Some NCAA’s men’s soccer coaches in Division I are pressing their case for abandoning the fall college soccer season in favor of a fall-spring season.
Known as the Academic Year Model, it is an idea that has the potential to change much for student athletes, schools, other spring field sports – and event owners. (By the way, this change, if approved, would affect only NCAA Division I men. According to a survey of NCAA Division I women's players, just 17 percent supported the move to split the seasons.)
According to an article in Soccer America Daily, proponents of the plan (meaning many of NCAA’s DI men’s coaches and the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, or NSCAA) say that the new model could reduce the number of fall games, create a winter break, add games in the spring, reduce weekday games and bring the championship to June, addressing what the coaches say are issues of health, safety and time demands of student-athletes.
They also believe the idea would reduce conflicts between academics and practice and games, increased practice times between games and reduce the number of games played over the weekend. (The current schedule, they say, shows a lack of respect for both the sport and the students who play it; according to proponents, it makes it far more difficult to recruit players from outside the country who could raise the level of play even further.) This idea also would be particularly appealing to elite youth athletes as it would be comparable to the 10-month season they currently experience, according to an FAQ sheet from NSCAA.
If it’s something that sounds familiar to you as a soccer fan, it’s probably because you have, in fact, heard it before. The issue came up two years ago. The idea is not a formal proposal; it cannot be presented as such to NCAA without being sponsored by a conference or by one of the association’s committees, according to Rob Kehoe, NSCAA’s director of college services, who has been the point person on the effort.
“It’s all in concept form right now,” Kehoe told Sports Destination Management in a recent interview on the subject. “It is a proposal idea but to formalize it for the NCAA, it needs to be sponsored.”
Kehoe is in charge of recruiting support for the measure and says the issue has been discussed conceptually since 2013, although “the first wave of media reports on it was 2014.”
At the time, the NCAA was undergoing some Division I governance restructuring, and the idea, along with others, fell to the wayside. Now, it is gaining new attention and says Kehoe, “it’s the time to earnestly pursue it.”
The soccer coaches’ association has noted that it is imperative that attention be paid to the issue at this point. Soccer was originally introduced to the NCAA structure in 1959 and since that time, it has grown exponentially. More schools have more teams, leading to more games, which has led to the compressed schedule players experience today.’
According to an article in SB Nation’s Stars and Stripes Football Club, the current schedule for both men's and women's soccer has 20 games in the fall culminating with championships in December, and five friendlies/scrimmages in the spring. The compressed competitive schedule in the fall presents major challenges for not only developing players but keeping them healthy, not to mention lowering the amount of class time players miss. The split-semester schedule then quickly becomes an attractive alternative to a system that the panel believes is failing the players in the classroom and on the pitch.
The sports landscape also has changed since 2013 because of an increased awareness of issues such as concussion and sports-specific injuries, and this may play in the idea’s favor.
Many youth players, the NSCAA notes in its FAQ sheet, do not want to attend college and play for only short periods of time if they can turn pro and get more player development.
“This is very important as an increasing number of youth players are circumventing college and signing speculative professional contracts because college soccer is viewed as an insufficient development environment,” the sheet adds. “US Soccer, Major League Soccer, and other professional leagues are very supportive of the model as they see the college opportunity as important for both the soccer development and personal maturity that are essential for successful careers beyond college.”
In addition, enthusiasts say, a longer college soccer season could create a new revenue stream where one currently does not exist; in fact, this point was discussed during a summit of soccer luminaries held in Maryland in April.
Only two college sports, football and men's basketball, are currently revenue-producing sports.
“We have the potential to be a revenue producing sport,” said UNC women's soccer head coach Anson Dorrance at that meeting. "The NCAA has tried to stuff women's basketball as the revenue leader, but I don't think that's the sport to choose. The potential for us at every conceivable level is off the charts."
And Maryland men's soccer head coach Sasho Cirovski also noted it wouldn't be a stretch to see schools that don't have men's soccer programs adding it in the future if the sport shows the significant revenue potential Dorrance was hinting at.
“If we put our championships at the end of May or beginning of June, and we're getting 30,000 people coming to those games and we're making money at Maryland, Texas and all these SEC schools are going to say ‘we want in.’ The minute we show relevancy and revenue, the schools that don't have soccer in the Big 12, SEC and Big Ten will add it,” and Cirovski believes with the two-semester model, that's feasible.
But what would splitting the schedule mean to other sports events? Some opponents say it could bring soccer into conflict with other spring field sports such as lacrosse and create an increased demand for the same facilities, particularly when colleges use multi-sport fields to host several events. Sports commissions and CVBs that previously helped sports event planners find college facilities for their tournaments during times when the colleges weren’t using those fields might find themselves looking elsewhere for venues. And in the case of a multi-team tournament that demanded a lot of field space, that just might mean the elimination of some cities from the hunt.
And honestly, soccer isn’t going to be the only sport vying for field space. Club-level sports that play in the spring also produce their own demands on college facilities, although in general, such programs are a lower priority for many schools.
Some sports have not taken a position yet. Intercolliate Men’s Lacrosse Coaches Association is one of these.
“We do not have a formal position,” says Phil Buttafuoco, executive director. “We have been aware of it for two years now and we continue to monitor and discuss it as it is continued to be monitored and discussed within the soccer community and at the NCAA level”
Whether the IMLCA would take a position, he notes, largely “would depend on the proposition itself. We’ve seen a couple different versions on it and we’re not going to take a position until a formal proposal is submitted to the membership.”
However, within individual colleges, the extended schedule just might create problems, if some pundits are to be believed. Back in 2014, The Growth Blog cited concerns about potential conflicts between lacrosse and two-season soccer, and had some tough questions for both sports:
“It comes down to a conflict over resources and space. Over two-thirds of all NCAA varsity lacrosse programs share a field with soccer, meaning soccer gets the field priority in the fall and lacrosse in the spring. Additionally, about one-third of all varsity lacrosse programs share a locker room with their schools’ soccer team on a seasonal basis. With only so many hours in a day, and knowing that not every school has a field with lights, how will schools that have men’s and women’s lacrosse also add men’s soccer to their spring schedules? Will all soccer programs now expect a year-round locker room and how will that be handled with those teams that share seasonally with lacrosse? What if both teams share the same athletic trainer on an in-season basis?”
Of course, an increased demand on facilities could lead to the construction of more fields, which would benefit school sports programs (and additionally could give an advantage to cities wishing to host sports events.)
The key to the campaign is to convince athletic directors, college presidents and NCAA executives that the changes are important and feasible.
NCAA told SDM it has “no formal statement at this time” on the matter.
Because there is no formal proposal, it will take time to craft one, Kehoe says, and the process to changing a long-standing institution is akin to turning a battleship. He continues to pursue sponsorship, but many questions and obstacles linger – including why NCAA women are not pursuing the measure.
“At this point, the Division I women want to keep their season in the fall,” he notes. While the Division I women, like the men, would like a season that is less compressed, the two sides are looking at making changes in different ways. The women, he adds, are waiting to see how the men’s academic year model is advanced, and whether it is accepted.
“Also,” he notes, “when there is an NCAA move to reduce the amount of time student athletes spend in their sports, it can be perceived that the two semester model is adding time, although in the reoriented structure actually less time will be invested in soccer. But that isn’t how some see it until they have fully reviewed and considered the model.”
Creating awareness of what the changes actually mean could take some time.
“A desirable timeline would be November 1 this fall, but to accomplish that at this time may be optimistic,” he adds. “It may take another year when the next NCAA legislative cycle opens up.”