Training programs for youths help keep Riverhounds soccer franchise afloat
Ava Falcione held the striped ball in both hands and, with the Downtown skyline twinkling behind her, punted it down the field.
It's a play goalies make thousands of times a year on soccer fields.
For Scott Gibson, it was the trigger to stop everything. After more than 30 minutes of smooth scrimmaging, Gibson shouted from the sidelines and marched halfway out on the field.
“Do not punt the soccer ball. That's not what we do here,” shouted Gibson, director of Pittsburgh Riverhounds Academy. “We look to play. Let's play.”
This is the real business of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. The minor league soccer franchise with a new South Side stadium doesn't earn its keep on sunny summer game days. Its bread and butter is its youth training program, an academy designed to sustain the club as a business no matter what happens on the pitch at the $10 million Highmark Stadium.
More than 80 percent of the club's revenue comes from its youth programs, said Jason Kutney, chief executive officer and a Riverhounds part-time midfielder. The youth programs were popular even before the club gained a permanent home in Highmark Stadium this year and ended a transient existence that depended on the generosity of various high schools for a place to play.
More than 700 children played in the summer and winter academies in 2012, up from 244 in 2007 when Kutney and a group of new owners bought the team and started them. According to club figures, revenue from youth programs, which include the academies, grew to $900,000 from $124,000 during that period. The academies cater to boys and girls ages 3 to 16.
“My commitment to the Riverhounds was not just to build a stadium but to build a solid foundation so this team could only go forward. The academy is that foundation,” said Jay Hill, an energy entrepreneur whose family used to own a minority stake in the team and helped pay for the stadium. The club follows a business model that is gaining momentum across the country. Youth soccer is a $2.2 billion business in the United States, according to estimates from “Star-Spangled Soccer,” a 2010 book by Gary Hopkins, a Philadelphia-area consultant for Manchester City, one of the biggest clubs in Europe. One national group, U.S. Youth Soccer, grew from 1 million registered players in the early 1990s to 3.2 million.
Parents are buying in. The club raised prices three times in four years during its recent growth spurt, and still has a waiting list of more than 250 kids. The cheapest programs start at $350 for 16 weeks, and students in full-time programs can pay as much as $2,000 plus travel costs. Sponsors cover some costs, but prices rose to help pay for the medical staff and strength and speed training, Kutney said.
On Wednesday, many parents watched scrimmage from the bleachers. Their girls were lured into the program to improve their resume and skills for college by learning from pros — Riverhounds players and former players who lead and often join in academy practices. Several parents lauded the staff for its professionalism, attention to detail, strength training, and positive, unrelenting guidance.
“If they have to tell them a hundred times to do something, they will,” said Lisa Zaken of West Newton. “They will tell them over and over again until it becomes a habit.”
It wasn't an easy sell to the masses when the Kutney team took over, he and others said. The staff was intent on teaching skills that would have training sessions and no games for five years. They wanted to teach players to focus on execution instead of a scoreboard.
That's a big adjustment for some parents who want to win and for students to think differently. Goalkeepers, for example, must learn a cardinal rule: only punt in an emergency; pass the ball so that the team learns to play.
The training has had some succeses: The Under-15 Lady Hounds won the U.S. Club Soccer Super Group National Championship this summer in their first competitive season. Two girls went to the national federation's training camp in Dallas, Kutney said. And the academy had 30 players invited to the national federation's training center in Ohio this September.
Timothy Puko is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.