will get tired of seeing cities and planets destroyed by aliens and go back to movies about people talking, I don’t think independent craft brewers will ever disappear. We are just in a period where the big multinational brewers (or beverage companies/conglomerates) will figure out how to tap into that market and the independent craft brewers will figure out how to leverage those multinational’s interest into making better beer.
Again, it is that adolescent process of figuring out who you are in a big complicated and convoluted world. There are no easy answers and no quick solutions.
The Midlife Crisis
The NCAA and college sports have been around since the turn of the 20th century. Almost since the beginning it has had to endure a push-pull between providing athletes the opportunity to gain education and making money off the on the field efforts of those athletes. However, I think now the NCAA and its member institutions have entered a time that the money is so great (for two sports: football and men’s basketball) that coaches, administrators, and institutions are compromising their primary responsibility, to educate, in order to keep making money.
Much like adolescence a midlife crisis is a moment when you step back and assess who you are and what you believe in. Usually, people who go through midlife crises have been successful, but they see the end is closer than the beginning. Whereas the adolescent is asking, “What can I do with this unlimited future,” the middle aged ask, “What legacy am I going to leave behind?”
The midlife crisis questions are harder because they often require a change in mindset and a change in path. The adolescent is discovering their path while the middle aged are often creating a new one from an already heavily traveled road.
The road the NCAA has traveled down took a wrong turn somewhere. Maybe not a turn, but it veered to the left fork instead of the right one. At some point the NCAA took its eye off the primary mission of its members, to educate, and became more about sports-entertainment. (This blog post at The Classical does a better job explaining this then I can.) I don’t think it was intentional or done out of greed or malice. Nor do I think it was any one decision that set this path.
Regardless of whether you think amateurism and the concept of the “student-athlete” are arbitrary creations to hold on to money, power, or status or you think they are the bedrocks onto which a whole belief system and way of life that should be protected is based, you must agree that the NCAA cannot go on as it currently is. The NCAA has incentivized a system of graft and cheating by hording all the money it makes into the hands of a very few and none of those being the actual athletes. This money comes from both the NCAA Tournament television contracts, the television contracts the individual conferences have all signed, and the College Football Playoff contracts. Those last two categories are actually outside the purview of the NCAA proper, but everyone who participates in those contracts are members of the NCAA.
Intercollegiate sports will not exist as we know it in 20 years. I believe athletes will have contracts. They will sign for a certain amount to go their education and perhaps bonus money that will probably (at the very least) include money from any ancillary sales produced by their name or likeness (i.e. jersey sales). Athletes will be allowed to do endorsements outside of the school and sign merchandise and memorabilia for money. Now, the schools will include a non-compete clause with penalties in the contract so that the athlete can’t just jump from school to school and they would have minimum academic requirements (probably the same as the rest of the student body) in order to remain eligible to play. I stole most of this from Jay Bilas.
The most complicated and sometimes painful part of life are those moments when you have to stop and truly look inside yourself and ask, “Who am I and what am I doing here?” US Soccer, craft beer, and the NCAA are all in that place. This time is full of opportunity and hope. It is also filled with fear and trepidation. Yet, these are the most interesting and fun times because they are full of possibility. You can become or do anything.