Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

01.09.19Five Days at Disney: Why Paying (Gratuitously) To Play Is An Issue At All Levels Of The Game

What I Got For Christmas: The Chance to Pay for Disney’s ESPN/Wide World of Sports Complex.


Over winter break I spent five days in Orlando. My son was playing in the Disney Soccer Showcase.  I have some thoughts.

This was the first time I’ve ever been to the DSS. Generally my wife–rightly–forbids soccer tournaments during major holidays because family time is more important and sports already take up too much of it.

I agree, but this year we made an exception. Our club, which we love and are loyal to, asked all players to come. The commitment was important because the boys are seniors this year and it’s a key time for recruiting. There’s a certain obligation on a team to support one’s teammates… it’s hard for guys to make a good impression when 8 key teammates aren’t there. So we went because being a part of a team is important and sometimes means sacrifices.

The biggest surprise to me was how many college coaches were actually there.  I’d always sort of imagined that it was a cash cow cleverly disguised as a ‘college showcase.’  For the most part my assumption has always been that the work of matching with the right college program happens elsewhere- for my son at least it’s involved choosing the right school for academic reasons and then attending clinics on campus to gauge the coaches’ interest.

But like I said, I was blown away by how many coaches were there. Pretty much every program he’d been in contact with had a coach there. I was stunned by how many coaches were talking to and looking for kids at our games. It was a cash cow AND a college showcase.

Over time this fact made my concerns and skepticism about the event worse. Why? For starters these are the texts of two tweets I wrote that got quite a bit of response:

1) In Orlando for Disney Showcase. Costs: Club fee+5 days hotel+car+flights (>exp week of year). Plus $55 per person at the fields to see your own kid play. Just about every college coach is here. Guess who’s getting recruited? Parking lot says its those who drive lexus+land rover.

2) One more thing. Tournament appears designed to maximize expenses: 3 games spread over four days w AM game Thursday morning (weds night hotel) & night game Sunday (also requiring hotel). Clubs that care about equity of access should object.

I’m going try to break out my concerns and respond to some of the responses to my tweets because I think there are some big issues here–primarily that what appears to be an important access point to the opportunities that playing the game in college provides is priced to exclude the players who would benefit most and who already start behind in terms of access to such opportunities.

First, I get that tournaments cost money. I get that good coaching costs money. I am not objecting to paying for coaching. In fact making coaching a viable profession for people is the best possible way to spend money in the game. And i don’t expect quality fields and good referees to come for free. But here are some key points:

Most showcases, even at the elite level, are run by clubs or leagues. When you pay them money you are supporting the club and thus the game. Tournaments are how many clubs stay in business. It’s one way clubs can afford to support players who cannot pay full freight.

This tournament is run by a giant corporation. The profits go to Disney.

And Disney engages in what I would describe as predatory business practices.  The venue charges parents and family a steep admission price to see their own kid play in addition to the the club fee to enroll a team. I went alone with my son. It was $55 to see him play for three days just for me. I couldn’t stop thinking about those families of five that bundled everyone into the car and brought the whole family down to be together….and paid Disney/ESPN hundreds of dollars for the privilege.

Compare this to other corporate entities involved in the game…say, Nike. They sponsor events too. Generally though they subsidize them- based on the following argument: If soccer grows and is great in this country, people will buy more boots. Nike thus subsidizes making soccer great and growing the game and win if people buy their products. Ok, I can work with that. They are playing a long game. Disney has no long game.

I couldn’t help noticing that the games were deliberately spread out to maximize expenses and exacerbate the burden on families for whom the endeavor was a stretch economically.  My son’s team played three games.  At most tournaments this would take two days and would require one or possibly two hotel nights.  Maybe some tournaments might stretch three games over three days.  At Disney there was a gratuitous off day in the middle: three games over four days. Goal: cause families to go to Disney theme parks. Goal: Increase hotel nights.

Further our game on the first day was early in the morning. Our game on the last day was at 7 in the evening. Result: Add two hotel nights.  Accidental that the number of hotel nights was cleverly doubled over what it would normally be- and at the most expensive time of year? I doubt it. A $500 dollar addition to the cost of attending is also a $500 contribution to Disney’s bottom line. And if you don’t think there’s an agreement between the hotels and the tournament to share the revenue, I have some land in the Yukon I’d like to tell you about.

A couple of people made plausible sounding counter arguments on Twitter. One person said the extra day was because DA clubs have a policy requiring rest. This was the only way elite clubs would attend.

I’m not buying it.  Precious few DA clubs there. All of them in their own division. If you need a special rule for them, apply it to them, but honestly, DA clubs play other DA clubs at specific events (a good friend who’s at an MLS Academy basically told me as much–they’d never pay that kind of money when they could get together with their peer clubs at a fraction of the cost). And anyway, college coaches have no trouble finding DA players.

One reader asked if i wanted my son injured from three games in three days.  Honestly, he plays 6 tournaments a year where they play four games in two days. His team practices three days in a row most weeks. I think he can handle it. And I trust his coach to balance loads and add players to the roster as necessary.  So I’m skeptical of the argument that “the extra day was critical for rest.” It was critical to make all those families have to go to Disney on their day off.  Cue the cash register.

The same reader observed that I was ‘a guy who didn’t understand anything about what it takes to run a tournament and the costs involved.’ He’s probably right. I asked him if he wanted to share the financials for the tournament to make his point but he deferred. But I thought I’d share some pictures of the venue to make a few observations.

Here are pictures of: a long view of the complex and it’s adobe-d elegance; one of multiple stadium-sized venues reminiscent of Chavez Ravine … and the sort of things most municipalities would have to float a bond to pay for; one of the 15 or so fields with (empty) stands that were nicer than most non-league professional clubs have in England; one of the TV’s at every corner broadcasting Disney partner ESPN footage constantly


Stanford? Nope.The scenic view of Disney’s ESPN/WWS campus.

Still life w wrought iron & palm trees. How do you pay for a stadium like that w/out a bond?

Where do the away fans sit?






ESPN on every corner.















The fees we were paying, in other words, were to cover the costs of branding and disney-ficiation, not for grass and referees. We were building a theme park with our youth sports dollars.

Someone else commented to say that no one should really care. Players at Disney weren’t legit from a national team perspective. This was “Tier 2 soccer” and all the cool kids were up the road at Lakewood ranch.

Fair enough I guess. Neither my son nor I are under any illusions that he is on Tab Ramos’ short list though the fact that my son and his teammates aren’t at Lakewood Ranch doesn’t make what happens to them Tier 2 in relevance.

In fact this is exactly the point. The unnecessarily high cost of soccer, exemplified by the gratuitous expenses of Disney, are more relevant at lower levels than at the national team level.

Playing the game at the collegiate level–even, gasp, at the division three level–provides thousands of young men and women with amazing opportunities: To be a part of a team; to travel, to learn, to grow, to lead- and to gain access to better educational opportunities. That the access to this opportunity is cost-bound is morally questionable.  Most people think sports are an egalitarian factor on college campuses but for the most part they are advantageous to exactly those students who grow up privileged.

There are people whose kids would benefit from being at this event but who couldn’t afford it because Disney has made it elite-level expensive. And there are people who did go who are working extra shifts tonight or serving something cheaper for dinner because they were forced to pay twice as much for hotels as they should have.

Pay-to-play issues matter at all levels. And this was a gratuitous example with real costs for real kids who could benefit from the opportunity. So we should take it seriously.  Unfortunately parents are mostly indirect customers here. But here’s to hoping that clubs or leagues will push back against Disney’s practices (like stretching two nights on the road to five to support Disney’s kingdom and charging parents to see their kids play) or, if Disney won’t respond, by supporting the first organization that sets up a responsible alternative that has the interests of the game in mind.

Follow Up:

Just to share the upside and to make it clear that there are solutions in terms of equity of access to elite sports programming, I’m super proud that the club my kids play for, Black Watch Premier, has also been at the forefront of solutions. This year they started a low cost soccer program for students at Uncommon Schools’ Troy Prep: long-term game-changer.

Deets here:



3 Responses to “Five Days at Disney: Why Paying (Gratuitously) To Play Is An Issue At All Levels Of The Game”

  1. Kevin Guzzo
    January 10, 2019 at 3:11 am


    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic. I enjoyed your original tweets, love your follow up, and could not agree with you more. I am a HS Athletic Director, with kids who have played travel soccer (not close to the level you are describing), and have passionately argued about the culture of youth sports for years. Thank you for taking on this issue. Hopefully, someone will listen!!

    • Doug Lemov
      January 10, 2019 at 3:18 am

      Thanks, Kevin. Seems like there are a lot of strong feelings out there. Maybe progress is coming.

    February 12, 2019 at 4:15 am

    Just finding this post now. I coach the 8th grade soccer team at my low-income school, and despite overwhelming desire and an incredible amount of (untapped) talent of my students, this post is really disheartening, actually. I didn’t play competitive club soccer growing up, so seeing the photos put my students’ reality in stark contrast. Thanks for posting this. It’s really given me a lot to think about. I mean, my players are literally shoveling dirt onto the field before games to fill the gopher holes in the field and have to collect at least 5 pieces of trash each while running laps. And to hear that college recruitment is wrapped up in this disparity (potentially) just makes me feel like I’ve been lying to some of my talented players by saying this could be their path to higher education. I had no idea this was what things were like for other kids. Thanks again.

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