Utah is not yet considered a soccer hotbed, even though Real Salt Lake has achieved moderate success in Major League Soccer. In prestige and popularity, RSL still come a distant second to the professional basketball team, the Utah Jazz.
Despite having a professional soccer team and population of nearly three million - slightly less than global soccer power Uruguay - the most striking absence from Utah’s soccer landscape is the lack of a single NCAA D1 men’s college team amongst the three largest universities - Brigham Young University, Utah, and Utah State.
BYU has arguably the strongest athletic department, but money is not cited as the reason the Cougars do not compete for college soccer's highest honors. BYU's 19 NCAA sports teams are part of an athletic department that spent $35 million in 2009, turning a profit of $5 million during a global economic recession.
The Cougars have a men's soccer team, financed by the athletic department, fundraising, corporate sponsors and private donations, they just choose to play in a "better" league than the NCAA.
About a decade ago, BYU was the dominant program in men's college club soccer and ready to make the jump up. Rather than join the NCAA, BYU bought a franchise in the USL Premier Development League, the 4th highest league in the United States.
Perks of PDL Play
BYU proudly call the nationwide PDL a “level considered higher than NCAA soccer in the pyramid of U.S. soccer development.” Besides better competition, BYU's choice to join the PDL was practical, aligning the interests of men’s soccer with the university's Mormon roots.
Most BYU students are members of the LDS Church, who send young males on two-year religious missions at age 18. PDL player eligibility requirements are less stringent than in the NCAA, so BYU players can go on missions and return without losing years of NCAA eligibility.
Since 2012, the LDS Church now allows men to begin their missions at age 18 rather than age 19 - meaning they can defer college enrollment and prevent the NCAA's eligibility clock from running - still there is no sign BYU plans to drop down to the NCAA level.
PDL benefits BYU players by providing opportunities to sign professional contracts with RSL while remaining enrolled in college, impossible under NCAA amateurism rules. In addition, PDL's summer season allows BYU players to miss less class than NCAA's fall schedule. By avoiding NCAA oversight, BYU men's soccer is free to choose a league whose priorities match their own.
A New Trend?
The BYU model shows college soccer can blossom without the NCAA. The growth of American soccer has not been kind to colleges. The best high school players now have more options to play professionally at home and abroad than ever before. Traditional college soccer powers are steadily losing their top recruits.
The Cougars offer no scholarships so recruiting is more difficult, but the LDS Church’s sponsorship of the university makes BYU more affordable than many public institutions. Tuition for the 2012-13 school year was $4,710 for Mormon students and $9,420 for others.
By becoming the first college sponsored soccer team to compete in the top four tiers of the American soccer hierarchy, BYU have set a precedent for others to follow. In theory, BYU and other colleges are not restricted to the PDL, if they wanted they could field a team in the PDL's sister professional league, USL Pro, or others even higher.
Giving the top high school players the option to continue their education while also pursuing the game professionally, there is a chance for college soccer to regain its prominence with the American soccer hierarchy. While college soccer is uniquely American, several Mexican clubs are affiliated with local universities, offering the same possibility as BYU for players to become professional student-athletes.
The question is whether any other colleges will follow the trail BYU has blazed in response to the changing face of American soccer. A PDL franchise costs only between $100,000-$200,000 - a fee many athletic departments can easily afford.