The Angle

Opinion: What On Earth Is The NASL Doing?

by on 13 November 2015

Divining the intentions of the NASL has always been more of an art than a science, but even seasoned NASL watchers were baffled by this week’s announcement of new expansion club Rayo OKC.

The NASL has had a turbulent history since its inception in 2010, yet the league has nonetheless made some serious strides. The quality of play is high, the quality of broadcasts *is* improving, and attendance is up. The key to these advances is the quality of ownership that the league has recruited, and the quality of expansion clubs that the league has accepted. These are not without exceptions, but by in large, the NASL has a good track record on both of these counts. New owners in Minnesota, Tampa Bay, and Fort Lauderdale have stabilized and revived their clubs. San Antonio, New York, Ottawa, Indy, and Jacksonville were all expansion successes.

The cornerstone of the NASL’s success has been a slow-and-steady process, through which prospective owners and cities have been more carefully vetted, and new teams have been given over a year to launch. In August of this year, NASL commissioner Bill Peterson described the league’s expansion method to The Telegraph: “We keep this very simple, find the right owners and the right cities and when everything is in the right place and proper manner and we feel the club is going to be in place for a long time, we’ll make the decision to go forward. We can’t let other perimeters or deadlines affect our decision-making – or you’ll end up making bad decisions.”

The process has not been faultless. The announced expansion clubs in Loudoun County, Virginia and Oklahoma City never got off the ground. But the reasons behind those failures are complex, and were hard to anticipate at the time. Both teams did offer committed local ownership and dedicated stadiums. The Virginia Cavalry were tied with a minor league baseball team, the Loudoun Hounds, who even held a fan festival before the entire project collapsed. Moreover, the locations chosen by the league made a good deal of sense. Neither were served by an existing professional team, and both promised a strong local brand in a populous location hungry for professional sports.

At the same time, the NASL’s presumptive rivals in the USL embarked upon a much more risky strategy of mass slapdash expansion. The third divison league tried to compete directly with an existing NASL team in the Tampa Bay market and failed terribly. Their Phoenix expansion was a total disaster. Their team in Austin is on hiatus after just a year, citing stadium trouble. These are the outright failures. There have been other disappointing debuts. Memorably, no one seemed to know where the Charlotte Independence were playing until weeks before their opener. The USL has also wholeheartedly plunged into a partnership with MLS that has allowed reserve teams to enter the league, which has not completely pleased fans of the independent clubs.

The results of these divergent strategies demonstrate the ‘quality over quantity’ ethos of the NASL’s approach. The NASL drew about 150,000 fewer fans than the USL, but with thirteen fewer teams. In terms of average attendance, NASL teams drew over 2,500 fans more per game than USL clubs. While the highest drawing lower division club (Sacramento) plays in the USL, the second, third, fourth, sixth, seventh, ninth, and tenth ranked clubs play in the NASL.

All of this exposition to say that the NASL’s strategy has seemed to be working so far. So why has the league completely abandoned it?

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Item 1. Rayo OKC

Let’s start with the most recent events. This Tuesday, the NASL announced a new expansion club called “Rayo OKC”. The club will play in a glittering high school football stadium in Yukon, a western suburb of Oklahoma City. The ownership consists of Brad Lund, who was one of the two owners tapped by the NASL for the aborted earlier OKC expansion, and Rayo Vallecano, a Spainish club currently 12th in La Liga. The club also released this incredible video on their website, which has to be seen to be believed. Given only this information, you might conclude that the club ought to be a success. But the problem is that once you know the context, it’s extremely difficult to see how this club works out for anyone, in any way.

The first problem stems from the NASL’s previous failure to take root in OKC. At that time, the USL was also seeking to plant a team in the city. The NASL bid consisted of Lund and a local businessman named Tim McLaughlin, while the USL bid was headed by another local businessman named Bob Funk. The two sides bid over the right to lease Taft Stadium for their teams, and the NASL group actually won the bid. But the USL’s more versatile expansion strategy allowed Funk to launch his team, Oklahoma City Energy FC, a year ahead of his NASL rivals, and get a head start on capturing the city’s soccer fanbase. The final blow came when McLaughlin defected, taking the Taft Stadium lease with him, and leaving the NASL team still on the launching pad, without a stadium, a name, a crest, a coach, or anything beyond a spot on NASL.com’s masthead.

Fast forward to the present, and OKC Energy are drawing an average attendance of 4,635, are coached by Jimmy “Puma” Neilsen, and just made the USL semi-finals. They have in-state rivals in the form of the 2015 USL expansion Tulsa Roughnecks. They appear by all accounts to be in fairly good shape and with a two year head start. I’ve yet to see evidence of a single competitive advantage Rayo OKC holds over their in-city rivals. Even their ticket prices do not offer much of an alternative.

Surely the central question that should guide all expansion decisions is: “why will the paying customer support this team?” Is there a compelling answer for Rayo OKC?

The affiliation with Rayo Vallecano is a matter of concern on multiple levels. The first is that the history of affiliation clubs in the United States is worrying. The most recent example is the disastrous Chivas USA experiment in MLS. The NASL/USL have their own example in the short lived Crystal Palace Baltimore. And while not a formal owner, FC Twente’s affiliation with the Dayton Dutch Lions seems to have been of little benefit to the Ohio club. The use of a slightly modified version of the Rayo Vallecano crest for Rayo OKC is deeply reminiscent of these previous affiliate failures. If American soccer has taught us anything, it should be the importance of local identity. The most successful affiliate club is already NYCFC, and it’s not hard to see why. For all of the meddling from Manchester, the club has a fresh crest and has cultivated (often too closely) a local group of supporters. Even said, there remain huge question marks surrounding the future of that team. And as other teams have pointed out, several MLS teams pay more in salary than Rayo Vallecan. So is there any material difference between an NASL affiliate of Rayo and the USL teams partly owned by MLS clubs?

With Rayo OKC, just about everything is uncertain. What does Rayo Vallecano hope to get out of the club anyway? As a community-focused club known for their left-wing politics, the juxtaposition with a foreign venture in Oklahoma is extreme. At least some element of their fanbase doesn’t seem to support the move. They are bound by the same roster rules as everyone else, and it’s implausible that they would view the NASL as a better development tool than their own academy. If they are hoping to build a large fanbase in the United States, then Oklahoma City is a confounding choice to start that effort. If they are looking to tap into a rich vein of US talent, then Oklahoma City is objectively a terrible place to be. (Saint Louis?)

It’s equally difficult to understand what the NASL gets out of the affiliation. Rayo Vallecano is a noteworthy club among soccer obsessives, but not among casual fans. What Oklahoma soccer obsessives who would be persuaded to support Rayo OKC are not already fans of the Energy? What casual fans would be moved to give Rayo OKC a look based on its affiliation? None of this is clear. There is one conceivable La Liga club affiliation (beyond Real Madrid and Barcelona) that could potentially draw in the United States, and that appears to be Athletic Bilbao and Boise. Why not that? Why this?

The most troublesome aspect of Rayo OKC is that it will launch in the Spring of 2016. The one year building period has been a constant in all recent NASL expansions. There are clearly costs to it, especially in the case of the original OKC club. But it also has benefits. Jacksonville built strong relationships with the local business community during its launch period. Indy built an incredible grassroots fanbase. Ottawa and San Antonio built stadiums. Meanwhile, the Virginia Cavalry fell apart, which was not great, but preferable to a collapse after having hit the field. Already, the NASL is launching two clubs next season in Miami (Spring) and Puerto Rico (Fall?) with shorter than normal lead-ins. But both are at least getting nearly a year of build time. Rayo OKC will start preseason in ten to twelve weeks.

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Item 2. Miami and Puerto Rico

The NASL’s other two expansion announcements this year gave us Miami FC and Puerto Rico FC.

Miami FC remains a odd market for the NASL to target, given that the league already has a team an hour away in Fort Lauderdale, and that team is not exactly thriving. In this instance, much of the speculation has inferred that NASL is aiming to box out MLS and David Beckham’s clown shoes expansion attempt in the city. Miami FC has a terrible logo, but has secured the use of FIU stadium and ought to have a multi-year head start on Beckham, if his team ever launches.

Puerto Rico FC is an odd market considering that the NASL already failed there with the Puerto Rico Islanders. What helps the chances of the new club is that it is not propped up by the Puerto Rican government, but by basketball star Carmelo Anthony. What hurts the chances of the new club is that it is propped up by New York Knicks anchor Carmelo Anthony (rim shot). The economy of the island also remains poor, thanks to the sunsetting of favorable US manufacturing subsidies a decade ago.

All the same, both of these clubs already have coaches, crests, and stadiums. There is reason to believe they will be successes. That said, they both certainly represent significantly more risk than the NASL has previously saw fit to accept. On their own, they can be seen as high risk, high reward moves. But associated with Rayo OKC, they start to seem part of a more worrisome pattern.

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Item 3. Chicago, San Francisco, and Celtic

It’s currently a bull market for NASL expansion rumors. Over the past year, a number of cities have been rumored to be candidates for new NASL teams. Hartford, CT, had an ownership group, a proposed stadium, a crest, and an expansion indoor team, but the NASL looked it off an the entire enterprise appears now to have gone under and is subject to a criminal investigation. Hamilton, ON was widely seen as certain to get a new team, until it wasn’t, and it is now rumored to be a part of a future Canadian League. Los Angeles has been rumored as an expansion team for over a year, and may have been on the threshold of being awarded a spot. However nothing has emerged.

More recently, credible rumors have pointed towards expansion to Chicago and San Francisco. Other rumors have linked the NASL to Detroit and to another affiliate club associated with Scottish giants Celtic.

It’s hard to know what to make of these rumors with regard to future NASL teams. There is a lot of noise, and it’s hard to identify the signals. What’s more instructive is probably to consider where we haven’t heard rumors. Calgary, Nashville, Memphis, San Diego, Las Vegas, Hampton Roads, Birmingham, New Orleans, Omaha, Albuquerque, and Boise are all quiet. All of these are markets who have never had professional soccer teams in the modern era of expansion. All but the last three of these markets have populations over a million people, Omaha and Alburquerque are close, and Boise is included because of that Athletic Bilbao friendly. Calgary is the most egregious silence of all, given Edmonton’s dire interest and insane travel costs. All of these markets are also notable because they are (to various degrees, admittedly) unlikely to be poached by MLS in the foreseeable future.

Instead, the rumored and confirmed NASL markets, with the exception of Puerto Rico, all seem to be centered around picking fights with someone. I’ve already covered Miami. Expansion into Chicago would theoretically take advantage of the Chicago Fire’s terrible stadium situation in Bridgeview, IL. Expansion into San Francisco would seize upon the relative distance between the Bay Area and Silicon Valley. Expansion into LA would take advantage of the sheer size of that metropolitan area and presumably some geographic difference, just as the Cosmos have carved a niche in New York. Expansion into Detroit would be a gamble that the NASL’s professional status would be enough to overcome beloved NPSL underdogs Detroit City FC. And of course, expansion into OKC is a shot across the bow at USL.

This marks a drastic shift in the NASL’s expansion approach. And before trying to figure out whether this shift will lead to success, we need to know [i]why[/i] this change in priorities has occurred. I can come up with three explanations.

Is it spite? Is the NASL still holding a grudge against the USL in OKC and MLS for the defection of Minnesota United? Is it desperation? Is the NASL willing to take anybody’s expansion money, even for hair-brained schemes like Rayo OKC? Is it supreme confidence? Does the NASL seriously believe that it can compete with MLS long-term in a market like Atlanta (the experience of the New York Cosmos notwithstanding)?

If I were a betting man, I’d place my money on the latter. But I’m by no means confident. I don’t understand what the NASL is doing. In that same August interview in which Peterson hyped the league’s cautious approach to expansion, he definitively closed the door on expansion to Oklahoma City and Virginia. “We’ve moved on from both of them,” he said. I’m not sure whether it’s worse if Peterson was simply lying through his teeth, or whether the league reversed its entire position on OKC in the space of three months.

Every NASL fan ought to read this great roundtable hosted by Kenn Tomasch discussing the NASL/USL split six years out. Our own Brian Quarstad participated, as did Neil Morris of WRALSportsFan. Towards the end, the panelists discuss what they think each league ought to do, and Morris wrote something suspiciously prescient.

“[The NASL should keep] the same priority as the last 12-18 months,” he wrote. “Logical, incremental expansion and nurturing those new expansion teams. It’s something the league has done well the past four to five years, and something I’m worried they’re straying from now.”

The evidence is clear that the league has strayed from this approach. And while normally I’d finish this column with a hedge along the lines of “and time will tell whether it will pay off.” But I can’t do that here. I have no idea what the league is thinking. I don’t think it will pay off at all.

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