This article was initially published by Forbes on Friday, March 22, 2019
Kyle Martino left his dream job in 2018 to run for president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, the official governing body of American soccer. To Martino, the federation was at an inflection point. The men's national team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, a stunning result which led to the incumbent federation president declining to run for re-election.
Beyond the qualifying failure, Martino was also frustrated with the federation's lack of accountability and insular leadership, which he felt changed the U.S. soccer landscape without substantive input from its members, the state associations governing soccer at local levels. "As a member services organization, U.S. Soccer shirked its responsibility to serve its membership," Martino says.
Martino, a former MLS and U.S. men's national team player and current studio analyst for NBC Sports covering the English Premier League, launched a presidential bid focused on the grassroots of U.S. soccer. "I made a crazy decision to leave my dream job [at NBC] and go for it," Martino says. Leading up to the election, Martino met with state soccer associations across the country and identified issues that became central to his campaign. "I realized how cut off [many associations] were from the top of the pyramid, how many kids were being priced out of the game, and the egregious cost to play at an elite level," Martino says.
Martino released a bold progress plan, a policy statement focusing on transparency, equality, and progress. Martino's plan sought to make the sport more accessible and inclusive. He challenged the pay-for-play model that has dominated youth soccer in the U.S. for decades. "At a molecular level I push back on the idea that you can be priced out of a game that should cost next to nothing to play," Martino says. Martino addressed the decline in youth participation, which he felt was the result of the increased professionalization of youth soccer. "I saw kids not in love with the game anymore," Martino says. Though Martino's plan resonated with federation constituents, he ultimately lost the election.
Martino returned to NBC transformed. "I was activated," Martino says. "I couldn't just go back to my normal life after that." Martino accepted a position as Chairman of the national board of Street Soccer USA, a non-profit organization fighting poverty and empowering underserved communities through soccer. "It's bringing the beautiful game, the most popular game in the world, the best social conduit, and vehicle for empowerment out there, to communities that need it the most," Martino says.
Next, Martino and partner Dennis Crowley, co-founder of Foursquare, started Street FC, which is activating unused spaces, like basketball courts, for players of all ages, genders, and experience to play pick-up soccer at a low cost. "[Street FC] is kind of the SoulCycle of pick up soccer," Martino says. "It’s a very inclusive, very affordable, very enjoyable on-demand pick up soccer experience." Street FC hopes to eliminate reasons, like time, cost and accessibility, that former players stop playing as adults. Street FC will launch a technology component on June 1st that completes Street FC's on-demand experience.
Martino's latest project implements his "Over/Under Initiative," which seeks to turn inner-city basketball courts into dual-sport spaces by installing permanent soccer goals under basketball hoops. Martino spent eight months with a top sports equipment engineer designing Goalpher, a patent-pending, black and bright-yellow soccer goal that, when not in use, stores easily and quickly into the surface under a hoop. "For me, the next piece was to not make [the goal] look temporary but to show kids that [the court] is supposed to be more, it's supposed to be a multisport surface," Martino says. The Goalpher colors were important too. "I wanted a goal that popped out so that when kids are walking down the street and they look over and they see this bright yellow goal, it's a beacon that says the game is played here, come on over and fall in love," Martino says. Beyond increased access and participation, Martino's Over/Under Initiative aims to provide positive health and wellness benefits for the communities the activated spaces serve.
Since returning to NBC, Martino has put elements of his progress plan to work through a series of interconnected projects which aim to make the sport more accessible, inclusive, and fun for everyone. While Street FC and Goalpher demonstrate Martino's entrepreneurial abilities, each project has philanthropic ambitions as well, as Martino plans to contribute revenue from Street FC and Goalpher towards SSUSA programming. Martino's projects demonstrate that despite the election result, American soccer may still benefit from his leadership and entrepreneurship.