Ever since its split from the USL and certification as the American second division, the NASL has been on uncertain ground. Now, in its sixth season, the league is more competitive, watchable, and interesting than ever. Its clubs have better ownership and higher attendance than almost ever before.
It’s also about to collapse, pummeled by the consequences of a panoply of poor decisions that have undermined the confidence of fans, players, potential investors, and current owners. Unless a drastic course correction is undertaken, this current NASL season stands a serious chance of being the final reasonably stable, productive year in the league’s short history.
This was not how things were supposed to be.
The first commissioner of the NASL, David Downs, had a vision that was both ambitious and achievable. It is simple to explain. The NASL would be the best possible second division that it could be. The focus would be on helping every club become relevant and grow in their own market. The league would target cities and owners who couldn’t support or fund an MLS club, existing independently of the first division, but not in opposition to it.
“The NASL’s goal is to be the No. 1 professional soccer in-stadium experience [their markets]…To convince people of that and get their per game attendance from an average of 3,000-to-4,000 to 6,000-to-7,000, that would make them financially healthy. And that’s a pretty easy proposition.” -David Downs
No professional second division (let alone first division) had ever achieved success and stability in the United States and Canada. But the NASL’s early process of expansion and finding new owners for existing clubs yielded promising fruit. Its vision attracted Tom and Dave Fath in Edmonton, Gordon Hartman in San Antonio, and Bill McGuire in Minnesota.
While Downs stepped down as commissioner at the end of 2012, the NASL continued to find success by sticking to the original recipe. Indianapolis, Ottawa, Jacksonville, and even New York (a city large enough for multiple clubs, where the NASL stayed well clear of the existing MLS team) proved natural second division markets and benefited from committed ownership. “It’s a different proposition than MLS,” Downs told Sports Business Daily in 2014. “The NASL’s goal is to be the No. 1 professional soccer in-stadium experience in Atlanta or in Miami or in San Antonio or in Tampa or in Minneapolis…To convince people of that and get their per game attendance from an average of 3,000-to-4,000 to 6,000-to-7,000, that would make them financially healthy. And that’s a pretty easy proposition.”
At some point, however, things began to go astray. It’s difficult to pinpoint a single moment, but the signs were unmistakable and the agent of change was the new commissioner, Bill Peterson. Peterson clearly had a different vision from his predecessor; emphasizing the ability of the NASL and NASL clubs to achieve a first division standard, whether through promotion and relegation or other avenues. The league’s rhetoric with regard to MLS became more hawkish and, less than a year ago, the NASL threatened legal action against US Soccer to outright challenge the closed division system.
Peterson’s tenure in charge of the NASL has been characterized by a number of ridiculous statements to the media and a clear focus on taking the NASL to a national audience. Under Peterson, the league has found a home on little-watched but broad-reaching channels like BeIN Sports, One World Sports, and CBS Sports Network, after a disastrous attempt to create its own streaming service in 2014. Under Armour now produces the league’s balls, OPTA provides match statistics, and the league’s online marketing and content production have been significantly improved. Nearly all aspects of the league’s outward presentation have improved markedly under Peterson. A cursory glance at the league’s promotional materials and self-presentation would seem to indicate a league that is thriving.
But the league’s advancing front has masked a crumbling rear. The independent clubs whose local success was the cornerstone of the Downsian vision for the NASL have taken a marked step back in 2016. Only three clubs (Carolina, Ottawa, and Tampa Bay) have gained in average attendance from 2015 to the 2016 season so far. Every other club has seen drops in attendance and the league overall has drawn nearly 1,000 less fans per game (Source: 2015, 2016). On Wednesday, August 31, just 455 souls were reported to have attended a match between the hometown Fort Lauderdale Strikers and the visiting Minnesota United FC.
The attendance slump isn’t the only source for grave concern. Recent months have witnessed a parade of increasingly dire news items from NASL clubs. This summer, we reported that the Fort Lauderdale Strikers were having trouble making on-time payments, A few weeks ago, Minnesota United FC officially confirmed that it would leave the NASL and join MLS in 2017 (great news for the Loons, bad news for the NASL). In Oklahoma City, the league’s newest expansion club lost its coach and half of its staff in an apparent cost-saving move from the club’s Spanish ownership. Then, this week, the team’s minority owner removed half of the club’s turf playing surface in the dead of night because he feared the club would sell what he rightfully owned.
In isolation, any one of these incidents would be a minor issue. Taken together, they suggest a widening gyre. FC Edmonton have not seen their winning run translate into attendance. The New York Cosmos have sold a club legend, have been conspicuously absent from the summer transfer market, and have seen no movement in year three of their stadium push. Most recently, it was reported from sources close to the Ottawa Fury that the 2015 runners up will leave the NASL after this season, possibly to the third division USL. It has long been rumored that Ottawa, and perhaps Edmonton, would jump ship for a new Canadian league. That does not appear to be the primary motivation cause behind this report. Instead, it appears that the Fury have simply determined that their future is best served in a different league, just as the San Antonio Spurs did in deciding to wind down the NASL’s San Antonio Scorpions and field a new USL club in their prized stadium.
One can only speculate when other clubs will do the same, because their calculus is no different. Over the course of the past two years, it has become impossible to argue that the NASL offers a better product for prospective team owners. The USL boasts a connection to MLS, increasingly sophisticated branding, and a drastically larger number of clubs with east/west conferences to reduce travel cost. The latest success stories in American soccer have all come out of the USL. Clubs like Sacramento and FC Cincinnati have redefined what lower division soccer can look like, drawing massive crowds and earning local relevance. While the best performing USL clubs reflexively make noise about MLS entry, they came by their initial success honestly — by marketing aggressively and effectively in their communities. That Downsian vision for lower division soccer lives on in the USL, where a playbook for expansion has been established and successfully followed in an increasing number of cities.
Meanwhile, the NASL’s recent track record has been an easily predictable fiasco. Expansion into Oklahoma City, a market already colonized by the USL, through a relegation-threatened Spanish club, was a transparently abysmal concept. Expansion into the Miami metropolitan area appears to have mainly killed off the existing, suburban-based team there. Successful-seeming expansion into Puerto Rico has been the league’s only accomplishment this year.
What’s more, the usual din of NASL expansion rumors has eerily subsided. The league has confirmed a team in San Francisco next season, which has already revealed the worst name and logo in American professional sports, and appears partially owned by the man whose leadership of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers was such a shambles that he was ousted by his co-owners. There is also a prospective team in Chicago run by Peter Wilt, which will not start play next year at the minimum. Rumored teams in Hartford, Hamilton, Los Angeles, and more have failed to materialize. At the same time, the USL has swooped in to grab Nashville, one of the largest and most obvious markets without a professional team.
The events of recent weeks have pushed garden variety worry into despair and disillusionment. Fans have every right to be worried. The NASL has lost its competitive advantage over the USL and has failed to deliver on its implicit promise to narrow the gap with MLS. While the NASL has beat the drum about becoming a first division league, the USL has actually begun acting like a second division league. The difference between talk and action is stark.
What’s alarming is that the damage may already be done. Rayo OKC are almost certainly dead; if they survive, it’ll almost certainly be through league ownership (another disincentive for prospective owners). Minnesota and Ottawa’s impending exits will leave the league without two of its best stadiums and most stable clubs. These frailties compound existing issues. How long can Edmonton and Fort Lauderdale continue with anemic attendance if the league contracts? How long can New York persist without a stadium solution, and will the league’s issues enter into politicians’ calculus? The same question could be asked of Indy. What’s in it for Carolina, who could move to USL and play a North Carolina rivalry against Charlotte? What’s in it for Tampa Bay?
The failings of Oklahoma City and Fort Lauderdale along with the departure of Ottawa may be the tipping point. Owners asked to step in to prop up two teams will rightly ask what they’re getting for their money and start placing calls to the USL.
If the NASL’s bad, bad year is going to improve, it must take action without delay.
Perhaps things in the NASL are fine behind the scenes. If that’s the case, the NASL must make these things public. If, on the other hand, things are as bad as they seem, the NASL does not need to necessarily acknowledge that, but they do need to make public a resolve to demonstrate that they have a plan moving forward. Above all, the NASL must abandon its quixotic dreams of challenging MLS and achieving the symbolic recognition of being a first division league. Instead, it must re-focus on getting its own house in order. Central to that must be a renewed emphasis on the grassroots and the success of each club in their own area. To take one obvious example, national TV deals that make it impossible for local fans to watch their own team are unacceptable. If it inhibits growth at a local level, it ought not to be league policy.
The NASL must also somehow engineer a détente with MLS and USL. That will be hard, because the NASL will not be coming from a position of strength. Its sole source of leverage is the legal action surrounding USSF’s arbitrary and anti-competitive league requirements. That’s not an entirely unworthy fight to be taking on, but it is not more important than the health of the league and the league’s clubs.
These next few months feel critical to the NASL’s future. It has a five alarm fire on its hands in Oklahoma and precarious situations everywhere else. The last few years have given many fans the impression that second division soccer is reasonably stable and a sure bet for future growth. But the history of second division soccer argues otherwise, and recent events indicate that there’s fresh turmoil to come.