Possibilities: Going Pro From the NPSL North

by on 9 August 2018

This is, in many ways, a golden age of soccer in the United States and it is not dissimilar to the dawning of the age of flight. It is a time when people are trying things, there is no accepted model, and independent opportunities exist. The truth, though, is that they are likely to get crushed under a corporate oligopoly enforced by a governing body that colludes with the oligopolists because that is what happens. However, for the short time before the inevitable, it is fun to enjoy the burst of creativity that we see in U.S. soccer.

There are three emerging tiers of competitive lower division soccer, by which I mean non-USSF Professional League Standard qualifying clubs and leagues that play regionally or nationally.

Earlier this week we considered expansion of the NPSL North Conference. This would be the current “Division Four” of U.S. soccer.

Then, we talked about how to implement pro/rel within this part of the country and its addition to the existing NPSL structure. This looked at what a level below the existing NPSL would look like and how clubs could find their place in a fair and sustainable way.

Today, we talk about a level above the existing NPSL, brought about by the open secret that the league is working to create a professional level of play, for at least some of its teams, to launch in 2019.

This is all speculation

I have not spoken with anyone on or off the record and I find that encouraging, not just because of the Chattanooga situation. It often seems that the more closed-lipped people are, the more likely it is that something real is going to happen.

However, there is enough information available to make informed speculation about NPSL PRO.

First, we know what it is not: a professional league administered by USSF under the Professional League Standards. It will be a league run by NPSL under the auspices of the United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA). Players can be, and are, paid in USASA leagues. In fact, there are a number of teams in the current NPSL that pay their players, so this structure will work within the existing USASA system.

Second, we can assume that the average budget would be bracketed below USL D3, if only to encourage entrepreneurs to sign up. When Peter Wilt was trying to get NISA off the ground, an approximately $3 million yearly budget was his suggestion as to what it would take (and what Minneapolis City’s Chairman priced out as plausible on this very website). With that data point, and bearing in mind that this is all speculation, that leads me to believe that NPSL PRO would require an operating budget of approximately $1.5 – $2 million per year.

Third, we know that the league will play a full league season completely independent of the existing NPSL. This gives member teams the number of games necessary to make the math on that budget start to make sense, at least in theory.

Fourth, we probably just about know that the the league will include the former NASL teams New York Cosmos, Miami FC and Jacksonville Armada. We can pretty safely assume that the teams that signed letters of intent to join the NASL before it imploded will be in the mix, including Detroit City FC, Chattanooga FC, Boca Raton FC, Boston City FC, a group from Hartford, and Virginia Beach City FC. 

Fifth, that mix of teams, paired with other likely additions, leads me to believe that NPSL PRO will begin as a semi-regional league built around four clusters of teams.

What the league looks like (if I’m right)

The foundation of teams that have already publicly expressed interest and, given their letter of intent, have had some level of financial vetting, hints at an emerging super-regional structure.

Imagine a smaller version of MLS’s two conferences. The teams play most of their games within those conferences to manage overall travel costs, but also play across conferences throughout the season to fill out the schedule. Add playoffs at the end and voila, it is a familiar and proven professional American sports league format.

The warm conference

The core group here is Miami FC, Jacksonville Armada, Chattanooga FC, Virginia Beach City FC and Boca Raton FC.

There are existing and successful NPSL teams in Asheville and Greenville and strong evidence that the USL is working hard behind the scenes to co-opt these markets for themselves. Both would be great additions that would help to surround Chattanooga with nearby clubs. 

Eight is a perfect, even number. Does a club like Miami United have the financial wherewithal to join as well? Do the owners band together to give the Atlanta Silverbacks a leg up and a chance to go professional again? The point is not that these are the options that should be considered, but that there are intuitively plausible options that could be considered.

The cold conference

The core group here is Detroit City FC, New York Cosmos, and Boston City FC. For the purposes of this article, I will include the Hartford group, though the USL announcement that they are launching a team in Hartford would give that investor pause. Elm City Express, from New Haven, CT, an already a professional outfit with ties to a professional Brazilian club, is an interesting option. FC Motown from Morristown, NJ is another club with professional quality in its ranks, but it may be an investor and a stadium short of being able to pull it all together. Still, it seems like there is a likely foursome of East Coast teams.

That leaves Detroit City all alone, and even Le Rouge will need teams nearby lest they break the bank flying to every away game. 

Likely candidates include Grand Rapids FC, a club that draws well and is regularly discussed as an organization with professional potential. AFC Ann Arbor appear to have the ownership wealth to compete in NPSL PRO, but there are questions over how deep their support goes and if they are too close to Detroit, though a continuation of their rivalry with Le Rouge would be fun. Milwaukee Torrent are also a likely addition because they already pay their players and appear to have a strong level of financial backing. 

Less likely, but worth consideration, is Columbus. The financial situation of the existing ownership group is unclear, but should Precourt move the Crew, then it would be silly not to consider this as a likely market, especially at NPSL PRO level. 

There are options to fill out the Midwest, but each have drawbacks.

It’s Minneapolis City time

Could the Crows be in line for a move to NPSL PRO?

Minneapolis is a big market and the club has stated its belief that the Twin Cities can support two professional soccer teams along the lines of how the Minnesota Twins and St. Paul Saints are able to co-exist at their respective levels.

The club’s profile, helped by the interest, creativity, and writing of the active and knowledgeable soccer fans that have supported lower division soccer since 1990, would be a great addition to the league. The history of support here for the lower division game gives hope that a second club could thrive in this market.

Minneapolis City itself is well run and has found success  without spending very much money, certainly less than the other clubs we have considered as NPSL PRO candidates. There is every reason to believe that a bigger budget would be equally well used and the timing seems to be right. Minnesota United are moving into a stadium that is smaller than their recent average draw. Expect ticket price increases and a string of sellouts. That’s great for a brand trying to be akin to the cool band, but also creates a marketplace opening for the independent, accessible, and affordable soccer that Minneapolis City provides. Again, we are back to the Twins-Saints parallel (at least back when the Twins had just moved into Target Field). There are a lot of reasons to think City should make the step up.

Or is it?

There are a few reasons to think that Minneapolis City will be unable to make the step up, assuming they even want to.

Minneapolis City is an example of a club doing things the right way, as a group, and staying true to their “DIY” ethos. Remember when Saints the they played in rickety old Midway Stadium? That vibe of the small, independent team that was doing its own weird thing and making a name for itself in the local scene because it was so much fun is a vibe that City very much has.

However much I like what the group is doing, their values, and their management team, realism intrudes when we talk about leveling the club up from where it is to a $1.5 million dollar budget.

First, does the current group backing the club have the financial ability to fund the club at a professional level?

There is no reason to believe that this group does not have the money for this except that operating a professional club requires an awful lot of money. There may be a moneybags silent partner behind this, there may be more money within this group than it appears (which would be classically Minnesotan actually, so don’t count that out), or, and this is most likely given the sums involved, they do a great job of getting incredible bang for their buck, but would need a new investor to be able to afford a seven-figure budget. Club statements seem to indicate that the latter is true. 

Second, would the members even approve of a move to NPSL PRO?

The devil is in the details here because the primary question would be how much PRO changes the club’s mission. Things to consider would be how the move impacts the local player focus, does the team continue its NPSL North side in addition to an NPSL PRO team, and can the club keep touch with supporters if it operates at a larger scale. This is a minefield that would have to be navigated.

Third, where do they play? 

While Augsburg is a fantastic NPSL stadium, at least when it is not under construction, a 2,000 seat stadium, without the ability to sell alcohol, is a major issue. The stadium issue also involves revenue from parking and concessions. 

Other college and high school stadiums would run into the same issue of alcohol and revenue streams. It is indicative that the Minnesota Thunder were willing to give up the central location of St. Paul Central’s James Griffin Stadium and return to Blaine because of these shortcomings. 

It would require investment and the partnership of the notoriously difficult Minneapolis Park & Rec Board, but Parade Stadium is a long shot option with a great location that could potentially be built out in a viable way. However, this has been explored before, and every time the MPRB and neighbors kill the question before it is fairly asked. For this to happen, a wealthy and influential friend of the club would be needed. I wonder if the Dayton’s like independent soccer because that is what it would take.

If they could stomach a name change, assuming they do not keep the name the same and make it all a joke (which is a real possibility for this team), they could consider the Vikings’ new training stadium in Eagan.

The 8,000 seat stadium is the right size and would have the right amenities. The downfall is that it would be in Eagan and associated with the Vikings, whose ownership group has not exactly endeared itself to the Minnesota soccer public. Also, it would be in Eagan.

It is a tough business

The NPSL PRO idea is a fantastic one, and the one with the best potential to bring broad local representation and a foundation for an American pro/rel future to the game. It is also a longshot for just about every current club in the NPSL, including Minneapolis City.

Sports are a tough business, at least outside the TV-contract insulated top level of major sports, and even then the franchises are often purposefully run as tax write-off vehicles for their fantastically wealthy owners. 

Considering the information available it appears, absent someone fantastically wealthy who can overcome the stadium issue and provide the start-up funding, expect that Minneapolis City will remain at their current level.

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