March is a special time of year in American sports.
College basketball is a subject that many would happily pass off without a seconds thought in general, but to see is to believe when it comes to this quite special and separate event.
For in the United States of America, college sports are often followed and watched with greater passion and excitement than the same games at professional level. In basketball, this certainly applies.
Every team starts their season with the aim of getting to March, when a panel selects the top teams from across the country to play against each other in what is, put simply, a massive knock-out tournament.
The teams are split into four different mini-competitions depending on their location, and then the winners of each tournament meet in the ‘final four’. It’s a global event, given the sport’s popularity across the world.
Whilst that is grossly simplifying a sport which can be quite complicated in its statistics and analysis (it would be easy to get lost in the detail), the game has another major attraction for anyone who watches.
The ‘draft system’, utilised so well in American sports, means that a fan knows they are watching ‘the next big thing’ in their favourite sport. Whilst some slip through the net, jumping straight from High School to the NBA, the vast majority earn their stripes in the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association).
Make no mistake; the system is far from perfect. Players have to meet certain criteria with regards to grades, and this raises questions over special treatment for athletes who can earn scholarships.
But, the idea and philosophy is proven to work, and with that in mind, there has to be something football can take from this. And, in fairness, some initial steps have been taken with the NextGen Series.
The key difference is that it’s professional teams, rather than colleges or universities, who take part in the competition. This doesn’t have to be a problem though.
In America, the investment in sport at school level is massive, and they have the further advantage that teams can’t sign players as professionals at a young age.
That isn’t the case in professional football, most notably in England, where 17-year-olds can sign contracts tying them to a club. With substantial sums of money on the table, the education system simply can’t compete, and we’re too far gone to go back now.
So, our only hope lies in the professional teams giving young players a chance to show their skills on a different stage to the first team. This is where NextGen has been so successful, with youngsters like Raheem Sterling, Souleymane Coulibaly and Jean Marie Dongou impressing for teams like Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Barcelona.
Some of Europe’s biggest sides have been happy to help with the tournament, spotting the instant benefits of letting their young players test themselves against other top talent in a competitive environment.
But, if the competition takes off as many will hope, then there is a huge financial benefit to teams as well. The better the teams in the competition, the higher the interest will become. This means more people through the turnstiles.
What about games being shown on TV? Sky Sports show the Victory Shield in the UK, an U15 tournament which sees England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland compete for the trophy.
Why? Because it’s sold on the idea that you could be watching the next Michael Owen, who played for the Three Lions over a decade ago.
NextGen is a step ahead of that. An U19 tournament, it has players on the cusp of their first team, who are looking to take the final leap into senior football. What better place to do that than in a junior Champions League.
In America, 26.7 million people watched the first four days of the ‘March Madness’ tournament online alone, whilst the TV audience was up 14% from last year at an average of over 8 million viewers per show. The interest shows no signs of slowing.
One of the best features of ‘March Madness’ is the immediate knockout element, meaning the best teams are constantly under pressure to perform. It’s an idea that’s been mooted to improve the Europa League in the past, and could be tested in a youth format.
Over a two-month period, 128 U19 teams could compete in a knockout tournament across Europe, thus giving ‘smaller’ teams the chance to test their youth setups against some of the best across the continent.
Games would take place on a weekly basis, with TV rights money split between the teams. It would mean that these ‘smaller’ clubs would get a tidy sum of money for their involvement - and potential advancement - in the tournament.
It’s an idea that would need the backing of UEFA and FIFA, because with these powers involved, teams would be more likely to add their support to help such a competition take off at the early stages.
The NextGen Series has already shown that there is significant interest to try and take the next step, and the benefit for everyone is that players will be better on the bigger stage if they’ve already been tested in a competitive environment at a younger level. It’s one of the reasons why America is so successful on the sporting stage – because athletes are under great pressure from a junior age.
Before your brand this idea as pure madness, take a few moments to research the success of youth sport in the states, and how players progress to become professionals on the other side of the Atlantic.
‘March Madness’ plays a big part in that success, and the game of football as a whole would benefit from its own hybrid of such an event.
Excitement, young talent, passion. These are things we could expect to see if the NextGen can be taken to the next level.