(by Jack Williams theguardian.com 2-10-16)
The 2016 season will see a number of changes in the makeup of American soccer’s second-tier, the North American Soccer League. Over the coming months, two new franchises will be introduced, before a third is added in the fall section of a two-part season. The off-season, though, has also seen two teams jump ship, with another of its franchises, Minnesota United, set to move to Major League Soccer, in 2018.
First, the departees.
The first team to opt out were the San Antonio Scorpions, who, in December, announced the sale of their stadium, Toyota Field, as well as its accompanying soccer complex. In a business model that was unique in American sports, the Scorpions’ owner, Gordon Hartman, gave profits from the club's operations to a special needs theme park inspired by his daughter, Morgan. The sale of the facilities funded his cause – as did a reported $3m donation from Spurs Sports and Entertainment. But led by Spurs Sports and Entertainment’s MLS intentions, it was announced that the group would be leasing the facilities to join the MLS-affiliated United Soccer League, America’s third-tier, rather than keep a team in the NASL.
“Where we need to get to as a league – and we are pretty close – is where owners may come and go, but clubs stay,” Bill Peterson, the commissioner of the NASL, told the Guardian. “And that’s what this country needs. You’re the steward of a team, you are not the owner of a team. That’s where the sport comes from.”
The Atlanta Silverbacks, who had been with the league since its inaugural season in 2011, would leave for entirely different reasons, but also left a supporters group void of professional soccer. Last season the team were operated by the league while it searched for an ownership group committed to the Silverbacks’ long-term future. With no ownership group meeting the league’s standards – and potential investors perhaps being deterred by the city’s new MLS franchise, which has already surpassed 20,000 season ticket subscriptions for the 2018 season – it was announced last month that the team had suspended operations. Despite this setback, the NASL has said that it still sees Atlanta as a market for the league.
“We are not going to leave a city we are in currently and close the door completely, because all of the cities we are in, we believe in them and we believe we can be successful,” Peterson said. “As far as owners’ aspiring to be in the top division: all of our owners, I think, aspire to be in the top division. When you get up in the morning, I don’t know anyone in sports that wakes up and says I want to be second best today; you want to be the first on the field, off the field; you always are striving to do the best you can do in what we do.”
When it comes to the newcomers, perhaps the most noticeable aspect about all three is the variety of backgrounds each of the ownership groups has. Miami FC, for example, entering that market ahead of David Beckham's planned MLS franchise, is a team owned by entrepreneur Riccardo Silva and retired Italian international Paolo Maldini. Having a name like Maldini associated with the league is seen as a major coup, Peterson said. And Maldini has also installed another well-known Italian defender in Alessandro Nesta, who will coach the side when it enters the league in April.
There’s a rather European feel about Oklahoma’s new franchise, too – helped partly by the its name, which is a moniker that La Liga fans will certainly recognize. Rayo OKC’s ownership group is made up of Oklahoma native Sean Jones and majority stakeholder Raul Presa, the owner of Rayo Vallecano of Spain. The NASL has been interested in the Oklahoma market for a number of years. But after a potential investor pulled out to help fund a ULS franchise, the Oklahoma Energy, those who remained committed to the NASL were left to searching for alternatives. Having reached the agreement with Rayo’s owners - whose intentions seem geared towards brand-building rather than player development, given that no Rayo players have moved stateside just yet - the club is hurriedly putting together a roster capable of competing come the spring.
Unlike Miami and Oklahoma, there will be no rush on the roster front for the league’s final new franchise, Puerto Rico FC, as it is set to join the NASL in the fall of 2016. Puerto Rico will be representing a market that was previously occupied by the NASL - only for its team, the Puerto Rico Islanders, to suspend operations after two seasons, in 2012, due to low attendance numbers and a lack of adequate funding. It is hoped that that the island’s new team will be able to build momentum off the back of its high profile owner, Carmelo Anthony. The New York Knicks star is an avid soccer fan. Having used his foundation to successfully refurbish basketball courts on the island, he announced in June that he hopes to restore soccer’s infrastructure on the island, too. The league hopes Anthony’s team will give them a foothold in the Caribbean and other North American regions.
“For a league that’s now starting its sixth year, to have people like Maldini, and Rayo, and Nesta, and Carmelo Anthony involved in a league that is this young, we’re not learning through trial and error,” Peterson said. “We have people on board as owners – and coaches, in relation to Nesta – who have been at the highest levels of the game. They understand how to structure a club, top to bottom, on the field and off the field. And what that’s going to allow us to do is ramp up much quicker than maybe if we had a league of people who were still trying to figure out the sport.”
Moving forward, Peterson said, the league intends to remain tight-lipped about the markets it is looking into. The goal is for the 12-team NASL to eventually become a 20-team league. Over the past few seasons, the NASL has frozen its entrance fees at a figure in the “single digit millions” as a way to entice investors away from $100m-plus reported figures of MLS expansion fees. Peterson would admit that interest in the league has been “organic out west”; growing in the midwest; and that “there’s always interest in the east.” In the near future he hopes to announce at least one west coast team - “we may be putting two or three there” - and when they are left with a final three or four slots to fill, the conversation will move from “what market is there interest from?” to “what markets are we still interested in?”
“We have kept the price the same for a long time, very simply because our owners aren’t looking for money from new people coming in; they want them to invest money in their clubs,” Peterson said. “There are owners who understand what this takes. They’ve got a long view on it, and they’re not greedy. It’s about where we end up in five, 10, 15 years - not where we are today.”
Finally, when asked about where such changes in participating franchises leaves the league’s reputation - particularly seeing another team leaving for the MLS, and some, as in San Antonio, preferring a MLS-associated league - Peterson said that the league is only focused on continuing to grow attendance, quality of play and the number of teams. Rivalries with other leagues are healthy, he added. And despite the talk last season of promotion and relegation being on the agenda - a concept Peterson supports - the NASL has made no contact with other leagues – it is something they would look into internally and much further into the future. Peterson admits that having such a closed system is one of the key factors why the six-year-old league has seen so many movements this season.
“It’s America, so there’s freedom of choice; people can do what they want to do.” Peterson said. “The movement has always been expected. A lot of it can be chopped up to the fact that it’s a closed system, so teams can’t move up or move down, depending on the situation they are in with their ownership or performance on the field. So you put the teams in a bind by not having options on the go forward, and that’s caused some of the issue that we have, and it’s also something that’s been common with every league that’s ever started up in this country.”