Today’s guest columnist is Dave Jervis, senior director of youth programs and academy business operations of the New York Red Bulls.
The infrastructure and ecosystem of a soccer club’s youth development system may not only impact the players and product on the pitch but all touch points of an organization, including the club’s bottom line.
When Red Bull took over ownership of the MetroStars in 2006, it marked the turning point for true growth and evolution of what was previously a loosely structured youth and academy program. The vision and investment of our club’s general manager, Marc de Grandpre´, gave the organization a multi-year focus on providing a true in-house pathway that would help find and develop players.
The plan was to use youth to connect with the local community and generate interest in the team within a hotbed of soccer communities in New York and New Jersey. Over the first three years, the club focused close to home, and then continued to build out partnerships and facilities throughout the region. Becoming part of the community’s local soccer fabric and developing trust was an important step in our growth.
Starting from a small team 15 years ago, we now have more than 30 youth and academy staff in management positions, with an additional 150 coaches spread throughout the area. You can now find a Red Bulls Youth program within 15-20 miles of any town in our catchment area.
The core mission has never varied: to develop, engage and inspire the youth soccer community through carefully developed programs to make the connection between the local grassroots soccer community and club. The individual components that drive these programs include:
- Local youth program partnerships that provide technical coaching services and curriculum;
- Camps catering to more than 8,000 players annually, and bringing players and families into the Red Bulls’ youth system for the first time;
- Training clinics offered during the school year as an afterschool option;
- Outreach programs, such as the Urban Soccer Program, which uses soccer to provide children in underserved areas a chance to engage in physical activity while learning life skills and the value of teamwork, and the Believe Program, an initiative for young athletes with special needs;
- Regional Development Schools (RDS) focusing on scouting and developing young talent to progress along the Red Bulls team pathway;
- Pre-Academy, the first step in playing for the Red Bulls and representing the club;
- Academy, the highest level of the player-development pathway, bringing talent to MLS level.
Initially starting with just a few product offerings, the Player Development Pyramid is now the most robust grassroots-to-pro structure within U.S. Soccer. Producing homegrown, in-house talent has massive advantages, including saving on transfer fees to buy players and fill the first team roster along with creating the opportunity to potentially sell players and make a profit.
The ultimate success story of this structure is none other than Tyler Adams, who recently donned the captain’s armband for the U.S. Men’s National Team. The 22-year-old New York native started his incredible journey at the Red Bulls Youth summer camps in North Jersey, moved his way through the club’s RDS and Academy, advanced to Red Bulls II of USL and the first team in MLS. Now, he is a rising star with Red Bull Leipzig in Germany’s Bundesliga. Adams serves as a model and inspiration for players and families and will do so for many years to come.
We have learned the significant impact youth programs can have on the club’s commercial side. Revenue boosts via the youth system include integration with ticket sales, marketing partnerships and community outreach. To understand the evolution and scope, it’s fair to say that our club’s revenue derived from youth and academy programs has grown 20-fold since 2007, to the point where the Red Bulls have the largest revenue-producing youth program in MLS.
All youth program participants receive a special ticket offer, and a dedicated youth ticket team rep oversees the redemption and up-sell for future games. In many cases, the player and family may experience Red Bull Arena for the first time, creating the purest, most organic approach to fan development.
Community outreach adds to that approach. Player appearances at clubs and camps help develop a deep and lasting connection. School programming and building mini-pitches in underserved areas are also instrumental in bolstering our community.
We’ve learned through the years that many brands want to connect with the target demographic, reaching the players and their families, creating sponsor and marketing partnership opportunities. Youth programs have served as valuable assets to provide added value for our marketing partners that prioritize community engagement.
We’re proud that our club has led the way in forming sustainable youth programs, generating interest and admiration from leagues and pro teams throughout North America. Colleagues from NFL, NBA, MLS and NHL have all reached out for guidance and direction in building a successful youth infrastructure for their sports and markets.
In the spirit of Field of Dreams, we have believed, “If you build it, they will come.” With more than 45,000 youth soccer players (and their family members) under the Red Bulls Youth Development umbrella, we’ve built something lasting.
Jervis, a graduate of Manchester Metropolitan University in the U.K., launched the Red Bulls youth development programs in 2007 and oversees all aspects of the Red Bulls youth system.