In part I of our series we gave an overview of the numerous events that led to a point where the Fort Lauderdale Strikers will not participate in the 2017 NASL season. But the club is not dead yet and are in the process of formulating plans for the future. While for some clubs taking a year off might be a necessary move to rebuild relationships and ramp up operations to a respectable level for the future (recently many clubs in American soccer have taken a year off and returned or dropped a league temporarily) the Strikers are the most extreme case many have seen in this regard – the club needs a complete and total reboot in order to have any chance of even moderate success. How exactly can the Strikers recover and regain lost market share in the congested and fragmented southeastern Florida soccer market? It’s a difficult question that requires a review of some of the events of 2016 that brought the Strikers to the point they currently sit.
While it’s difficult to guarantee big market success in the peculiar system of American closed leagues, and perhaps without promotion and relegation the Strikers cannot truly be successful (I’d argue strongly that the Strikers problems though largely self-inflicted have been exacerbated by the closed league structure in the United States – an irony given that the USA is supposedly a meritocracy yet has the least merit-based sporting system on the planet when it comes to soccer), the club has to function in the confines it finds itself in. Doing so has become increasingly difficult at this stage.
The North American Soccer League (NASL) itself faces a rocky road into the future and under new more practical leadership the league is not in the position to indulge the Strikers mismanagement the way they have in the past. Last season, the league’s other owners floated the Strikers for months after the club had been funded at least in-part by the ownership of the rival Tampa Bay Rowdies. Considering the amount of money most lower division teams lose each season, becoming responsible for the Strikers financial woes was yet another cost overrun most NASL owners honestly could not afford. Therefore, the league has wisely gone ahead with a 2017 season excluding the Strikers who need to get their house in order.
In the past, NASL took a laissez faire free market approach to governance allowing clubs to essentially spend what they wanted. But the league’s recent brush with death which included the defection of the Tampa Bay Rowdies to the rival USL has made NASL more conscious of club matters. The Strikers as discussed in the first part of this series had fancied themselves as a global brand and over spent on frivolous ideas chasing a dream while not funding the basics for any local market-specific form of entertainment.
Late payment for staff and players was the norm for the club during 2015 and 2016. While the club regularly used the difficulty of moving foreign exchange from Brazil to the United State as justification for the lateness, poor planning and a desire to solicit what amounted to short-term handouts (but long-term problems) from other owners was the actual explanation for the troubles. Time and again the club’s leadership made mistakes – the Strikers went from being a soccer issue or business matter to being a moral dilemma around the middle of 2016 when players, coaches, staff, vendors and everyone else connected with the club could begin to expect late payment or no payment at all. Players who were injured languished according to sources without proper insurance for much of the campaign, while staff had to scramble to find coverage. As of this writing, many vendors and players are still owed money by the club – some are according to sources considering legal action against the Strikers.
Things were so bad at certain points in 2016 that former players tell us they had to use the same kits (uniforms) for two months worth of league games in a row. Typically players are assigned new uniforms for each match and often give away kits to fans and family after each match. With psychological factors conspiring against the club, Coach Caio Zanardi was able to instill a mentality in the club that kept them competitive – even while suffering through mistreatment and uncertainty the team performed admirably on the pitch advancing deeper than any lower division side in US Open Cup including a win at the Citrus Bowl over Orlando City SC.
The US Soccer Federation (USSF), the governing body for the sport in this country and the NASL while bothered by the Strikers situation and mistreatment of players, staff and vendors did not take any action – no mechanism exists in the bylaws of the USSF or the NASL to seize a team from the ownership – however given the egregious example the Strikers in 2016 set coupled similar issues in New York, the NASL and USSF should be working throughout 2017 to put in place protocols to deal with non-payment to players, staff and vendors. It is incumbent on fans, such as the organized Five Points in New York City and media who cover soccer to raise awareness of these issues and force change. All too often, many in the US Soccer press is scared to lay a hand on the USSF or to question the leadership for whatever reason (though that policy doesn’t often extend to NASL). Similarly fans are scared in some cases to call out ownership of troubled clubs for fear of losing the team – in hindsight the unwillingness of Strikers supporters to take the types of actions that Cosmos fans did in attempting to get players and staff money that was owed to them was probably due to a fear of losing the club completely. This sort of fear serves as a tacit form of enablement for bad ownership groups. Again, this provides a rationale for why the USSF must take a more active and aggressive role in safeguarding players, staff and troubled clubs.
While the Strikers expenses were covered by first the Rowdies and then the other NASL clubs, the team’s vendors were being left in a lurch and the club was having trouble meeting anything more than basic operating expenses from week to week. Still the rhetoric coming from the club at the very same time was that of confidence and boisterous optimism for the future, particularly as the Strikers represented a “global brand.” But what had become obvious to many was that while the club and brand had some value it didn’t have nearly the worth that the ownership believed it to. A club with one of the smallest supporters bases of any pro club in the US that shares its market with another NASL team, does not fully control its stadium situation, training facility and doesn’t have any tangible sellable assets could not be worth tens of millions of dollars. In fact, it can be argued the ONLY real value the Strikers have is direct admission to NASL rather than paying a $5 million dollar entrance fee for a new expansion side, though a club that is in serious debt is probably not worth anything close to $5 million. Still the Strikers ownership persisted with a high price tag for the club turning of according to our sources as many as a half dozen potential suitors. But without promotion and relegation in American soccer, those who would otherwise be interested are put off – a reality that many simply don’t want to acknowledge. Moreover, despite the claims that the Strikers brand has some magic value as we demonstrated in part 1 the brand equity from the name applies more to global branding than to anything in the local market where nostalgia for the 1970’s does not extend beyond a niche of fans.
The Strikers management kept saying the right things to soothe fans and those who supported NASL in its (since abandoned) quest against Major League Soccer (MLS) – many of these fans it should be noted supported NASL for ideological reasons not really related to sporting considerations. But even more galling perhaps was that employees, players, technical staff, season ticket holders, sponsors and vendors made decisions – life altering ones in many cases based on what has since proved to be either wild optimism from the team’s management as to the financial state and potential sale of the club or worse, outright deceit.
While most employees and functions have gradually ceased, the club continues to operate with a bare bones staff and a chief executive. The club at this writing remains under the ownership of the group fronted by Paulo Cesso and managed locally by Luis Cuccatti. A source however states the club could still be sold, but that a possibility of the current ownership group maintaining some control over the Strikers is still in play – with hopes of playing friendly matches in 2017 and returning to NASL league play in 2018.
Any sale of the club however would have contend with the ongoing legal action by Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Bill Edwards which has an early March preliminary hearing. Sources indicate that the club has debts into seven figures and any ownership group will also need to deal with repairing the club’s reputation locally.
Other challenges include:
- Repairing relationships with vendors. Only so many folks in southeast Florida are involved in the sport of soccer at a professional service level and the club has burnt most of them.
- Relationships with elected officials and others in the political community have to be repaired in short order.
- The club will have to apologize for the clear ethical lapses in the handling of employees and players in order to regain a credible base locally.
- The club will have to prove to the youth soccer community that they have a plan to engage and a long-term SUSTAINABLE vision for the future. Otherwise youth clubs have no incentive to cooperate with the Strikers. Additionally, the club will have to eschew competing with the established strong youth entities.
What will the displaced Strikers fans do?
Many on the outside might simply assume a shift in support to Miami FC might be in order since this is a club in a market with another team in the same league. However, it is entirely possible such a shift won’t occur. The Strikers fan base has rapidly narrowed in the recent years and those who remain are diehards and Miami FC isn’t the type of organic club many would like to support – a big spending side that showed lots of hubris in its first year and whose presence hurt the Strikers as we discussed in part I. Will they support local amateur or youth soccer clubs such as Weston FC, Boca Raton FC or The Beaches FC? Some but all certainly might. Retreat to watching European football like so many around the country do, especially since NBC Sports makes the (English) Premier League the most accessible pro sporting league in the US on TV outside of the NFL? Perhaps, but maybe what happens is a whole bunch of fans stop following soccer in the nation’s 4th largest urban area. This should be of great concern to the USSF, but the governing body for the sport in this country has other ideas.
The USSF’s leadership whose alliance with Major League Soccer (MLS) perhaps lets them cheer on the fail rate of lower division clubs, has been a big part of the problem in the past – only a truly open system with promotion and relegation can even partially cure these closed league franchise-based club problems despite moving targets and changes to league standards constantly pushed at the Federation level. Since we aren’t going to get PROMOTION/RELEGATION anytime soon, the USSF must be more vigilant in protecting the welfare of players, coaches, staff and all others associated with the sport in this country. Otherwise the soccer bubble in this country could burst in the near future. The attentive interest of USSF President Sunil Gulati in this winter’s D2 sanctioning mess was a positive sign – perhaps Gulati is now willing to exercise the leadership to not only make rich investors in the sport happy but to also protect players, fans, staff, vendors and others impacted by the abuses in a closed franchise system.
The Strikers certainly face long odds to be successful again. But given the peculiar nature of American soccer where things seem to turn on the dime, ruling the club out from becoming a major player in the future would be foolish. But to have any hope of getting there either the club either needs to be sold or the current leadership of Paulo Cesso and Luis Cuccatti need to learn from the mistakes of the past and mend fences as quickly as possible.
Disclaimer – Kartik Krishnaiyer worked with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in 2009 (when the club was known as Miami FC), 2013-2014 and 2016 as well as for the North American Soccer League from 2010 to 2013. He currently works as the VP of Communications with Boca Raton FC.