MLS is smart to take youth soccer to Twitch, but we need to think long and hard about the implications of this new product.
Last Wednesday evening, I got an email from Twitch telling me to open the app and start watching the Generation Adidas Cup. Never one to disobey the tech industry, I tuned in for a knockout game between two Under-17 teams, Seattle Sounders and Argentina’s River Plate. It was surprisingly entertaining, with Seattle scoring the winning goal just minutes before it would’ve gone to penalties. It was the Generation Adidas Cup, a youth tournament put on by MLS and featuring academy teams from all over the world.
I am of two minds about it.
Firstly, this was a genuinely cool, interesting move on the part of MLS. Though I’ve used Twitch in the past to watch certain, secret, illegal soccer streams, this is the first time the league has partnered with and produced a stream for Twitch. MLS has experimented with Facebook Live and Twitter before, but this struck me as a better product.
As a medium created for gamers, Twitch is a uniquely good fit for sports broadcasts. It’s formatted for TV screens, unlike Twitter and Facebook, and there isn’t a constant scroll of new posts coming in to distract you from what you’re viewing. Watching games is exactly what Twitch is for – turns out a platform built for quality e-games streaming lends itself well to streaming other types of games. When you think about it, isn’t soccer really just meat-world FIFA?
Twitch, a subsidiary of Amazon since 2014, wants to become a legitimate sports broadcaster, and it’s made great strides in that direction. Twitch is the broadcaster of choice for e-gaming, an industry valued at $135 billion last year and whose viewership exceeds that of every major U.S. sports league except the NFL. Even as the esports business grows, it makes up less than a quarter of total views on the platform. Twitch is creating new space in the market as well as seizing territory previously held by older social media companies, and it’s doing it largely by connecting with young people who are passionate about sports. That’s exactly where MLS needs to be if it wants to create new fans. It’s smart to take this particular product, a youth sports tournament, to a platform whose audience skews younger than Facebook, Twitter, and other older media.
Broadcasting youth academy games, in general, also strikes me as a good idea. With travel ball popular across youth sports, it’s great to have a medium where parents can watch their kids play even when they can’t make the game, or where kids back in Buenos Aires can follow their friends’ tournament in Frisco, Texas. Serious youth soccer can distance kids from their school and local communities, introducing them to professional-level alienation even though they’re still amateurs. From what I could tell, a significant portion of the viewers chatting during the game were people who knew the players personally, and it’s a positive for these communities if they can stay connected via Twitch.
Plus, what young athlete doesn’t want to be on TV? Aside from the obvious thrill of feeling like a pro, it means exposure that may actually help them actually become one. Tournaments like the Generation Adidas Cup are designed to attract college and pro scouts, and making them viewable to scouts worldwide has huge implications for the participants’ futures. If you’re a young player, you have to relish the idea that scouts in London and Madrid could tune in and watch you score the winning goal in extra time, as Alexander Ocampo-Chavez did Wednesday night.
That brings me to my second thought: we need to be extremely careful about this.
The oldest players at the Generation Adidas Cup were U-17s, meaning that every single athlete in competition was a child. I emphasize that because some of them are pretty skilled and pretty big— these are kids who have risen through academies like West Ham, Lyon, and Dynamo Zagreb— and it’s easy to forget how young they are. However talented and mature they may be, they are young people, and that means they are vulnerable to exploitation.
Most MLS youth academies, like most of the respectable academies worldwide, are entirely free for the participants. The club covers virtually every expense that youth soccer entails. DC United and the Portland Timbers, both of whom entered youth teams in the Generation Adidas Cup, are the only two “pay-to-play” academies in MLS, sticking with a model that’s still very common in American youth soccer. I believe one or two other commentators may have written about pay-to-play in the past.
Anywho, most MLS academy players have a status similar to college athletes on full scholarships. At no cost to themselves, they are given the opportunity and resources to develop as athletes, with the understanding that this opportunity comes in lieu of payment. The difference between these kids and college athletes is that clubs aren’t really profiting off of their youth teams, while college sports is a colossal industry built to do just that.
College athletes are already being exploited, and broadcasting is a huge part of that exploitation. TV deals are where the really silly amounts of money come into sports, producing a huge chunk of the revenue that the NCAA refuses to share with its workers. If we’re going to broadcast youth soccer – which, again, I think is a good idea – we cannot make the same mistakes the NCAA did.
I’m not accusing MLS of wrongdoing – well, not at the moment – because there’s no way they made any kind of profit off of the Generation Adidas Cup Twitch stream. There were no ads on display, no commercials, and no serious audience as far as I could tell (in extra time of the Sounders-River Plate game, the highest number I saw was 1,335 viewers). Sure, the whole thing was brought to us by Adidas, but when a company pays a league $117 million dollars a year that’s really more of an ownership stake than a sponsorship deal, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anything MLS-branded that isn’t also affiliated with our German friends. I don’t think money has changed hands on the back of these kids’ labor. Yet.
The problem is that it’s very easy to see how this could slip into an NCAA-style situation, where players play for free while the league, the teams, Adidas, and other brands make money. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think that streaming youth soccer is going to become a profitable industry overnight. At the same time, is it really beneath the sports broadcasting industry to start exploiting kids? Twitch is very open about its desire to attract sponsors to its streams, and we should never underestimate the zeal that Soccer Marketing People have for creating new products. How long before they concoct a Junior Champions League?
You’d be hard-pressed to find an industry more corrupt than the global business of buying rights, broadcasting games, and marketing soccer tournaments. Cronyism and bribery have become the defining feature of FIFA, continental soccer associations, and the incestuous web of broadcasters and brands that have developed around them. Even if we take for granted that the U.S. side of the business is relatively clean, this is an ecosystem that thrives on exploitation.
With the Generation Adidas Cup, MLS has made youth soccer into a TV product. If that product ever starts to make money for MLS, the kids need to get a cut. We cannot swallow what they’re likely to try to sell us, the argument that the opportunity alone is adequate compensation. American colleges have gone down that road already, and it leads to a world of exploitation. There’s plenty of reason to get excited about MLS’ experiment with Twitch streaming, but we have to recognize the risk that players will get a raw deal.
Stephen Wood is a writer based in New York. His work has appeared in Jacobin, Paste, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. Follow him @TheStephenWood.