-A recap of rumors and events affecting the USL-
(Missed part I – click here)
Atlanta packs it up
In the week leading up to the USL AGMs, the Atlanta Silverbacks decided not to participate in the USL-1 2009 season citing the economy amongst other things. Most felt it was more likely the fact that another owners group came in and singled Atlanta out as a candidate for an MLS team and made an expansion bid. Even though there were some folks from the Atlanta area who said they expected this move, I still think it caught USL off guard. There was also a rumor that the Cleveland City Stars of USL-2 who won that league championship, would move up to USL-1 to replace the Silverbacks. This was confirmed by Jeff Di Veronica who wrote in his blog for the Rochester, New York, Democrat and Chronicle, that he is standing by his word, that Cleveland is in, based on his interview of USL president Tim Holt on the Sunday evening following the AGMs. Martin Rennie, former coach of the Cleveland City Stars, who accepted the job as head coach of the Railhawks the week before the AGMs, was reportedly surprised when he heard Cleveland was going to move up. Rennie had a great relationship with the organization and the city of Cleveland. Had he known they were moving up to USL-1, it is likely Rennie would have stayed on with Cleveland.
Banner year for USL
What’s interesting to me, amongst all this turmoil, is the instability of the league organization at a time when USL may have assembled the finest group of players in league history. Parity was evident in the 08 season as the 3rd through the 7th place teams finished the season with only 3 points separating them. The Puerto Rico Islanders finished first in the league with very solid play on the field as well as top notch coaching in Colin Clark. Arguably, the Islanders had a bench as deep as any MLS team and this was proven out in a grueling schedule that saw them playing a series of USL and CONCACAF Champions League games while remaining successful in both. Puerto Rico, like Montreal, had better success in the Champions League than did most MLS teams. Vancouver finished second in the league and won the USL title game. The Whitecaps were also a very strong team in 08. The Charleston Battery had a great U.S. Open Cup run and played so well in the final against DC United that they could have just as easily beaten or drawn United, even though they lost 2-1 at RFK Stadium, where they forced DC United to defend until the dying moments of the game.
USL and MLS
There is no doubt the USL is at a crucial point in its history. They need to figure out what direction they want to be headed in, and that may be part of the quandary for USL and it’s owners. Should the league try to compete directly with MLS and then possibly be absorbed into the league similar to the alternative leagues that have done this in other American sports, like the old American Basketball Association? Another scenario would be to work with MLS to create teams that partner with each other. This scenario was tried before without much success. MLS would send a player down to their USL partner and then want the player to get some games in. This would be disruptive to team chemistry and then the same player might suddenly be pulled back up to MLS, which would be particularly disruptive at the end of the season. This may work well when an MLS team owns the second tier team and doesn’t really care about their wins and losses but more about player development. This would be very much a scenario like AAA and AA baseball teams that are owned by a Major League Baseball team. In the case of the USL, they too are struggling in the sports entertainment market and competing directly against MLS. Putting a quality and consistent product on the field is essential to the teams’ financial success. So, some newer and more innovative models would have to be presented for the two leagues to work together. The last scenario would be to continue the league as it is, understanding that the larger cities will eventually get MLS teams, leaving the smaller sports markets to USL?
Transparency and retooling USL
Nearly two weeks have passed since the start of the USL meetings and still there is no word from the USL administration, namely president TIm Holt. Di Veronica is saying Cleveland will have a press conference on Thursday to make the announcement of the team moving up to USL-1. The Thunder will also be having a press conference on Thursday announcing a new PDL team to play in Rochester MN, 1.25 hours south of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. If not for these press conferences we’d have nothing. Holt could have used the announcement of MLS dismantling the reserve teams to spin this to the media. USL already pays their players more than most MLS reserve players make and these players are actually playing in a league that means something, therefore improving their quality of play week in and week out. Why not talk about that with the media? A press conference might not be necessary, but at least one major media guy was could be given a scoop along with the story of why the disbanding of the MLS reserve team is a another victory for USL. These are the things a good media person representing the league needs to do. When Montreal announced it dropped out of the attempt to acquire an MLS franchise race, this was again an ideal time for USL to step up and take the spotlight away from MLS, but again, we were let down.
Let me spell this out plain and simple. USL needs a face lift–not on the field–the league has done an outstanding job of growing quality on the field as already pointed out in this article. However, they need to retool from a marketing standpoint. Their logo looks like a youth soccer club logo. Take a look at the USL website, then look at the MLS website. The MLS site makes it easy to find things and there are lots of interactive items including blogs and feature stories about players and teams. These things cost money and USL doesn’t have the same sort of cash that MLS has from their marketing company, Soccer United Marketing (SUM). MLS loses money each year but SUM makes money for the franchise owners. I know USL’s pockets are not as deep, but you need to spend money to make money. If the league doesn’t invest in their website technology and the way it’s distributing information to the media and fans throughout the US, then the league may not survive as MLS tries to tap into all the soccer markets in the US.
Perhaps I’m being a bit tough on Tim Holt. From what I understand, Holt has done a fine job of administering things with the USL and in that regard the organization is in good shape. Perhaps USL needs to rethink the equation and look at other sports leagues in this country to see what they’ve done to become successful. One of the ways this might be accomplished is by appointing a commissioner of USL-1. Just like Don Garber, this individual would create a persona that exemplifies USL’s top tier of teams. He would deal with much of the media for USL -1 and be the league spokesperson, making sure the USL gospel is spread far and wide. He would also be there for the league owners and not have to concern himself with duties involving the women’s league or the youth leagues of USL. The commissioner’s job would also include being a liaison for the team owners to the league administration. Love him or hate him, everyone who followed the NBA knew who David Stern was. In MLS, it’s Don Garber. I think it’s time the USL hire a Don Garber of their own.
One of the seminars that was held at the USL AGMs was called, Attracting Local Media Coverage. If USL really wants to attract media coverage and respect from the US Soccer fan, perhaps it should take a lesson from itself. When I was growing up, my father would occasionally tell me about the perils of smoking. He was a pack-a-day smoker for years. He sometimes would say to me, “Do as I say, not as I do.” I loved my dad dearly and he was a very good man, but even as I a child I knew that was ridiculous talk. As they say, if you’re going to talk the talk, then walk the walk. USL needs to stop preaching to its teams on how to attract local media coverage by setting an example and learning how to attract national media attention. If you act like a minor league then you will be treated like a minor league. Come on USL, it’s time to take it to the next level.