There are two elephants in the room. Two obstacles that the recently resuscitated North American Soccer League has to maneuver around without ignoring, angering or otherwise irking them. The first is Major League Soccer, comfortably the most successful professional soccer league in the history of the United States and Canada. The other is the NASL itself. The previous incarnation of it, that is, which folded amid financial ruin in 1984, only to be re-launched in 2011.
Three years in, things are going pretty well for the upstart league. It claims attendance was up some 30 percent this year, to somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 per game. The New York Cosmos made their long-anticipated return in the fall season, which they won comfortably before lifting the Soccer Bowl, adding gravitas and attention.
And so the NASL has expansion on its mind, after two seasons in which it lost and gained a team. Next year, it will grow from eight to 11, one of whom, Indy Eleven, has already sold out the 7,000 season tickets on offer. But here’s where the ghost of the old NASL haunts the new. Some three decades ago, it had expanded far too quickly, bringing in shaky ownerships and uninterested markets. When attendance fell off, the bubble burst.
“Everyone remembers what happened and everyone watched other leagues in soccer and other sports fumble this one,” NASL commissioner Bill Peterson tells FOX Soccer. “The policy is to take it slow and steady and at the end of the day make sure we have the right owners in the right cities that will ensure long-term growth. We’re optimistic, but also being cautious and trying not to overlook things or make mistakes.”
Peterson explains that new ownerships are carefully vetted. “The advantage we have is that we’re decentralized and our owners come on board realizing that they’re responsible for all aspects of the club,” he says. Yet the league will add another two to four teams in 2015, meaning it could potentially have almost doubled from eight to 15 in just two years. The trick, then, is to grow quickly enough to develop a critical mass, but not so quick that the whole thing overheats and fizzles out.
Now, to that other elephant: MLS. The NASL was sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation as the second division in professional soccer, even if no promotion, relegation or cross-over of any other kind exists. Yet the league’s ambitions are hardly befitting of a lower tier. “We have no interest in being a minor league system,” says Peterson. “Our goal in life is to create an exciting and competitive soccer league that is based on winning. I don’t think they’re sitting around in Indianapolis going, ‘Let’s see who NASL can develop for another league.’ They want their own team.”
The designation isn’t problematic just yet. “Nothing about that sanction limits our ability to do what we want to do,” says Peterson. “If we accomplish all of our goals, there will be a time to discuss that and if we don’t, we’ll have the most successful second division league ever.”
Ultimately, the NASL believes there are enough serious soccer fans in this country to support two professional leagues, even if both eventually grow to two dozen or so teams – MLS, now at 19, plans to go to 24 by 2020.
In that equation, the NASL has positioned itself as the anti-MLS, with its steep, high-eight figure expansion fees, byzantine regulations, complex roster limitations, salary caps and allocation funds. Entry for new owners is cheap and the business model simple and modest, meaning the league isn’t dependent on income from expansion fees and national broadcast deals, which are low and non-existent, respectively.
“We’re building this league on the premise that you can run it and break even with your sponsorship, ticket sales and your local broadcasts,” says Peterson. “If you achieve that; and we’re on path to do that — we have teams that are beyond break-even, we have others that are very close — then you don’t need to do those deals and therefore we’re free to be patient and do the deals that make the most sense for us. At some point, obviously, we’d like to prove that we’re worth those types of deals but we don’t have to for existence.”
The idea is for every club to be largely unregulated and entirely self-sustaining, rather than being subservient to the larger entity. That’s antithetical to the MLS model, but nevertheless the way things are done the world over. And Peterson believes it gives the NASL the best chance of survival. “Soccer is a global game,” he says. “And those guys [MLS] have been successful in building a domestic league. But we look at the sport differently. It’s a global market place, there’s a global soccer economy. In order to enter into that economy, you have to look and feel like that economy.
Still, Peterson is coy when asked if he sees MLS as a rival business. “We’re not competing with MLS,” he says. “We’re competing with ourselves to be competitive and to be relevant to as many fans as we possibly we can be. What they do doesn’t really affect what we do and vice versa. It’s not a competition.”
This argument largely holds up. NASL has moved into different markets than MLS has. Until last fall anyway, when the Cosmos landed in New York, where the league’s most ambitious club unabashedly operates in direct competition with the New Jersey-based, 18-year-old New York Red Bulls.
But that’s not quite how the NASL sees it. “Well, we were there first, weren’t we?” says Peterson. “Maybe they are competing with us for New York. Because we put a team in New York; they had one in New Jersey. And now they’re going to put one [New York City FC] in New York [in 2015].”
There, Peterson concedes, the supposed second division club rides in open rebellion against the so-called first division. “It’s healthy competition,” he says. “We’re not afraid to compete. We’d love to compete with them on the field, we’d love to compete with them for hearts and minds, and New York City is the type of market and a large enough market where that could happen. I do believe that healthy competition will bring more attention and attract more people to U.S. based professional soccer. We’re based on competition. We want to compete.”
If both leagues continue to be successful, continue to grow, that competition will play out in more markets than one, at increasingly higher stakes.