Monday, March 2, 2015

So the NASL in its current form

I was asked on Twitter what I thought about the current state of the NASL and I thought it was a fair question that, like so many on that medium, can't really be answered in 140 characters.

So in fairness to the question and the league, here is a little more detail.

First off, I am a BIG proponent of multiple lower divisions and developing soccer markets to their fullest in large part to address the question that sparked the question - which was is MLS necessary. Right now, because the lower divisions are woefully under-developing a large number of markets, MLS is definitely necessary - specifically, the artificial constructs that MLS has put in place such as the Single Entity.

Woefully underdeveloped? Yes. Woefully. Outside of a very few outliers such as Orlando, San Antonio, Sacramento, Minnesota and Indianapolis, you have most teams in the USL and NASL well below numbers that should even be viable for their current iteration, let alone ready to move up to a First Division level.

Only three of ten teams in the NASL drew more than 5,000 a game. In what was known as the USL Pro last year, only one of fourteen teams drew significantly more than 5,000 and Rochester averaged 5,329. For more on where the numbers came from and why 5,000 is the water mark, see (*) below.

Based on a variety of public documents that have been put out there about what it takes to succeed at MLS and lower division levels, it is safe to assume that in 2014, only four teams out of 24 made anything close to a successful business year - and by successful, I don't mean "made money" - I mean, did not lose their butts. And certainly only those four plus Orlando were really ready to make the jump to a First Division level, whether inside MLS or not. And sorry, but it takes money - and people who have money - to operate teams, so if you can't put a moderately effective business together, and therefore can't involve people like that, you can't have your team, let alone your league.

And let's go back to the NASL for a moment. At least one of those teams is seeing an MLS team coming to town in the near future (Atlanta). At least one - if not two or even possibly three - are organizations that will move to MLS in the slightly less near future (Minnesota, San Antonio, Indianapolis). And Ft. Lauderdale is on the verge of seeing another MLS team come to town. And who really has confidence that the Cosmos can continue to be a factor now that you have not only one, but as of now, two MLS franchises in the market. New York is big, certainly, but not that big. So that is at least two but likely as many as six of your ten current NASL clubs gone or overshadowed by MLS in the next 5-7 years, including at least two of your best markets.

So where is the NASL trying to expand? Well, efforts in Oklahoma and Northern Virginia were at various points going concerns. Less so now. It does appear that Jacksonville is going to start a team this year so that is one in the "new" column. At best that offsets one of the 2-3 minimum that are going to be lost in the next five years.

That isn't to say there are not viable options for the NASL. The US has up to 60 potential slots for true professional soccer, and many large markets are wide open. Granted, between MLS, the NASL and the USL, a lot of them have been filled, and of the ones remaining, a good number have their own warts and issues, but not all. Not by a long shot. San Diego, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Rhode Island, San Francisco, Memphis, Nashville, Birmingham (which might get Atlanta - would be a good move), New Orleans - just to name a few that are certainly large enough to support a sports organization at a 7,500 people a game level.

But the things needed to fill those markets are owners, experienced staff and players. And right now, one or more of those pieces are missing.

To restate - I am not saying MLS is perfect. The artificial constructs that have kept MLS going will eventually be more of a hindrance than a benefit - but not yet. Not now. Although with the recent television deal, I think we are seeing a transition from a "no way in hell" to a more "now we have some data to work with and see what possibilities there might be" kind of environment.

And as a potential alternative, the NASL does not have anywhere near enough teams effective enough now who would be ready to fill that void, even if some of the MLS teams survive as individual entities and fold in.  On top of that, the league has not shown the vision and ability to attract the right resources to grow in an effective way. (Where did they promise to be by now when they were approved by the USSF?)

I am sure there is more to it - this is purely me taking ten minutes over lunch to ramble on a blog. But there is your "more than 140 character response" to the question about the current state of the NASL.


(*) These numbers come via attendance guru Kenn Tomasch.

And if you sit down and figure the business model of a soccer team - player salary, staff salary, stadium rental, office space, practice space, equipment, insurance, marketing materials, day of game staff, etc., frankly, 5,000 a game is low for what would really be the core of a team that could then move up to MLS. Portland, Seattle, etc., were closer to 7,500 to 10,000 a game in the years when they were looking to move to MLS, and even then they were not making so much money that people were falling all over themselves to learn how they did it.

As for Kenn himself, you may not like his take on things, or his tone, but his documentation of soccer attendance over the years is top notch.On a side note, personally, I think he has a good handle on the realities of lower division soccer - in large part based on actual experience - probably in large part because I have similar experiences within the soccer industry as I have worked in the USL, WPSL and MLS. Even at an MLS level, it is hard work to put butts in seats and turn that into revenue from tickets, sponsorship, merchandise and concessions.

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