- By Bridget Grumet American-Statesman Staff
This being 2018 and all, I naturally assumed the girls would share in the perks.
But as we found out during last week’s City Council discussion on the proposal to move the Columbus Crew SC to Austin, the largest piece of the community benefits package, an elite youth soccer academy worth $48 million over 25 years, is for boys only.
I hope that fact doesn’t sit well with you, either.
The proposed stadium deal coming before the Austin City Council on Thursday has evolved over the months to include more tangible benefits in exchange for use of the city-owned tract at McKalla Place. With Precourt Sports Ventures now agreeing to pay rent and provide more public use of the facility, among other things, the deal has improved for Austin taxpayers.
But the negotiations aren’t done, and the city deserves better terms on several fronts. Among them: With taxpayer resources at stake, the council must ensure girls aren’t left on the sidelines if this deal proceeds.
The reasons Precourt cites for not providing a girls’ academy are somewhat nuanced, and I’ll explain them further in a minute. Precourt officials also emphasize that the $7.6 million promised over 25 years for youth soccer clinics, camps, club scholarships and soccer gear will equally benefit boys and girls. And they told me this week they’ll contribute to a local girls’ soccer academy run by Lonestar Soccer Club, though they declined to say how much.
That’s a start. But the council should press for a specific, equitable commitment Thursday when Precourt returns to City Hall.
Major League Soccer requires each professional soccer club to sponsor competitive teams of youth players, ages 12-19, through the U.S. Soccer Development Academy to help grow the next generation of soccer greats. The MLS franchise picks up the tab while these players get top-notch coaching, game time with the best players in the country, and eventually the attention of college recruiters and professional scouts.
One could argue, as Precourt initially did, that this program is logically geared toward boys because MLS is a men’s league. And yes, at a minimum, the program must have boys.
But that doesn’t prevent an MLS franchise from also sponsoring a girls’ academy. FC Dallas has academies for boys and girls — the latter being a particular source of pride for the franchise, as the girls’ under-15 team last month won the first national championship offered in the division.
The New York City FC and the San Jose Earthquakes also have boys and girls academies, and the Los Angeles Galaxy operates academies for both genders in two cities, Carson and Carlsbad. The MLS franchises in Houston and Portland offer girls’ academies in conjunction with the National Women’s Soccer League teams they also operate.
An academy typically serves about 120 players a year, roughly 20 in each of six age divisions. Given that Lonestar Soccer Club alone has more than 7,000 players at all ages and levels of play, including about 2,500 at the elite level, all evenly divided among boys and girls, I wouldn’t expect a lack of interest if Precourt opened a girls’ academy in Austin.
Not just anyone can start an academy, though. The U.S. Soccer Development Academy must provide approval first, after looking at the market need and the strength of the sponsoring club. Because Lonestar already operates a girls’ academy, Precourt has suggested it might not be able to get U.S. Soccer approval for a second such program in Austin.
OK. But I haven’t heard anyone voice a similar concern about Precourt opening a boys’ academy in the same city where Lonestar already has one, doubling the number spots available to the most elite male players.
I caught up this week with Lonestar executive director of business Allen Fincher, and as you might expect of someone whose love of soccer runs through his veins, he’s excited about the possibility of MLS coming to Austin. His organization is still talking with Precourt about what its support for girls’ soccer would look like. But Fincher said he’s confident that “it would be a major benefit for the girls of this town if this stadium deal were to go through and they’re able to come to town.”
I hope so, because the benefits to girls who participate in sports are undeniable. Numerous studies have shown they’re more likely to excel in school, attend college (in part because of the availability of scholarships) and rise to higher-paying jobs, particularly in male-dominated professions. Teens who play sports are physically healthier and show more signs of mental and emotional well-being, such as high self-esteem and a stronger social support network.
Beyond promising to write a big check to Lonestar, Precourt must explain how its contribution will benefit girls. Lonestar can’t simply create more development academy spots for girls, because each organization can field only one team per age group. Lonestar is maxed out.
Precourt money could make it more affordable for girls to compete with Lonestar, which is a pay-to-play club. But Fincher told me Lonestar already provides more than $300,000 a year in needs-based financial aid to players in various divisions. “We don’t turn kids away” if families can’t afford to pay, he said.
If Precourt wants lucrative use of city-owned land for its stadium, plus the boon of paying no property taxes, its community benefits package must extend equally to girls and boys. Their families are all taxpayers here.