football gave Jonny Sinclair many things: joy, a goal in life, a wife and children.
But when he set off in search of a competitive club for his 8-year-old son, football gave Sinclair something else: insight into the increasingly expensive arms race that is now the game of youth. American.
Sinclair comes alive when he talks about his favorite sport. The son of a Royal Air Force pilot, he grew up on military bases in Germany and England. Soccer has helped him make friends, be active and have fun. This earned him a ticket to the United States at the age of 22, as a staff coach for the New York/New Jersey MetroStars summer camps.
He intended to stay two months. But an offer to become coaching director for a small club in Elmira, New York, turned into a nine-year assignment. Sinclair became involved in the Olympic development program and rose through the coaching ranks.
In 2014, with a young family, he swapped his paperweight for the more secure profession of life insurance. He found a job in Charlotte, North Carolina, and — when no other volunteers stepped in — began coaching his eldest son in a YMCA recreational program.
The core of the team was very good. By 2019, many had passed the level of play. Sinclair told parents he would contact clubs in the area to find the best next step for them.
“There was nothing close to affordable,” he says. “They were all in the $800 to $1,000 per year range.” To his surprise, that was it: recreational or expensive football, with nothing in between.
So Sinclair started his own club. The cost to play: zero.
He wanted his teams – the Matthews Mavericks – to be competitive. But he didn’t want to replicate the competitive club model. There would be two seasons, spring and fall, with one training night per week on Mondays. Fridays were reserved for “pickup football”. Matches were played on weekends.
The Matthews Mavericks made their full-level debut two years ago.
Pickup games are Sinclair’s particular pride. He drops a bag of balls, bibs and cones and tells the kids, “Go play.” For two hours, they do just that: World Cup, 1v1; 11-v-11. Leaders emerge; skills are honed – all without coaches.
The Mavericks are free because Sinclair and his wife, Alice, art teacher, watch the costs closely. Players wear a basic practice t-shirt; match shirts and shorts are purchased in clearance online. “Kids don’t need a $300 uniform, they’ll outgrow them in a year,” Sinclair notes. “These are fees on top of what it costs to play. They could exclude families from the game.”
The three boys’ teams and three girls’ teams share the same training ground. “We don’t need to pay for six separate fields. We wouldn’t use all that space anyway,” he says.
Cost awareness is essential. “Whenever we can make a sensible spending decision, we do.” This includes limiting the number of tournaments, especially those away from Charlotte.
The biggest expenses are court rentals, league fees, referees and insurance. The funding comes from a local couple whose grandchildren play in the club (their Business acquisition and merger partners logo is on the jerseys), an Atlanta foundation, sponsorand other donations.
At one of the Matthews Mavericks recreation program pickup nights, Jonny Sinclair realized that the players represented 15 different nationalities between their different heritages.
If individual teams want additional training, the Mavericks provide it. This cost is the responsibility of the parents. A scholarship fund covers those who can’t afford it – no questions asked. “We don’t ask for financial forms,” Sinclair pointedly states.
The founder knows that his model is not scalable much beyond the current six teams. Again, he’s not trying to create a super club. He just wants to give young people the opportunity to play football with friends, be inspired to improve on their own and develop a lifelong love of football. And Sinclair is clear: “It won’t tick all the boxes for all parents.”
His model was not adopted by many league and club administrators. He looked for a league to join. There was always bureaucracy. Eventually, the Carolina Champions League accepted them. Sinclair calls their flexibility with the dual roster “a key reason why we’ve even been halfway successful.”
The Mavericks have certainly succeeded. Teams win half or more of their matches, often to the surprise of their opponents. In their first season, the U-10s won every game.
Maverick players, meanwhile, revel in their underdog status. “Once you cross the white line, it’s an even playing field,” Sinclair says. “It’s not just the more you pay, the better the club is.”
Some players outgrow the Mavericks. When they do, Sinclair helps them find another club that suits them best. He proudly portrays a U-13 boy who has recently joined the Charlotte FC academy programme.
But for most of the Matthews Mavericks, their middle status – beyond recreation, but without the pressures and costs of a highly competitive club – is perfect.
Sinclair says, “My goal is not to be the best club in North Carolina. It’s to create an environment where when those kids are 40, they’re still playing and loving the game.
“I can’t imagine my life if I had been overrated by football when I was a boy. Football has been the greatest joy of my life. I’m glad I can devote as much time as possible to it.”
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(For more on Jonny Sinclair’s club: www.matthewsmavericks.com)