Winnipeg youth soccer dust-up offers many lessons - Dooley PR

The Winnipeg youth soccer community erupted in drama last week as the city’s community centres announced they were setting up a new youth soccer league to rival the one run by the Winnipeg Youth Soccer Association (WYSA).

Both organizations are case studies of how poor communications practices have led to distrust and anger among stakeholder groups, which has decimated goodwill on all sides.In fact, now that its secret plans for a new league are out in the open, the Greater Council of Winnipeg Community Centres has admitted that it only pursued this action because WYSA refused to meet. GCWCC says it has asked for meetings with WYSA numerous times only to have their requests rebuffed or the meetings cancelled.

WYSA was turning turtle, pulling itself in to its shell and refusing to discuss legitimate concerns of a major stakeholder group. After all, a large portion of WYSA’s revenue comes from community centres and – as a soccer convenor for Lord Roberts Community Centre, I know they do have some legitimate concerns.

1. WYSA is worthy of its reputation for high-handed arrogance, running a cumbersome bureaucracy that needlessly wastes volunteer time, and which focuses more on premier programs while virtually ignoring rec league soccer.

2. The district soccer clubs (such as Winnipeg South End United) run great premier soccer programs, but they do so at the expense of recreational soccer leagues. District clubs such as WSEU annually decimate rec leagues by recruiting community centre players to fill their developmental leagues.  That practice is commonly (and rightly) viewed by convenors and parents in the south district as nothing but a charade designed to drive revenues to pay for premier programs.

3. Soccer fees have risen steadily over the past few years. When challenged about fees, WYSA and the district clubs appear reluctant to offer clear explanations for the increases or for where all the money is going in the first place. (I`m always sceptical of budget line items labelled `miscellaneous.`)

Not talking about these things won’t make them go away.But then GCWCC is no better. In fact, they took their strategy from the same playbook: plot in secret for years about how to get even with WYSA, don’t bother to consult with your own stakeholders, don’t do any substantive research… just bluster your way into setting up a new league. That’ll teach ’em. Now they’ll have to talk, eh, what?

As it was presented to the Manitoba Soccer Association annual general meeting on Saturday, GCWCC says its new league will be cheaper and will somehow bring hundreds of new players into the fold (though they were shockingly spare on details on this score). The folks at GCWCC freely admit that they want to return to the good old days when community centres ran youth sports in this town (without asking why they deservedly lost that role to more specialized organizations over the last 30 years).

If I wasn’t involved in the soccer world myself, and if I didn’t love the game and want my kids to play it, I’d probably just laugh.It’s shockingly bad planning that community centres – who take their power from the people – didn’t bother to consult with anyone outside of an inner circle. There was no attempt to canvass parents, players, soccer convenors, etc. for ideas on how to improve the game. As a result, the new league will have a hard time claiming legitimacy.

The biggest problem in Winnipeg soccer is that there are too many competing fiefdoms, each trying to build themselves into empires on the backs of a shrinking pool of players. The GCWCC proposal is nothing more than a power play to try to wrest control over soccer from other organizations and, at the same time, drive more revenues into community centres.

On the other side, WYSA’s ‘my way or the highway’ attitude suffers from the same delusion of power. They want to run soccer without the hassle or inconvenience of being questioned about their decisions.

The real story is the one being lost as adults fight so hard to protect their turf: the kids are being ignored as everyone wrestles for bigger slices of their parents’ cheques. I believe that we need a great simplification of soccer. We should forget about who ‘controls’ the league and worry about how to get a better one.

GCWCC is right about one thing – we should encourage a bigger, less expensive rec league – but we don’t need a new, rival league to get this done. (All that will do is drain more volunteer time, goodwill and trust out of the system.) We need WYSA to climb down off its high horse and make it happen. Reduce player fees and administration and embrace the notion that we’re all working for the common good of a single pool of players.

We also need a system that requires less volunteer power to run. That means doing more to centralize and streamline registration, team building and player development in each district. For that, the community centres need to recognize that they are just as guilty of abusing volunteer time. The current system is wildly convoluted, creating an unnecessary workload on convenors, treasurers and community centre managers as they swap and transfer players around the city (and we won`t even touch on the issue of fields in this city). The only reason for this system`s existence is because that’s the way things have always been done in Winnipeg … a terrible justification of a stupid system.

Finally, soccer should follow the lead of hockey with its widely accepted tiering system for players. Only the top players make the premier teams, all others are placed according to their abilities, with the large majority playing in the lower tiers. This will go a long way to improving the players’ enjoyment of the game as it decreases the potential for lopsided contests that leave players dejected and looking for a way out of the sport.

I was shocked and dismayed at the cavalier disregard GCWCC and WYSA seem to be treating the kids they purport to serve. GCWCC has made matters worse with its new league. The only silver lining is that this may force WYSA to reform its ways. The alternative is a rapid and sad degeneration of soccer here just as it enjoys massive popularity everywhere else in the world. A pox on both their houses, I say.

If either side employed good communications strategies, none of this would have happened and we’d all be happily planning for another season instead of trying to clean up a nasty mess.

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