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Youth Football at Club Level: where does the money go?

Posted by Adam Davidson | 26th July 2018

What if I told you that the coaching fees you pay to clubs weren’t being used correctly? What if I told you they were being used elsewhere to support a program that’s of no benefit to your child?

"If the fees I pay for my child to be coached at a ‘SAP-level’ don’t go towards paying for my kid to be coached by a professional, qualified and experienced person, then what exactly am I paying for”?

The unfortunate truth is that, in many cases, monies are siphoned upwards to the 1% - who don’t pay – directly from the pockets 99% – who do pay. In such circumstances, the money generated by youth football is not being put towards ensuring that young players enjoy a high standard of coaching & education, but, is instead used to pay (or attract) first-grade players so that the club can compete at senior level. Add to this the absurd notion that players at this level deserve the, oftentimes, sizeable sums they are paid, and it’ll send your head spinning. This is reality though not at all clubs, but at many. What’s worse is that the ripple effects are far-reaching, unsettling, and all too familiar: -

  • If there’s no living, or justifiable wage, to be made coaching SAP / Grassroots football for a club > then qualified, experienced, professional coaches will look elsewhere for work that’s worth their time, effort and energy (e.g. academies).
  • If there’s a relative scarcity of professional coaches willing to work for SAP / Grassroots programs at club level, but an abundance of players enrolled in both > then clubs have a situation on their hands where the demand for coaching exceeds what the club can supply (at least in terms of quality coaching).
  • If clubs can’t procure qualified, professional coaches to lead their growing number of youth teams > they’ll solve this problem by recruiting the next best thing, volunteers. And so, left to shoulder the responsibility of youth teams, all-to-often, is (a) the young and inexperienced coach, or (b) the selfless parent-coaches.

Reason is absolute, it yields clarity

It’s important at this point that we differentiate between two distinct reasons why this might happen at a club.

Firstly, you have NPL clubs whose fate relies heavily upon the success/failure of their first-grade, u20s, u18s and to a lesser degree their youth teams (u13-16). As you might well understand, this creates a “need to win” culture at the more senior levels of football and even though I agree this level of football demands such a culture, I do believe that it shouldn’t come at the expense of the youth – but it does. Imagine a club struggling at senior level, anxious about the prospect finishing outside the top four, mid-table or relegation zone (whatever it may be) so they look for ways to attract new players, better players to their senior – which invariably means money. Money attracts players. So, what can they do to fill the piggy bank? Well, they could reduce what they’re paying their youth coaches; they could charge more for SAP or Grassroots; or, they could do both.  And so, they do.

Secondly, you have recreational clubs who may not have a first-grade team (at least not a paid one) and who might not charge hefty fees to play in their youth programs – why can’t they acquire heaps of really good coaches to guide their teams? The truth is, sadly, that the remuneration offered doesn’t justify the commitments of coaching a team. To be clear, this isn’t meant as a knock at these clubs, it’s an observation of what’s happening on a widespread scale.

If the challenge exists, so must the solution

In the case of the former - NPL clubs who overpay first-graders – the problem is systemic, so it’s not something that can be solved overnight. After all, if one clubs begins offering to pay players more - with money siphoned from their youth system - then other clubs invariably feel the need to follow suit, otherwise they risk being left behind. There are other ways to compete with clubs like this though, and Dunbar Rovers are an example of just one club who take a radically different approach by offering “fee-free football” for the youth teams. Nevertheless, I’m not purporting that we boycott the clubs, that’s not my agenda but I do believe parents are entitled to expect higher standards for what they are paying. Remember, just because senior football is outcome-based, this doesn’t mean that it should come at the expense of coaching Australia’s Youth properly. 

In the case of the latter – recreational clubs who rely heavily on volunteers – we must accept that volunteers are important piece of youth football’s identity who can be tremendously successful if procedures are put in place to give them the support and guidance they deserve.  

It appears to me that clubs could use qualified coaches in a rather different capacity; one that doesn’t involve trying to hire as many as professionals as possible, but accepts that volunteers are more abundant and have the potential to be successful if guided, periodically by one / two professional coaches. I’m talking about using professional coaches as age-group coordinators; educating and supporting the clubs’ volunteers and giving them the tools to feel confident and competent in their ability to lead a team through a season-long campaign.


One major obstruction to the achievement of this shared-goal is the tendency for youth football clubs and academies to believe they are truly against one another – for better or for worse. I get that opposition and competition is a necessary part of football, I’m not disputing that, what I am disputing is that it needs to extend beyond the football pitch and into our pockets. Consider the ESFA rules pertaining to club relationships with coaching academies – they raise questions about what’s really appropriate or necessary when the ultimate goal should be to provide professional coaching services to those who pay for them, and to raise the playing standards across Australia, as a whole.

ESFA made a statement, earlier this year, in the publication of their rules & regulations that condemned the use of football academies to provide coaching services to club teams. They state that any club found to be engaging in a ‘prohibited provider’ relationship be ineligible to: -

  • Enter ESFA competitions or programs;
  • Be declared Premiers or Champions;
  • Participate in the Finals Series;
  • Be nominated by ESFA to participate in FNSW competitions including the State Cup or Champions of Champions, or;
  • Be approved to participate in external competitions including the Kanga Cup.

For me, it’s a great shame not because the decision prohibits academies like ours from working collaboratively with ESFA clubs but rather because the decision has been made less for the betterment of player development and more for purposes of lining pockets. It’s a ‘my way or the high way kind of deal’ where you’re either committed to THEIR development pathway or you’re on your own.

What I want you to think about long after you’ve put my rambling to one side is the purpose of ESFA imposing these rules, for what gain? And for what benefit to Aussie kids? Whether you’re in this business to make money, make superstars or make a difference – if the latter doesn’t come before all else, then I’m sorry to tell you but you’re in the wrong profession.


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