A conversation with the CEO of NCFC Youth.
Photo Credit: NCFC Youth
Sit with Gary Buete for just a few minutes and you’ll quickly realize that his demeanor betrays his official resume.
CEO of the largest youth soccer club in the country. A master’s degree. Hundreds of employees to oversee. Scores of volunteers to manage. Thousands of customers to serve. Countless victories on the field and accolades off it. Over two decades in soccer (“plus or minus a year”). But here’s the thing with Gary: you’re always going to get the truth from him. No sugarcoating, no company lines, no PR-esque dancing around topics. We even caught him referencing Instagram as “The ‘Gram.”
Gary feels like a coach in executive’s clothing. That’s not to say he doesn’t fit as a CEO. It’s quite the opposite; his paint-the-fields-myself approach to club management underscores the importance of the player experience that is directly impacted by the character and effort of coaches, team managers, trainers, and everyone else who contributes to a successful club like NCFC Youth.
Grounded and insightful, he offered his thoughts and experiences in a variety of areas throughout our interview. Read on to find out what career path he thought he was going to follow (hint: it involves Madison Square Garden), what keeps him up at night (risk management, anyone?), what advice he’d give club leaders looking to NCFC Youth as a model of excellence, and his predictions for the future of club management.
Gary, tell us about your journey and how you arrived at NCFC Youth.
GB: Born in Maryland, grew up in Arizona. I was a college All-American, and got my master’s degree in sports management from East Tennessee State. I coached teams all through my undergrad and master’s degree. After grad school in ‘97-98, I thought I wanted to do large event management working at Madison Square Garden or the (now formerly) Washington Redskins. The first job I was offered, I went to work for the YMCA. After six months I wanted to get back into soccer. I took over my first club gig in Montgomery, Alabama. It was a great place to cut my teeth. From there I went to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, ran a club for 15 years which grew to about 4,000 to 5,000 kids, and 2,000 to 3,000 adults. Six years ago I ended up at CASL* and now NCFC Youth, which is the largest youth soccer club and “youth-to-pro” club in the country, and certainly one of the top three or four professional club environments out there. This is my 23rd year of running youth soccer clubs, plus or minus a year.
*Editor’s Note: In 2017, Capital Area Soccer League (CASL) merged with Triangle Futbol Club Alliance and rebranded as NCFC.
How many people are on staff at NCFC Youth, and what types of roles do you have?
GB: We have about 65 full-time employees and then roughly 200 seasonal, non-full-time employees. We also have about 1700 volunteers. We are unique in the soccer world in that there are very few clubs that have as massive an operation like we do. It’s a business that runs soccer, and as you would imagine we’re not dissimilar to how most businesses run with all the different departments. We have a Director of Soccer, Paul Forster, who’s one of the best in the business. With 14,000 kids and a couple hundred facilities to run, we have a director of operations. We have a business development and a marketing department. We have a CFO and four full-time people in that department. Plus, we have a vast amount of different program directors and age group directors. Other clubs where I’ve been and most clubs in this country don’t have this manpower behind them. We’re very fortunate.
NCFC Youth has an outstanding reputation on and off the field. What do you think makes your organization a leader in youth soccer?
GB: The people. A lot of really good people before me at CASL built it to prominence, and I tried to build on what they did. We’re in a diverse area, and soccer just thrives in this community so it was the vision of many people early on. And then maybe where I’ve been able to help is to find the right people and get them on the bus. We’ve got some incredibly bright and talented folks that work with us, and it’s easy for me to say we have the best staff in the country. The diverse backgrounds and experiences that we have from national team players to national team coaches, just really, really smart folks. That I think is what transforms us. Without the people that we have here, I think we’re just another soccer club.
What new roles and titles exist today in the club that maybe you didn’t have 20 years ago? What skill sets are you looking for when hiring that you didn’t consider even five or 10 years ago?
GB: At my last role, not only was I the CEO, but I was the field painter, goal mover, tournament scheduler, and the rec guy. That is the world most clubs live in. Going back to 2000, when I took over a pretty big sized club in today’s standards, about 5,000 total members, there was me, one part-time administrative person, and all volunteers. That doesn’t happen anymore. It has become professionalized.
Business development is becoming more prevalent. Many people are seeing [youth soccer] as a business, and as an opportunity to get into the community. Community leaders are investing in youth soccer programs to help drive traffic to their business and then also to support the community. We have three full-time people here doing business development and almost nobody has that. We also have a full-time marketing person, and a full-time social media person. The financial side of things is massive. At my last club, I was also the CFO and I had a part-time bookkeeper. Now we have a team with a human resources director, a CFO, a comptroller, an accounts payable and accounts receivable person. Keeping track of the books, making sure everything is going as planned is becoming more prevalent in the society that we live in. The amount of control that we have here at NCFC Youth rivals any business that’s out there with regards to protection of money.
On the soccer side, you almost can’t just be a coach anymore. In the old days you could play golf all day, coach two or three sessions, then go home. Now you’re going to be a full-time coach. You need to be organized, technically savvy, a great communicator and a great leader. You have to provide more value than just coaching teams. I bring back the technical piece because so much of what we’re doing now is more technical in nature. Videotaping, session planning, periodization, everything through computers and software, the information we’re able to give back to players, families, and support coaches, and education, all of that is now done through technology. In the old days, you came out to the field, I ran some sessions for you, I may have drawn some lines on a paper and gave it as a hand out; that’s not the case anymore, so you’re definitely a different type of soccer person getting hired now.
You recognize not all clubs are built to the size and scale of NCFC Youth, but that other club leaders may aspire to achieve that, and to borrow best practices.
GB: I spend a couple hours every week with clubs from all across the country that are looking for best practices and other ways to do things. And we love to help. We have people who come here, spend a couple of days with us, watch everything that we do. Certainly, we have a lot of resources that other clubs don’t have, but I’ve been part of these clubs as well, and have an idea of how you can maneuver and try to put yourself on a pathway to get into some similar positions.
Do you believe that clubs who do not actively get on the “professionalization of youth soccer” train are going to limit their growth as a business?
GB: Without question. There is so much more than just coaching soccer now, with a lot of the new rules that are in place in regards to SafeSport, protection of players, insurance, risk management. And there still exists, to some degree, your volunteer-run organizations. I remember 23 years ago, there wasn’t very many of my role in the country. Everything was volunteer-run. And you had Board members who ordered uniforms, did the books, put the nets out, and lined the fields. That doesn’t exist for the most part anymore either.
The trend over the last three or four years is what we did. Where CASL and Triangle Futbol Club Alliance merged together, combining resources and talent, and creating best practices. That’s happening all over the country where smaller clubs are joining forces. With that, you get more bandwidth, and more opportunities to raise money and do tournaments. Everything’s more at scale, so you can offer things for less cost.
Without the people that we have here, I think we’re just another soccer club.
Once you have new staff members hired, how much time and energy do you spend on developing them?
GB: We spend a ton of time with them on our mission and core values. We get to choose, for the most part, the best of the best, so that’s important to us. There’s an old saying that goes, “I’ll take as much talent as character will provide.” I believe that immensely. We get them in and we show ’em the NCFC Youth way. We have a lot of good mentors and leaders here, and there’s a culture that is contagious. You’re either on board and a part of it, or you’re going to get left out pretty quickly. We put a lot of resources in education and leadership, and not just coaching. We’re involved in the community. We have leadership speakers that come in, different topics that we bring in almost monthly. We have training sessions for everyone, from our volunteers to our full-time staff, every month. We have constant reminders of why we’re here and our core values.
It’s important for us that we spend that time because if we’re at a point where we’re hiring you, we want to keep you. We want our staff to know that we’re invested in them, we’re helping them develop more skills. It’s a massive undertaking we take great pride in.
Tell us about some behind-the-scenes, not-so-glamorous truths of running a youth soccer club.
GB: Risk management’s a big thing although I think most people in our world would say dealing with parents is the most difficult thing.
When it comes to parents, we try to give too much information. But it’s 14,000 kids so 14,000 parents who all want the best for their kids. We get it, and we do our best to try to make the best environment. Sometimes we fall short, but for the most part, I think we do the right things. Kids love to play the game, so that’s probably the most difficult.
It’s long hours. It’s nights and weekends. For coaches that are coaching two or three teams, they’re on the fields from 4 to 9 o’clock every night, Monday through Friday. They’re on the fields for four, five, six hours Saturday and Sunday. Then they’re required to work in the office three or four days a week, where they’re just trying to get things organized running programs. So a lot of time away from families, a lot of holiday weekends, a lot of stuff that is not as sexy as most people think when you just want to go coach soccer.
How have you seen the expectations of parents and players change in your 23 years, and how has your club reacted to the shift?
GB: I would say specific to where we are now, and the evolution of the game in our country is that more and more people have played the game. When I first started out, nobody knew what soccer was. I can’t tell you how many times people said, “Well I played football and baseball or I played basketball and baseball. I don’t know anything about the game [soccer].” Now, you have a much more educated clientele, customers who are more on top of what’s going on, they can tell a coach who knows what they’re doing in a training session that’s meaningful, and it just provides a different perspective now than you had before.
And then additionally, as soccer has grown in our country, there’s more money in it. People make their living and feed their families with it, so there’s a different expectation level of players. Five years ago, we never had a player say, “Listen, I want to be a pro, I don’t want to go to college.” On our highest local teams, most of the kids are saying, “If I have the opportunity to go pro, that’s what I want to do. I want to forgo going to college. I want to turn down that ride to Duke, UNC, or NC State.” That creates more expectations, more competition, and it really puts more onus on us to try to do the right things to get these kids where they want to go.
At my last role, which is the same role I have at NCFC Youth, not only was I the CEO, but I was also the field painter, the goal mover, the tournament scheduler and the rec guy.
You said you you aim to over-communicate with parents and player families. How do you get that across to your staff in how they manage their day-to-day process, especially at a club your size?
GB: It’s funny. The more we feel like we are communicating, there’s always instances where we come back and we say, “How did that not get across?” How did a message we sent out not be taken the way that we wanted it to? Listen, we’re at a point now where sometimes because we send so much communication, parents will opt out of our email and we’re having to find new and creative ways to get to them. When we blast email, we expect about 20% of the people to read it and actually get what we’re trying to say.
Now you have the different meetings, now you need to have it on Twitter, you got to have it on the ‘Gram, you got to have it on Facebook, and even TikTok. It used to be we just had a website. Do people even go to a website anymore? It’s a constant battle for us trying to get the right communication to the right folks, and then get them to actually understand that what we’re saying is something they need to know. During the COVID pandemic, I’ll send out a mass email that goes to all the different platforms, and it’ll say, “You will get a more specific email from your program director, be on the lookout for that.” That comes through a different channel now, and then it also goes to a team manager, so not only do we send it out, the team manager and coach sends it out. And then we get about 60% of the people who read it.
One of the, I would say, good things about going through this mess we’ve all gone through for the last several months, is it has given us new platforms on how to reach families in a large quantity that’s easy to access. The Zoom calls, Teams calls, or different ways to get to folks where we used to say, “We’re going to have a meeting for everybody in this program, at this location.” And you’re then going, “How many people are going to drive to that location, battle traffic, and get there?” So it’s certainly another way for us to reach people now, but it’s an ever-evolving process, probably one that we will never become perfect in.
COVID. Of course, we need to talk about that. How has NCFC Youth managed during the pandemic?
GB: Well, it’s been challenging to say the least. We’re no different. I’ve been fortunate as a leader of the organization to have so many really bright people who are helping us through this process. This wasn’t a one-person show, it took a lot of people to do a lot of work. The tough part for all of us has been how do we continue to come up with plans based on what we’re hearing. You think about the size and the scale of what we’re trying to put out there that’s going to affect each individual program, and then, get an announcement that completely does away with the plan that you just came up with. So now every plan we come up with has to have about three or four different layers to it. If this, then that, if that, then this, and then we’re still not close.
Where do you think you’ve excelled through COVID and what could you have done better?
GB: I feel like we’ve done a pretty good job of communicating. I was very happy that we were able to give refunds back, where a lot of clubs were not able to. I was very happy that we were able to keep and continue to pay our staff during this time. I felt like we were one of the first soccer clubs who canceled our season. We wanted to be out in front. I think we’ve done a really good job of keeping player safety in mind, coming up with the protocols and the processes of how we come back. We did a run in June for three weeks. We had over 5,000 players come out to be a part of it. It was a good learning lesson. We felt really good about how we brought it back and in a very safe manner.
We were about a 90% retention rate in all of our competitive programs. Recreational soccer is going to be down much more than that, for the obvious reasons that they’re not as invested, they’ll play spring instead of fall or those kinds of things. But on our competitive side, it’s about a 90% return rate for our club. In talking to my colleagues across the country, I think it’s closer to anywhere from 15% to 25% down in most places depending on where you are.
Most of us have said, “We’ve worked harder over the last couple of months than we have in a long time.” It’s a new way of doing business. It’s sitting in front of this computer all day. And then the internal communication between staff, keeping people on the same page and making sure things are getting done correctly. It’s a whole new world. I think there will be some good that comes out of it, on how we operate and how we get information out to folks, but it’s been a crazy time.
Were you doing any sort of virtual training at all?
GB: We did a lot of that, and like everything it was the new toy. We put a lot of time into it. I think we got a really good plan and had lots of kids involved the first three or four weeks, and then weeks five and six we saw it go down a little bit. So we had to challenge our staff to come up with something new and better and innovative that challenges them more. And then we were able to get back on the field right about that time.
An unintended consequence of COVID is that kids have had to go out and learn how to actually train by themselves.
If you knew before COVID ever happened what you know now what would you have done differently?
GB: I would have started some seasons earlier, obviously, to get more games in. But as far as how we would have changed anything, I don’t know what else we could have done. I think we set ourselves up well financially to be able to do right by our members and our staff. I think the at-home training program is a good opportunity. We probably could have had something like that prior to COVID. I think it’s going to be really good for players across the country. I think it’s a new business model for someone to provide that type of online platform for kids. For as long as I’ve been doing this, we’ve always said, “You need to do more stuff at home with the ball.” We’ve become such a structured environment across the board in our country where kids don’t know how to train unless there are 15 kids and a coach and cones and somebody telling them where to go. An unintended consequence of COVID is that kids have had to go out and learn how to actually train by themselves. My hope is as we move forward we can incorporate that into our weekly training, daily training, and better development model for all of our players.
What are some of the biggest innovations you’ve seen in club management over the years and what do you see coming in the future?
GB: Some things will never change. That comes down to a coach who cares and is willing to provide a good environment, fields that are safe, and people who want to provide a pathway for kids to develop not only in soccer but as human beings. That is always going to be at the forefront of what we do. How we do that and how we deliver it is obviously going to change.
The manner in which we train our coaches is going to continue to evolve. The way that we are able to create periodizations, formats, and plans. Not only for the top-end coaches but for volunteer coaches in our challenge program and our rec program. They have access to the same things that our top-level coaches do knowledge-wise. It’s great to be able to feed that back into our grassroots programs.
And obviously technology has really come a long way. My first couple of clubs, when it was registration time everybody had to come to the office and fill out a card with cash or check payment paper clipped to it. Even at CASL, a storied program, six years ago we still had probably 30-40% of the people coming to the office to register. Nobody comes to the office now. We have systems like PlayMetrics where we can have all of that done in one spot.
We now have cameras set up on fields to record training sessions that we can break down for players and coaches. Our top-level players right now get all their game videos broken down. We know how far they ran, their heart rate, every touch of the ball, and a thousand different things about a player and how they play within 30 minutes after a game. That’s going to be across the board for all of our programs at some point. Even programs out there now that are just individual player based, a player can still get a device and either wrap it around their shoe or arm to get feedback. I can’t even imagine where that technology is going to be ten years from now.
More and more people willing to invest; who understand there’s an opportunity to make money off of youth soccer and with that will come greater innovation. I feel like I’m the old guy now…well I am the old guy, and they’re doing stuff that I never dreamed about 27 years ago. It’s going to be interesting.
Do you proactively shop for technology or do you let technology come to you? How do you think about what new technology or vendors you should engage with?
GB: One of our core values is to encourage innovation. We are constantly looking to be on the bleeding edge of things and I feel like we always have been, in many different ways, as one of the leaders in youth soccer or even youth sports across the board. We have smart people who are engaged and actively seeking out new and better ways to do things. You know the old saying, “Necessity drives innovation.” When you’re as large as we are, and you have to deal with as many things we have to deal with at this scale, sometimes we’re forced to go out and try to find things that help our process. I’m at the United Soccer Coaches Convention every year and I go around and check out the new stuff. And 15 years ago, the big thing was a little rubber thing you wrapped around your cleat to keep your shoelaces on. And now everything’s technology-based and player tracking, GPS and video and all the different things that go on there. A byproduct of our size and notoriety is we have folks who come to us so we’re able to sift through a lot of the new stuff that’s out in the market.
Do you have a go-to technology person on staff?
GB: We don’t have that specific title in the org chart, but we have a lot of very savvy people from the tech world. Steve Curfman, Bob Harris, Sean Nahas, Paul Forster, John Bradford and several others. Tom Harris, one of our newer hires from Houston Dynamo is very up-to-date with a lot of the video systems and GPS stuff. It’s good to have those minds around you.
Do you foresee formalizing a top technology role?
GB: My experience has been that so many of these young coaches coming in have a good depth of knowledge to how technology works, that I don’t see it as one position. Of course I would have told you ten years ago that I never saw myself hiring a risk management person. It was probably 15 years ago, I said to my Board I wanted to hire a sponsorship person and they thought I was crazy. I looked around at other soccer clubs in the country and nobody had a dedicated sponsorship role. I finally just said, “I’m just gonna do it. ‘Cause I think it’s nuts, I think we’re leaving money on the table.” And now most people have a sponsorship person or agency or someone who’s out there trying to raise money for them. So I don’t want to say never.
New technology can be intimidating depending on who you are. Bringing on tools like PlayMetrics or a new video platform, for example, propels change in an organization. How you deal with change management?
GB: One, it’s a management issue. How dynamic is your leader and can they continue to sell the product internally and what you’re trying to do. Vision is also important. What is the vision for the product or project, and how will it help us move forward? That’s always the toughest thing. Because everyone is used to doing things this way or that way. It’s constantly hammering home, “This is how we’re moving forward.” As we’ve continued to add on to the program, more and more people see the value of what we’re doing. It’s like every time you get a new phone you hate it because you got to figure out how to get to the home screen again. It’s continuing to push the value of it, push the vision of why we’re doing it, and then following up with managing it. And not just with technology. In the coaching world, you have your old school guys who aren’t used to creating all their stuff in the systems, the periodization and so on. And then you got the younger guys who embrace the change and are all about it and move forward with it. There is certainly a massaging that takes place and sometimes it’s a nice conversation with your arm around somebody and other times it’s, “Hey, let’s go.”
Pre-COVID, what were the top things on your mind that would keep you up at night, so to speak?
GB: Risk management. Without question.
For the six-year-old rec family, they don’t know Gary Buete. They know their volunteer soccer coach. The environment that coach provides the family and those players affects our brand and how people look at our program, and in many cases if those kids continue to play. Then there’s the SafeSport aspect of things. Protection of players from pedophiles, from undue injury of pushing too hard, training when it’s a thousand degrees outside, not getting the kids off the field in a lightning storm, goals blowing over. We spend a lot of time, effort and energy on these things.
We have rec coaches now who are saying, “There’s just too much for me to be a volunteer coach anymore.” You’re doing two hours of training for risk management, you’re doing another hour and a half training for this. We’re forcing that because, for me, I’m going to err on the side of losing some coaches because of them not wanting to put in the work to provide the environment we want to create for our kids. This is how I’m going to do business. What we do is provide environments for kids to grow, to love the game, to become good teammates, to learn how to be great people, build life-long friendships and all the stuff that comes with youth sport. That’s what’s important. That’s the environment we continue to try and create.
It’s like every time you get a new phone you hate it because you got to figure out how to get to the home screen again. It’s continuing to push the value of it, push the vision of why we’re doing it, and then following up with managing it.
What advice would you give small clubs that are aiming to be your size or even half the size of NCFC Youth in five, eight or 10 years? What can they do now to get ready for growth?
GB: I learn as much from other clubs as they learn from me. We don’t have all the answers. It’s a never ending learning process for all of us across the board. What I would say is, you’ve got to stay true to what you believe your core values are, and how you want to run. So very first thing is you need the right people. People who are in it for the kids, and in it for developing and creating an environment where kids want to be a part of it. That is number one. If you have good people, they’re going to come. The best coach in the world could be across town and not with us but kids are going to play for him or her because they want that experience.
There are many clubs out there that will do anything they can just to add numbers to their group. Stay true to your beliefs and not just try to gain players quick by saying, “Okay, well you don’t really have to try out, you just bring your team in.” Or the quick fix because that never really sticks. I’ve seen a lot of that happen over the years.
Keep a player-first mentality. Obviously, soccer development is important but everything we do is about player protection. It’s an opportunity to grow within a structure that’s comfortable, safe and kids feel good about being a part of. If you do all of that, a club will go a long way in the soccer world.
Finally, Gary, what do you want the NCFC Youth brand to mean to people?
GB: Excellence. I want them to think of excellence in all phases. I want them to think that that is a program for all levels of play, all walks of life, and anybody who wants to play from three years old to 19 and into the pro ranks. I want them to think of us as a valuable community partner. That we are a group that’s not just here to get kids and promise scholarships but that we’re actually providing a service for kids and the community that people can feel proud of. One of the biggest things when I first started working at CASL is the pride of people who played for their program. I see a lot of people in the community whose kids play in our program and when I meet them they say “You know what, man, it’s a great program. I love what you’ve done for my kids. I love what you stand for.” Or, “Hey, I coach for you guys. I love the extra attention that you’re giving to X, Y, and Z.” It feels good to be a community partner for kids to grow and develop, not just as soccer players but in other areas of life. That’s what really drives me the most.