Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Examining the USSF pyramid: The Second Tier

USSF series recap
- Tier 3: USL-Pro
- Tier 4: NPSL and PDL
Last time, on the third tier, we skirted the NASL en route to our breakdown of USL-Pro and its many, many roadblocks on the road to its ultimate incarnation. The main reason for those trip wires? You guessed it — the NASL and the defection of its owners. This is where we tie up our D2/D3 package with a bow and close this little chapter in our book. Last time we got the USL perspective. This time it's the boys from the TOA's turn.

To rehash: a breakaway group of owners disagreed with NuRock Holdings' appropriation of USL's pro league, so they left to re-form the NASL for themselves. So we already have the base, ground-level fact of why the NASL is. That's important. One other important thing to clear out of the way: other than the name and the cache it provides, there is no direct correlation between this league and the one the Cosmos more or less ran (then helped run into the ground) in the 70s and 80s. It was an obvious power play by a group of enterprising team owners, and in hindsight it worked. But why? And why is it that the NASL is our No. 2 league instead of the USL-run ones? Ask and ye shall receive… on a couple levels.

When the NuRock kerfuffle blew in 2009, it was the NASL group that came out with the upper hand in the matter. Their defection left USL1 with just three clubs, two of which wouldn't stick around to see the league become USL Pro. NASL owners had more technical know-how than NuRock, drafted a more cohesive plan and generally had a better handle on what they were doing. As the merged 2010 year came to a close, NASL did the only thing it could in such circumstances: it asked the USSF to confirm its league, and not USL Pro, as the official American second division. The petition, backed by an initial group of eight solvent clubs, was persuasive enough to convince the USSF to grant the NASL its second-tier status provided it met a brand new rigid set of Division 2 standards. Among the many benchmarks that, henceforth, every D2 league in this country will be required to meet, here are some highlights:

— Demographics are a big deal: 75 percent of the league's teams must play in metropolitan areas of at least 750,000. In the first year, the league needs to have teams in at least two time zones. That gets pushed up to three by its sixth year (2016 if the NASL stays afloat).

— Leagues must have a minimum of eight teams to qualify in its first year, and exponential growth is necessary: the league must have 10 teams by its third year (that's 2013 for NASL), then 12 teams by year six. Modest but firm.

— Team stadiums, always a sticky situation at lower levels, must reach a minimum capacity of 5,000. The team has to own at least a one-year lease no later than 120 days before the start of each season. The Cosmos are groaning audibly.

— The USSF is doing its best to provision for capable, monetarily sound ownership. This is straight from the bylaws: "Each team ownership must demonstrate the financial capacity to own the team for three years." The federation wants statements, financial history documents, team projections… the works. Nothing, it seems, will be in the shadows.

In 2010, IMSoccer News ran a four-part series in which it identified the three major pillars for improvement in any future D2 endeavor. They were: (1) A better vetting process, (2) running teams like small businesses instead of on future earning potential, and (3) adding teams, regionalizing divisions and reducing travel costs. The USSF has baked into its bylaws provisions for meeting the first two points, and the third can only come with time. We tend to get into more specifics — and one of the reasons why we haven't yet — at this level because it is more economically and socially viable to do so. There is more at stake the higher up the ladder you go — and, simply put, there's more economic and law-binding phraseology being thrown out here — and there need to be more answers at hand sooner. If the USSF is serious about developing a soccer infrastructure worth keeping at levels lower than MLS, it has to start at this tier and trickle down. In a sense, at this point with MLS' soluble problems down to small proportions, NASL is the federation's next pet project. And it should be. The sustained viability of a proper second tier is a big deal, and we're not there yet.

In the end, it has to be a bit Darwinian. There are few truly successful D2/D3 organizational models from which to draw (and even the ones that have been successful have hardly been replicable models for most franchises), so organizations must engage in a frightful, at times costly game of trial and error that will inevitably lead to a fair amount of collapse and reorganization. Thus it has been. Attracting handsome ownership to that kind of tempest can be a mixed bag. Until leagues can weather the loss of MLS-jumpers by replenishing with successful sides and keeping attrition low, the result is the infighting we've had. But the successful league that emerges from this firestorm with the char marks to prove it (and who knows, that may well be NASL) will be leaner, more adroitly run and be equipped to handle this new American market better than any lower-tier league in this country's history. It's hard to hear sometimes. This idea that we are still weeding out insolvent apples at this stage in the game is a little disheartening but unfortunately necessary. Barometers like these don't lie. We've got a ways to go yet. When you examine the inner workings of the thing, it casts an impossibly unfavorable light on those crowing for a relegation system. We're not even close.

As is, NASL appears to be blazing a tentatively successful path forward. As recently as late July, NASL posted a modest nine percent gain in attendance over the same period from 2011, though a large portion of the 21,000 or so of the league's attendees that weekend went to a single game in San Antonio. The league's expansion is encouraging (the NY Cosmos join in 2013 and the as-of-yet unnamed Ottawa franchise comes online in 2014), but only because if it didn't have 10 teams lined up by next season the league's own built-in bylaws would have penalized the league severely. There is an awful lot of expectation being heaped on the Cosmos, and it will undoubtedly lend some legitimacy to the league's ledger, but how much? Obscenely optimistic chairman Seamus O'Brien predicted last month the Cosmos would average 15,000 per game in its first season, which he conceded was a modest estimate by his standards. In James M. Shuart Stadium, the widely rumored home for the Cosmos' first season, 15,000 is a sell-out. In Hempstead. Good luck with that. 

And that's only half snark.

- Will Parchman


WilkersonMclaser said...

You may have already touched on this, but will you be able to do a follow-up on these (fantastic) explorations of the American soccer pyramid?

There's a business conversation that ought to happen about why Div 2-3 soccer isn't catching on the way it ought to and how to rectify it. No, The Richmond Kickers will never bring out 30k per game, but even small markets (as RSL proves) can do 15-20k with the right marketing. The key is to get people to take lower div teams more seriously. I expect names like "Kickers" don't help. Then again, "Real" Salt Lake still gives me the guffaws.

ajwatt said...

Here is a link to the IMS four part series: