26 March 2020

Will college soccer move into the 21st century?

Michael A. Rueda
Partner | Head of US Sports and Entertainment | US

This article was published by Forbes on March 25, 2020 and was authored by Withers’ Head of US Sports and Entertainment, Michael Rueda.

Sasho Cirovski is determined to change the college soccer landscape. Cirovski, the three-time Division I national champion Head Coach of the University of Maryland men’s soccer program, has advocated for improvements to college soccer for almost a decade. On April 22nd, the NCAA votes on a proposal spearheaded by Cirovski that will reinvent the men’s Division I season.

The proposal, which has the support of over 90% of men’s college soccer coaches and over 80% of its players, redistributes the traditional three-month fall season across the full academic year. The two-semester season includes two exhibition and 12 regular-season matches during the fall and one exhibition and 8 regular-season matches during the spring. Conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament move to April and May, with the NCAA tournament culminating in a single-game championship weekend in early June. The number of mid-week competitions are also significantly reduced. If approved, the changes take effect the 2022-2023 academic year.

To Cirovski, the current college soccer schedule is outdated. “Everything has been an outgrowth of a traditional scholastic model,” Cirovski says. “[Traditionally] many good athletes played two or three sports during an academic calendar.” However, today’s Division I athletes are highly specialized, individual-sport athletes, which makes accommodating participation in other sports less relevant.

Cirovski believes the proposal, which is co-sponsored by the Atlantic Coast Conference and Big Ten Conference, will comprehensively improve athletic and academic experiences for athletes. “We’re calling this a holistic, transformational model for the student-athlete experience,” says Cirovski. For example, the reduction in midweek matches means athletes miss fewer classes. “Instead of missing 8 to 12 classes in the fall, and missing zero classes in the spring, let’s balance the academic workload,” says Cirovski. A balanced academic calendar means athletes can also participate more consistently in other elements of university life.

The proposal is backed by supporting data demonstrating that a two-semester season will, among other things, reduce injury and re-injury and improve mental health. “The compressed schedule of trying to fit 18 to 20 games into two and half months, and playing a game at an average of every 3.6 days, was always a problem,” says Cirovski. “We think there is a better way.”

A 2016 study commissioned by the NCAA Sports Science Institute revealed that soccer players experienced higher rates of injuries when playing matches with five or fewer days of rest, as opposed to six or more days of rest. The two-semester season gives athletes sufficient rest between games, time to recover from injuries, and reduces pressure to return from injury prematurely. A different 2016 NCAA study asked players about time demands and if they preferred a two-semester season. Eighty percent of those players said yes. Supporters of the proposal believe a better balance of academic, athletic, and student life will reduce psychological pressure caused by time demands of the current fall academic and athletic calendar.

Cirovski is adamant that the two-semester season will improve the game too. “People don’t understand our sport,” says Cirovski. “Soccer is an endurance sport, it is also a highly-technical sport.” The current schedule requires preparation, recovery, and travel for matches every three or four days, which is not conducive to quality performance.

The current schedule also does not provide sufficient time for training and development, which is a point of recent criticism. With domestic soccer’s growth at professional and youth levels, particularly with the emergence of elite youth development academies, some question college soccer’s relevance in this new soccer paradigm. Without proper training and development, college soccer can seem like a step backward for recruits accustomed to training competitively year-round and hoping to play professionally. While the merits of such criticism can be debated, Cirovski’s proposal certainly improves the training and development calendar and better aligns the schedule with those of competitive youth and professional leagues around the world. “We want to play over two semesters, so we have proper time to train and play a balanced schedule,” says Cirovski. While the new model could make college soccer a more viable option for recruits with professional ambitions, Cirovski is focused on improving the experience for all players. “[These changes] are for the 5,000 student-athletes, not the 50 that might go pro every year,” says Cirovski.

The proposal also addresses what Cirovski feels is college soccer’s most significant problem, its championship experience. “We play [in conference and national championship tournaments] the weekend before Thanksgiving through mid-December, in typically horrible weather conditions, with zero television coverage, and in the busiest, craziest sports calendar of the year,” Cirovski says. Indeed, championship tournaments are played in months when weather and fields aren’t typically the most conducive to playing quality soccer or attracting fans. “If we can move our championships to the spring and play them in May and June, versus November and December, we have a chance for the championship to flourish,” says Cirovski regarding the improved weather, playing conditions, and television schedule of the spring.

While Cirovski’s proposal has widespread support, there are conferences and administrators that oppose the changes due to their impact on costs and resources. Cirovski believes those concerns must take a backseat to improving the student-athlete experience. “This is the right thing for the sport, this is the right thing for the players,” says Cirovski.

While the NCAA’s April decision, which may be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, only applies to Division I men’s soccer, it seems likely that women’s college soccer will monitor the outcome closely. The student-athlete experience components of the proposal apply to all college athletes and, with the continued growth of women’s professional soccer, the player-development components are applicable as well.

Michael A. Rueda Partner | Head of US Sports and Entertainment | New York

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