Rethinking Division-2 Pro Soccer in North America – Part 3
Adding teams, regionalizing divisions and reducing travel costs
In most countries around the world the growth of soccer has been much more organic than it has in the US. As the sport grew world wide, teams formed with the need for competitive games. As more and more clubs were formed the most organized and successful clubs rose to the top. For many countries one hundred years or more of growth, along with smaller geographical areas, has caused the many-tiered systems where teams are promoted and relegated.
At the top levels in North America we’ve faced a much bigger challenge. The combination of an expansive area between Canada and the US and a sport that has only recently become more popular has meant the growth of pro soccer would have to be more strategic. The North American Soccer League was briefly successful in the 70’s, but poor planning caused the league to fold in the early 80’s. Major League Soccer learned their lesson from the NASL and seemed to have gotten it right, choosing slow growth with major market cities and more recently plucking successful teams from Division 2. They also went about finding the right owners who have bought into a league that is a single-entity structure. One where teams are controlled by the league in order to keep costs under control.
MLS also started Soccer United Marketing (SUM) which many say is the reason the league continues to have success since most teams still are not making a profit. No matter what the formula, Commissioner Don Garber is widely believed to be responsible for the success of the league and has been referred to as the David Stern of MLS.
While MLS seems to be on its way to success with a master plan, the second division of soccer has seemed more like an experiment that has not gone well.
In the 80’s and after the NASL exposed many new fans to the game, youth soccer exploded in North America. Francisco Marcos started the Southwest Indoor Soccer League (SISL) in 1986 which become an outdoor league the following year. Eventually his organization was called the United Soccer Leagues. He built the league to include three levels of senior men’s play, the first national women’s league (W-League), and the first competitive North American system of youth leagues (Super Y-League). In 1997, the American Professional Soccer League (A-League) was merged with the USISL to create a nationwide pyramid structure. During the course of twenty years the A-League and the USISL, and now USL have been vitally important to the growth of soccer. Many former and current MLS pros and US National Team players spent their early years in the USL system.
As important as the USL has been to the growth of soccer in North America it’s still had far too many teams fail at the D2 level. The league has seen 39 teams come and go and has a 75% rate of failure. Some have lauded the USL’s franchise system and claimed it has allowed the league to stay solvent while teams languished and died. But others have criticized that same franchise system. In fact, even Sunil Gulati seemed to refer to that system in his January press conference concerning 2nd division soccer: “We can’t have this constant issue that bedevils a number of sports,” said a stern Gulati. “That the offseason is spent primarily to make sure that you can come back the following season. That you’re looking for expansion teams not because it makes long-term sense to build the game and the league, but because you need an expansion fee.”
The USL, who in recent years had been owned by Umbro via their parent company Nike, was sold to NuRock Soccer Holdings late last August. NuRock Holdings, based in Atlanta, is led by Rob Hoskins and Alec Papadakis.
While the organization will continue to run as a franchise system, Papadakis, has made statements that their new ownership groups would be more responsive to owners within the 2nd division. This was a complaint of the breakaway owners group that called themselves the Team Owners Association (TOA) and eventually took on the name NASL.
In researching this article nearly everyone I spoke to shared a common idea concerning the second tier of soccer in North America: Regionalizing divisions and reducing travel costs.
Andrew Bell has been with the Charleston Battery since 1999 where he’s held almost every position within the organization and was named president of the club in 2009. Bell explains that when the Team Owners Association formed and when it was clear that there was going to potentially be a break-off between the two leagues that they would drop down a division to USL-2 (3rd division).
“We decided from the outset that we wouldn’t be a part of that,” said Bell from his office in Charleston, South Carolina. “We have felt for a long time that lower division soccer in the United States should be arranged regionally. Having competed in a league that gradually became national and had a national footprint and personally having visited every single one of the USL-1 facilities over the years it was pretty clear that in the majority of cases the number of fans attending the games isn’t enough to justify the travel costs.”
“We’ve long been proponents of regional leagues,” continued Bell. “Looking at the options for 2010 we decided that USL-2 (division 3 soccer) presented not only the best short term fix for us but also the best chance for long term stability for the Battery.”
USL-2 has only 6 teams this year but they are all located on the East Coast with the longest trip being about 650 miles from Charleston to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Riverhounds).
Charleston’s attendance has averaged 3,600 this season which Bell says is on a par of what they’ve experienced the last few years. “The Battery has been playing since 1993 in what would now be called a PDL league,” explained Bell. “We joined the A-League in 1997 and spent 12 years in that league. We watched that league change from a regional league with 32 teams in 1997 to a league that had 9 teams in 2009. The number of owners that have come and gone over the years has been absolutely catastrophic for the sport. We are fortunate in that our ownership group has been consistent since day one. We may be the only team that has that stability. The financial pressures involved in competing in USL-1 were tremendous and are the root cause of a lot of the churn.”
Those 32 teams that Bell referred to played in a league with two conferences and 4 divisions: Northeast, Atlantic, Central and Pacific. A model that he and others feel Division 2 soccer should go back to in order to save money on travel expenses.
Bell could envision 2 divisions on the East Coast, a Central division and a West Coast division and he says it’s not out of the bounds of possibility for a Caribbean division.
“We are only interested in the sport growing across the United States,” stated Bell. “We are one hundred percent supportive of MLS and the US National Team. We want to be involved and do our part to develop players and to allow the soccer footprint to be as large as possible in the US.”
Bell says moving to an all East Coast D-3 league means the Battery have been able to eliminate all air travel and some other costs that are incurred as well. The team now takes all their trips by bus and often will turn around and take the bus back home immediately after the game instead of staying the night in a hotel. “In my estimation it would cost about $200 thousand for travel costs this year in the USSF D2 Pro League where it will run us between thirty- and forty-thousand dollars to travel this year in USL-2.”
There’s another added benefit to playing in a regional division: traveling fans and more intense rivalries. “We have definitely seen that,” said Bell. “Not to say we didn’t have good rivalries with the Rhinos and believe it or not, Puerto Rico, but it’s been refreshing to get back to some of these teams that were with us in the early days like Charlotte and Richmond. They were both around in 1993 when we started. The first game of the season we were at Charlotte and had close to 100 fans show up for the game. It’s only a two and half hour drive, but still, it’s doable and not like traveling to Vancouver for a game.”
Eddie Rock, a licensed player agent at Libero Sports, agrees with Bell. “I think it has to be regionalized,” said Rock. “If you look at the geographic sphere of the 2nd Division, it’s bigger than all of Europe. When you have teams like Puerto Rico traveling to Vancouver and the costs associated with a flight like that along with other travel expenses and hotels… I think long term, that’s actually taking away from players salaries as much as anything else. When the costs are so expense and when there isn’t a national TV audience it only makes sense to regionalize 2nd and 3rd division soccer in North America.”
Rock feels that the USL is looking to move back to those days of regionalized divisions: “I really believe that USL is moving in the direction of regionalized leagues. I’ve seen some comments from some officials that would lead me to believe that. Also, they have announced a team in Antigua, and you’ve got Puerto Rico and Bermuda. I could easily see them having a Southern and Caribbean conference next year. They already have one on the East Coast (USL-2). They could easily put together another 3rd conference on the West Coast.”
In fact, in an interview with IMS last March, Tim Holt, President of the USL, announced that the league would be expanding USL-2 to the West Coast. Holt said: “USL-2 is a very important league within our structure and the one which has the most immediate growth opportunity. We will be expanding USL-2 to form a Western Conference for 2011, which will be comprised of some current PDL teams and expansion teams. At this base level of professional soccer, maintaining regional competition and controlling expenses is imperative so there will not be teams traveling coast-to-coast with any regularity except for the post-season.”
Rock says looking at the big picture and the future of Division-2 soccer, he’s not sure if teams would move up to D-2 or down to D-3. He feels that it’s dependent on several factors. He believes that will be up to US Soccer and who they award the sanctioning to for the 2nd division in 2011 and what teams jump online with the league.
“If you look at a team like the Charleston Battery who dropped down to USL-2 (D3) this past year, they still pay as well if not better than some of the teams that are playing in the USSF D-2 this year,” states Rock. “I think it all depends on the level of commitment from owners and who can bring in fans and can put a good budget together because ultimately we have seen so many teams – 2nd and 3rd division teams – come into the leagues and die in this country.”
Rock says he believes there would even be possible TV interest in regional divisions that wouldn’t happen at a national level. “If you had a Midwest league with teams like Minnesota, Milwaukee, Madison, Des Moines, you could travel to any one of those markets,” said Rock. Maybe with the regionalization of the sports networks you could put together a package that would be something that would be a lot more attractive to a local Fox Sports Net than a national carrier.”
Adding teams and regionalizing divisions may seem like a great idea but the execution will take time and some teams that are already successful at lower levels will need convincing that it’s worth their while to jump up one or two levels. They will also need the assurance that the right things are in place to make that venture successful.
Todd Meiners is the General Manager of the Des Moines Menace, a USL-PDL team that draws over 3,500 fans per game, better than many D2 teams. Meiners said they think about moving up to D-2 almost every day. However, the organization doesn’t believe the timing is right or that the correct things are in place at this time to convince them to make the move.
“Now is not the right time and it’s not the right circumstance,” said Meiners. “We would need a lot of assurances and a product that would draw bigger crowds.” He explains that his team already draws well fielding an amateur side they don’t have to pay.
So what would lure the Menace to D2? Meiners says the team tried to build a soccer-specific stadium (SSS) about 5 years ago but that fell through. He says a SSS appropriate for the Des Moines area would be one of the things that would be important to moving up a level. Also, the Menace would need the right things in place to draw enough fans to make up for the salaries of a paid team.
“We know MLS isn’t a possibility in Des Moines,” said Meiners. “If we were to make that move (D2) we would need attendances to be closer to 6 to 8 thousand per game. Regional leagues are a good idea as long as it’s competitive and the teams are of the same caliber. We would need to know that each club is actively pursuing soccer with the same marketing philosophy that we are in Des Moines.”
And how do they approach their team’s financial objectives? “Like a small business,” says Meiner. “Kyle Krause, the owner of the team, is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Kum & Go, L.C. and he owns over 400 stores. Our team office is located right in the headquarters for Kum & Go and everything is run in the same fiscally responsible way.” Even the team’s website boasts that Krause “has applied his company’s 50-year-old business approach to the Menace.”
Meiners says the idea of a strong regional conference is alluring and he loved what was happening between Portland, Seattle and Vancouver when they were all in USL-1. He says he believes MLS will be stronger when those three teams all make the move. But the Menace GM believes that most important is the assurance that other teams are building their markets and that the teams and the league will be around for a long time. “With the right amount of things in place we might be willing to make the move,” said Meiners.
But not everyone sees the benefits of entirely regionalizing divisions. Rob Clark, owner of the Rochester Rhinos, states he’s not a believer in completely regionalizing. Clark, who switched his alliance last fall and from the USL to the NASL, believes there should be at least 3 local markets in each region.
“I think our fans really like and enjoy the fact that we’re playing a team from Minnesota and that we are on a national stage,” said Clark. “I think when you go totally regional it diminishes what you look like, so to speak. I don’t know for sure if that’s true but that’s my belief. I think you can regionalize it within reason but our fans do really enjoy playing a team from Portland, Oregon or Vancouver or Puerto Rico. I think it brings something to the table that this is a legitimate league.”
But when talking to members from teams in both the USL and NASL, the idea of regionalized divisions seemed to not necessarily run along alliances but more what each team felt was best for their organization and their particular market.
Djorn Buchholz, CEO for the Austin Aztex, currently with the USL, is not opposed to regionalized divisions, but wonders who the Aztex would play. Currently, the closest team to Austin is AC St. Louis which is nearly 900 miles away.
Even though regionalization seems to make sense there are definite obstacles. Where do you come up with 24-teams which seem like a minimum amount for four divisions with 6 teams per division? As if there aren’t enough problems at the current time finding qualified owners playing in appropriate stadiums and marketing correctly this would be no small task. Several solutions could be possible.
1) For now, drop D-2 teams down to D-3 and move some PDL teams up to D-3. A certain amount of those teams will rise to the top and eventually a new D-2 league could be started when the teams are ready and the timing is right.
2) Another scenario would be to move D-3 teams up to D-2 and add a few successful PDL teams as well. But getting those teams to comply with the new USSF standards might be difficult. However, this could be the best solution for now.
3) Keep the status quo for now and continue to recruit new owners and teams that fit the D-2 market with the plan to create 4 or 5 divisions with 6-8 teams a piece. However, this could not be done as randomly as it seems both the NASL and USL are currently going about it. Teams would need to be created strategically in cities that are appropriate for both the league and for the division.
No matter what the solution, the process cannot be rushed. It will take time to identify the right owners, start teams the right way or bring teams up from lower levels and help them along to be successful.
Tomorrow, Part-4 – What’s next for Division 2