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An Open Letter to the Parks and Recreation Commission

posted Feb 15, 2013, 6:15 PM by AYSO26 Regional Commissioner   [ updated Feb 19, 2013, 8:09 AM ]

An Open Letter to the Parks and Recreation Commission
Regarding Fields and Brokering
From the Palo Alto AYSO

First, let me thank each of you on the Parks and Recreation Commission for your service to our community.  The time and effort that you spend on our behalf is appreciated.

The policies, practices and consequences of field brokering is full of details and factoids that can be hard to consume, hard to put into perspective, and frankly, can be distracting from understanding the real issues.  I know,  because it has taken me a year of study to understand the details to the point that I can see the forest for the trees.  Let me take this opportunity to lay out the landscape of the brokering in a layered way, not paying too much attention to the minutiae, and instead focus on the structural issues.  I will try to summarize the key points of issue for our community, and propose a solution that in my opinion would work well for Palo Alto, and to the best interest of the Palo Alto community.

So please, sit back, read, and don't skip.  If you skip, the end won't make as much sense.  ;-)

Let me open by categorically stating that Palo Alto has ample, even an abundance of fields for Palo Altan needs.  And, the field managers of the three largest soccer users concur on this point; Palo Alto AYSO, Stanford Soccer Club, and Palo Alto Soccer Club.

So, why are our players being increasingly crowded onto smaller and smaller spaces, being denied access to the best times and fields, and why are we losing flexibility for our volunteers to choose from?  

To understand this, let me tell a little background on AYSO.


AYSO sets the bar for good community citizenship in field brokering.

Let me introduce myself, Gordon Short, Regional Commissioner of Region 26 of AYSO (aka, Palo Alto AYSO).  I am appointed by the National Board of Directors as the executive officer of Region 26.  I have counterparts in Mountain View, Menlo Park, and indeed, across the country, in each field brokering domain.  My primary function is to ensure that AYSO's youth soccer programs are produced well, AYSO philosophies and methods are implemented, and player fun, learning, and community development is maximized.

No organization takes more seriously its responsibility to its community.  No organization does more to train our Palo Alto community volunteers, to enable them to safely run our local program with training such as Good Samaritan principles, and child supervision guidance with our Safe Haven program.  No organization surpasses the extraordinary efforts of AYSO to protect our Palo Alto children with extensive background checks of volunteers, and managing our children's experience with our KidsZone program.  

And no organization takes more strongly a mandate to balance and manage the inter-community balance of resources to better facilitate strong community development.  Striving for that balance makes it imperative that we work collectively with the communities that we interact with, and not just the immediately adjacent communities.

It is the last point that is most germain to field brokering in Palo Alto.  Palo Alto AYSO players are scheduled into 6 separate leagues each year, 4 of which interlock with different combinations of other cities; Pacific Coast Spring Soccer League (competitive), AYSO Extra (competitive), Spring Instructional Inter-City (Instructional), Madison League (Instructional)  Additionally, Palo Alto AYSO produces 4 Instructional tournaments a year and 1 tournament interlocked with other cities each year, all while maintaining field use balance with other communities.  And on top of this, Palo Alto AYSO teams travel to and participate in a palette of 12 tournaments, with each team selecting its own choices of tournaments from the palette, also to be taken into account in the scheduling (not to mention that the Mountain View, Menlo Park, et al, teams are doing likewise).  It is a monumental, Herculean scheduling task, as each Region, such as Mountain View, Menlo park, Sunnyvale, et al, each have their own team count, field resources, and choices of interlock and tournaments to schedule.  But the task is undertaken by our volunteers on behalf of each of our participating communities across the USA, to maintain balance between communities in that scheduling.  By balance between communities is meant that the fields each contributes to the pool is equal to the use of fields in other communities by each.  An example of this are the AYSO Area Tournaments at the end of the regular fall season.  Each region participating in the tournament takes on one division and produces that portion of the tournament.  Palo Alto produces the U14 Girls division, requiring us to host between 13 and 15 teams for the weekend.  But, we send out that same number of teams to the communities around us, as they host the other divisions of that tournament. 

This is key point #1.  AYSO schedules the use of Palo Alto fields in balance with the use of fields in other cities by Palo Alto teams, so that no one community is contributing more than its fair share.  If Palo Alto AYSO has 10 teams, it contributes 5 game slots to the scheduling pool.

This is key point #2.  AYSO schedules the use of fields so that there is week-to-week consistency in the use of the fields, and maintains the balance of use every week.  If Palo Alto AYSO is contributing 5 game slots to the scheduling pool, it is the same 5 slots every week.  This enables other users and the city to plan for use of the fields.

This is key point #3.  AYSO predicts accurately its field needs before the season starts, and is able to schedule near 100% utilization.  If it's 5 slots, we know it, book it, and use it.  Nothing overused, nothing wasted.

These three points add up to provide the best experience not only for our own players, but for the other Palo Alto users of fields, both brokered and non-brokered.  

Balanced, Predictable, Consistent, and Efficiently Utilized fields, means AYSO uses the smallest number of field slots possible for its number of players, and provides the most opportunity to other Palo Alto users, brokered and non-brokered, to plan and use fields.

So, regardless of the lack of City's policies on field use and brokering to achieve these highly desirable results, AYSO has taken extensive steps to ensure good husbandry of our community's resources.  In this regard, AYSO is well a well designed, well oiled, planning and execution machine, serving our community.

So, what is going wrong?

1) Build it and they will come
And, without controls they will come and come and come.  Much of the load on our fields is caused by user organizations, especially brokered user organizations, taking significant amounts of field slots for non-Palo Altan use.  And in the case of brokered user organizations, they are doing this on a priority, subsidized basis.  This non-Palo Altan use by brokered user organizations is the primary cause of actual over-crowding on our fields, and may account for more than a third of our actual load.
2) Take the most fields, we may need it
Some brokered user organizations of Palo Alto fields, after brokering, take another batch of field reservations.  They want to run extra practices (a full 50% more than brokered guideline), or hold many extra game slots in case CYSA assigns them more home slots than are justified by the number of teams.  And guess what? CYSA finds it increasingly easy to assign more than a fair share of games to clubs that are brokered in Palo Alto, without regard to balance and community, and pay no attention at all to consistency from week to week.  So, sadly, fields are wildly overbooked, and most such fields are returned to the city in dribbles all season long, unused, wasted.  Typically, the clubs desire to have 100% more slots booked than their absolute need, in case they need it.  This is the primary cause of apparent over-crowding on our fields, without actual over-crowding, but still having the same negative impact as actual over-crowding does, when other users are trying to plan and get space.

4) Palo Alto subsidizes brokered user organizations to bring non-Palo Altans to use Palo Alto fields
Not only is Palo Alto brokering these non-Palo Altan user organizations to have priority use, it's cheaper for those organizations to play in Palo Alto than elsewhere.  It is easier and cheaper for such brokered user organizations to not bother to try to get fields outside of Palo Alto.  And, they don't try.

5) Clubs, brokered users, are controlling the brokering
A scarce resource becomes a strategic weapon, if you can tie it up.  Clubs have an online brokering system of their own.  They consistently load it up with the Palo Alto fields that they excessively book, and then broker the fields themselves.  The city has yielded its management responsibility (perhaps unknowingly) to the club organizations.  Recently, AYSO has been invited by these club users to use that system, which I am declining.  It is not open and transparent, nor balanced across all users, and is not serving the Palo Alto community.  Rather, it is serving a special interest group.  To be sure, the City's online brokering system barely serves its purpose.  But if another system is to be used it must be controlled by the city, and open to public scrutiny and especially, open to all users to see what is being used by whom, and what is available.  As long as it is managed by a special interest group without public oversight, I will encourage Palo Alto AYSO not to participate.

Unfortunately, our city's policies and practices have enabled and even incentivized user organizations to sequester excessive inventory, creating an artificial shortage for the Palo Alto community at large.  If all the user organizations were required to be circumspect in their booking and use of Palo Alto fields, and to maintain balance in their booking of Palo Alto fields with fields from communities where their players come from, there would be abundant inventory for all Palo Altans.  And, if this were done well, our fields would earn more revenue for the city.

To summarize:
1) The current apparent lack of field inventory is artificially created by over-booking and low utilization
2) Brokered parties are sequestering more fields than they are entitled
3) Non Palo Alto players are being provided brokered fields, in large numbers, without quid pro quo from any other communities
4) Non Palo Alto players are being subsidized to play in Palo Alto, by Palo Alto
5) Fields are being sequestered in a non-transparent system, with availability hidden
6) Fields are being returned unused in large numbers as the season progresses, wasting opportunity for other users and revenue to the city

Discussion in the subcommittee is such that AYSO is to lose its open registration pre-brokering priority that it has been enjoying.  The motivation by the subcommittee is that other brokered user organizations are complaining of a shortage of number and quality of fields.  It is a travesty that the user organizations that create that problem through poor practices are succeeding in motivating the city to remove the favored brokering position of the one organization that season after season, executes outstanding husbandry of its fields.  It is a travesty that these wasteful brokered users will be rewarded with greater access to our community's fields, and provided even more opportunity to waste prime inventory with excessive booking and sequestering.  These parties are being guided by their own self-interest, and that interest does not align with Palo Alto community interests.

What is the answer?  How do we appropriately incentivize the right kind of behavior for our community?

We can't get to where we need to be, quickly, without causing harmful disruption to brokered users.  We need to define both where we need to be, and a step-wise get well plan to get to that state. The brokered users need time to adjust and learn new behaviors.  And I include both AYSO and the club brokered users in this statement.  All will be harmed if changes are wrought too quickly.

Where Do We Need To Be?
Let us begin by recognizing that the purpose of providing privileged access to Palo Alto fields through brokering is to facilitate planning by league organizations for Palo Alto players.  And, with that privilege, brokered users inherit certain responsibilities to husband the resources well, and ensure other brokered and non-brokered user organizations, and ad hoc Palo Alto users, can have predictable and easy access to fields.  Additionally, we want to maximize utilization of the fields.  We want to maximize revenue from the fields.  The interests of our community must be encapsulated in simple terms that are actionable.  The order of these items listed below is important, expressing precedence.  For example, #3 is lower in priority than #1, and cannot trump #1.  #1 does trump #3.

1) Maximum access by Palo Altans
2) Inclusive of all Palo Alto residents, youth and adult 
3) Encourage/Enable sports organizations to plan and flourish
4) Maximize utilization of fields in production
5) Maximize revenue
___________ What this means is.....

1) Maximum access by Palo Altans
- Brokered priority access to fields is to be provided on the basis of Palo Alto participants only.  That is to say that the amount of brokered access is determined by the number of Palo Alto participants in the use of the field (does not count observers and fans).
- Brokered user organizations must be limited in the total amount of inventory they can tie up, beyond brokering 
- Inventory must be maintained as open for ad hoc Palo Altan booking

2) Youth and adults are to be considered equally.  No priority is given for this distinction.  All Palo Altans actively engaged in the activity on the field are counted; players, coaches, referees.

3) Encourage/Enable sports organizations to plan and flourish
- A brokering system, administered by Parks and Recreation, openly and transparently, to provide sufficient access to fields for the leagues to plan for its teams
- Brokering that provides equal access for Palo Altans to the resources, taking into account both quality and quantity
- Brokering that provides access by category of field; artificial turf, full size grass, medium size grass, and small size grass
- Brokering complexes of fields to facilitate programs with high density, 80% or more Palo Alto participation

4) Maximize utilization of fields in production
- Consistency of use during season by brokered users
- Period of open booking for all open fields by any user (such as the last 3 weeks leading up to a slot's scheduled time)
- Booked field slots unused by a brokered user, must be returned 4 weeks in advance for the city to provide the field for open booking

5) Maximize revenue
- All brokered fields must be paid for in advance, and is non-refundable
- Field slots booked by brokered parties are sur-charged at the rate proportional to their non-Palo Alto participants, in the appropriate field category.  If a brokered user organization has 30% non-Palo Altans, they pay a rate of 1.3 times the Palo Alto rate.
- Field slots of a brokered user that are not used and not returned at least 4 weeks before the scheduled slot time, must be paid for again, compensating the city for not being able to offer the slot for open booking.

These principles lead to the following as a solution:
- brokering for Palo Alto residents using a round-robin, or like, method such that all brokered users have a turn at both quantity and quality
- priority of access in brokering method determined by number of Palo Alto players not yet accounted for in the brokering
- brokered users permitted to broker 110% of computed need, to provide for small perturbations during the season
- computed need = 2 practice slots per team and 1 game slot per two teams, where teams is calculated in each category of field size, taking into account the number of Palo Altan players in that category
- payment for brokered slots is due before the brokered period, to hold the brokered slots into the season
- any organization must be at least 40% Palo Altan to qualify for brokering, considered for each bracket
- any organization must have at least 30 Palo Alto players to qualify for brokering, considered for each bracket
- brokered user organizations pay a rate surcharge for non-brokered slots, commensurate to the percentage of non-Palo Alto residents in their organization, such that for each percent of non-Palo Alto residents, the brokered user organization pays a 1% surcharge on the base price of the slot, in addition to the price of the slot.  For example, if AYSO has 4% non-Palo Altans, then AYSO pays 1.04x the rate for the slot.
Non-Brokered Buffer
- a buffer of fields in each bracket is held for the brokered parties to book ad hoc
- the number of fields is equal to 20% of the fields left over after brokering
- buffering for field slots not booked  by a brokered user organization 3 weeks in advance of the slot time, is removed, and the slot may be booked by anyone
Publicly Available Fields
- fields not brokered are publicly available
- publicly available fields are reserved to be booked by Palo Alto residents until 4 weeks in advance of the slot time, and if booked during this time, may not be used by a brokered user organization
- brokered users may book publicly available fields starting 4 weeks before the slot time
- all users, including non-Palo Altan users, may book available fields starting 3 weeks before slot time

The above solution would ensure fairness of access for Palo Altans, brokered and non-brokered, provide for sports leagues to plan, incentivize brokered users to balance their use of Palo Alto fields with other sources of fields in accordance with the number of their non-Palo Altan players, incentivize consistent planning, and incentivize high utilization.  It will also provide maximum revenue to the city.

How Do We Get There?
As stated earlier, we can't just jump to this solution without severely disrupting the efficacy of the brokered organizations.  So, here is a step-wise approach to getting there from here.  This step-wise approach takes 2 years to complete, and introduces the following;

- This fall,
        - the brokering proceeds with the existing approach
     - AYSO takes precedence with its Open Registration
     - Brokering to clubs includes non-Palo Alto players
             - Brokering is done with a round-robin style (or like), for Palo Alto players first, then non-Palo Alto players afterward
        - brokered parties are limited to 10% overage on their brokered amount, according to their total player count
        - the city Park n Recreation establishes the buffer at a level of 75%
        - the surcharge rates go into effect and remain in effect for any slots not part of the Palo Altan portion of the brokering
        - the rules regarding field availability go into effect with regard to Publicly Available Fields 

- Next Spring
        - open registration is no longer considered in brokering, and AYSO joins the other brokered users for the round robin allocation
        - brokering is done in two steps, Palo Alto players first, then other players
        - brokering for non-Palo Alto players is reduced by 25%, and continues to reduce 25% per season until non-Palo Alto players are no longer included in the brokering
        - the buffer reduces by 15% per season until it reaches the target of 20% of fields left after brokering is done

Please consider this proposal carefully, along with the submission outlining a fair approach to round-robin brokering being submitted by the field managers.

Best Regards,
Gordon Short