Tampa-based USL is certainly rising despite challenges ahead

USL is a Tampa-based soccer league that fills all areas of the pyramid below first-tier Major League Soccer (MLS). USL has adopted the catchphrase “rising” to describe the emergence of the league. At the Division 2 level USL competes with the NASL (full disclosure- NASL is my former employer for almost four years), at the D3 level with newly-formed NISA and at the D4 level with the NPSL (another disclosure- I currently handle communications for an NPSL team and am the primary broadcaster for the league’s games in Florida).

The league reached a milestone this week, reaching a million fans in attendance thus far this season. The league’s top division (provisionally sanctioned as a Division 2 by the US Soccer Federation) has 30 teams competing across the United States and Canada including two in the league’s home state – Tampa Bay Rowdies and Orlando City B. Those two sides who have struck up a rivalry going back to the days when Orlando City’s senior squad competed in USL before moving to MLS will face off Thursday at Orlando City Stadium. By comparison, NASL has 8 active teams down from 12 a year ago. Two of the teams NASL lost, the successful Ottawa Fury FC and Tampa Bay Rowdies defected to USL.

The USL announced plans in late March to begin a D3 league which will commence play in 2019. USL was previously sanctioned as a D3 league from 2011 to 2016 and operated a Division 3 league as a separate entity from its other pro league (A division 2) within USL’s larger pyramid prior to 2010. That prior Division 3 league was operated on a largely regional bases which helps to reduce travel costs and foster localized rivalries like the Tampa Bay-Orlando one (in American pro soccer terms few major clubs are as close geographically as Orlando City SC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies) and Cincinnati-Louisville among others.  USL will face competition in the D3 market from a new Chicago-based league known as NISA.

For me, one of the real bright spots that USL has demonstrated is a willingness to develop younger players that are beginning to fill up MLS rosters and national teams across the globe. This differentiates the league from NASL which has tended to focus on older journeymen players, making the league according to a British survey cited by Soc Takes Nipun Chopra, one of the oldest leagues in the world regarding average age of players.

USL has a tremendous advantage of being a growing company which has hired some of the best and brightest soccer minds here in Florida therefore developing a well-built out front office and a reputation for engaged club services. This has been one of the primary reasons USL has gained an upper hand in its battle to oust NASL at the second division level. Another advantage USL has is cost controls and more regional travel. USL has gained an advantage over NASL by controlling costs including cost offsets on matters such as broadcasts, giving far superior club services and regionally grouping teams which not only offsets some travel costs but importantly creates localized rivalries which drives fan interest and media coverage. USL has invested surplus monies into cost offsets which serve its clubs well in areas which I can attest aren’t cost effective for clubs to handle without help from my personal NASL experience – this includes broadcasting.

In April, I sat down with Tom Veit the Executive Vice President of USL for a World Soccer Talk interview. The entire interview can be found here, but Veit was very up front about the cost/benefits of USL’s new production arm.

World Soccer Talk: What was the genesis behind USL Productions? How did the league come around to the decision to do this?

Tom Veit: We were looking at the long-term future of the league where we wanted to go. Mass media rights are very important so we were already producing the games. We already have over 500 quality football matches being played (in our league) – we realize [we] needed to produce these for content at a professional level and for distribution professionally. So, the genesis was this needed to be produced for television and all the video content, and we needed to put it in a format to distribute it not only for today but for all of the new content and formats that will be coming in the future. We also were looking into building it into something commercially viable for us in the long-term.

World Soccer Talk: As someone who personally has worked in the D2 business (for NASL and USL clubs as well as NASL itself), I can attest that this proved to be a massively expensive undertaking for clubs when it comes to streaming and handling broadcasts. USL Productions seems a really centralized and wise decision to offset costs. Have the teams found it this way?

Tom Veit: Part of this is economies of scale and bringing all the teams together on the same platform in the same production arm. We’re investing close to $10 million into this initiative and a structure that allows the teams to do this at a reasonable cost. We believed this was an investment in our league’s future as much as in players and stadiums, etc.

Soccer is rapidly growing in popularity in both the US and Canada as evidenced by the growing interest in top-level European club matches as well as international tournaments. Tonight, Tampa will play host to two Group B matches in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the regional international championship for this part of the world. USL with its smart growth strategy and centralized league stricture has been able capitalize on this growth in a unique way, particularly in markets that were previously off the radar for many in the national media and MLS.

USL President Jake Edwards said regarding the attendance mark, “This is a league on the rise, delivering a thrilling soccer experience in person and digitally to a rapidly growing fan base across North America, and the best is yet to come. With nearly 75 million people still lacking access to a local professional club, the USL will continue to expand with nearly a dozen new USL markets expected to enter the league in 2018, 2019 and 2020. We are excited for the remainder of 2017 and beyond, and look forward to more unforgettable USL soccer.”

Many soccer “hipsters” prefer the NASL to USL because the former league, based in New York City has stressed an independent club model rather than the franchise-based model with a professionally staffed league office that USL offers. In theory, when you look at the world of global football, the NASL model is more in-line with international norms at the club level. However, what practice has taught us over the past seven years is that  USL’s three decades of experience in the soccer business, a robust staff based in Tampa and a franchise-model oriented setup, USL fits the current closed league system in the US better than NASL could ever hope to. The stop-start, shift, turn-back, shift-again, rinse and repeat in NASL strategies hasn’t served the league well – it’s survived but just that. Any promise the league had a few years ago has been lost and the reset button has now been hit on multiple occasions while USL continues to rise.

The peculiar institution of the US’ own soccer structure, unique compared to others around the globe and offensive to many fans in this country favors leagues that are able to sell franchises to investors for a high fee and reinvest those profits into top-down league structures. MLS and USL have shown this is the way to operate within the current structure. While for many, myself included, truly open systems that eliminate franchising and create promotion and relegation through the domestic pyramid for independent soccer clubs is a personal preference, under the current confines with NASL has accepted, USL simply does the job better. They are in fact as they claim “rising.”

USL’s willingness to prospect in under-served markets for expansion should be something fans across the continent embrace. NASL had every opportunity to pursue clubs in places like Cincinnati, Louisville, Reno, St Louis and other places but was for many years focused on higher-profile markets where the league could either compete with MLS or make an international splash – thus NASL tried very hard to put a team in Los Angeles, is still trying to place a team in Chicago and has successfully placed expansion teams in New York, Miami (despite having an existing team in Fort Lauderdale) and San Francisco over the last five seasons. NASL’s latest announcements of new teams in what is currently an eight active playing team league have been Orange County, California and San Diego. By contrast USL is adding a team in Nashville next season, a nearly can’t-miss market and has talked of clubs starting play in 2019 in Birmingham, Alabama and Fresno.

From an objective point of view, USL’s success is a big boon to sport of soccer in North America. Creating infrastructure and interest in markets that have been deprived the sport at a high-level can only help the game and its continued growth. My hope is that USL continues its run of success and the other leagues it competes with benefit from the intense competition and the exchange of ideas and innovation that is taking place in the soccer business.  My personal preference is for an open system with independent clubs competing based on sporting and economic merit for honors – but absent of such a system being put in place, USL seems to have mastered how to best serve investors in lower division soccer and give fans an entertaining product which puts a premium on player development in the current landscape. This can only help fans even of clubs in NASL, NISA and NPSL as the game, leagues and clubs grow in the US and Canada.

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