Talking Points: Promoting The Game

MLS Talking Points

There are several Football fans out there who have no idea what the NASL is. I would class myself as a Footballing ‘geek’. I’ll quote facts and figures from random players and teams around the world, no doubt boring the people I am with. America was my home for four years and it was there that I started looking for opportunities to get involved in sport. I knew that American “Soccer” had more than just the MLS, but had no real idea what else was out there. It turns out that under the MLS was the NASL. I applied to several teams in this league and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers offered me an internship. Working for the Strikers, I got to learn more about their history. It was fascinating. George Best and Franz Beckenbauer both played for them.

One of my first assignments was media duty in a cup game against MLS opposition, Sporting Kansas City. Though the MLS side won the contest, there was not a great deal of difference in quality of play between the two sides. Fort Lauderdale, being the only Football team in South Florida, had the fan market cornered. Miami FC was just a concept but the huge Hispanic population made it clear that an MLS team had great potential. There was only the idea for an MLS team, and no merit based movement between the MLS and NASL. South Florida couldn’t have the large scale team they craved. To move up the Strikers would need to make a proposal to the MLS and wait for approval. American sport doesn’t work like this. The NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB all have minor leagues, but teams stay in the division they are in.

A big attraction to American fans of European Football is the relegation and promotion system. It’s exciting at the top and the bottom. The MLS, in my view, is missing a trick. It could create a niche market: the only sport that can keep fans interested all season. There would be no tanking to get a high draft pick, finishing mid table would have an interest if a late season run kept you in the top division. The MLS has to be proactive and distinguish itself from the other, more established, sports. I for one would like to see Orlando City v. Tampa Bay Rowdies. The Red Bulls v NYCFC has created a genuine rivalry. Lets create some more.

The biggest obstacle to a relegation and promotion system in United States soccer came in 2013 when the MLS announced a partnership with the United Soccer League. This effectively formed a reserve league for MLS teams. The United Soccer League has only been in operation since 2011. It Started with 15 teams and has doubled in size to 30. This growth shows no sign of ending. Fresno FC, Las Vegas Lights FC, and Nashville FC are joining the United Soccer League in 2018. This is certainly down to the MLS partnership. Under the agreement made in 2013 if an MLS team didn’t enter a reserve team under its own name they would be required to have an affiliate in the USL. Reserve teams allow the main team to pull young players who show exceptional talent into their own ranks after testing them in a competitive environment. This is an identical set up to the MLB, NHL and NBA. Each MLS, NHL and NBA team will have an affiliated team in a minor league. The Boston Red Sox for example have the Portland Sea Dawgs in AA, and the Pawtucket Red Sox in AAA baseball. There is no possibility of any teams in AA or AAA moving up to the MLB and the MLB, just like the MLS, have a monopoly. There is no worry about relegation and the potential loss of revenue.

Finance has been a major issue for most NASL teams. Even the re-formed New York Cosmos are said to be having money troubles. In December 2016 the Cosmos fired the majority of their staff, and there were even reports that all players and coaches would also be released. The New York Cosmos are one of the most iconic American Soccer teams of all time. Pele, Giorgio Chinaglia, and Beckenbauer have all represented the Cosmos. Coincidently their first game back in the league was against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers during my internship. Since then the club has folded and is not registered to play in the next NASL championship. The league is down to 8 teams. Minnesota United have joined the MLS. Ottawa Fury and the Tampa Bay Rowdies have moved to the USL because the partnership with the MLS means moving there makes financial sense. The NASL, more than any other, would benefit from a relegation system. Money isn’t the only reason to institute movement between the leagues.

A system that European players understand has the potential to draw interest from some of Footballs biggest stars. Involvement from players that American Soccer fans recognise will help promote ALL American leagues, not just the NASL. Beckham took an interest in Miami FC and now even my wife recognises the team name. Ronaldo became the part-owner of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and promised to make them a global brand. Staff and players were brought in from Brazil because the first step to creating a global brand is obviously signing ex Brazil star Kleberson. The problem is that without the relegation and promotion that these household names are used to they may quickly lose interest.

So, what does the future hold? It’s not looking good. In 2016 US Soccer granted the NASL and USL provisional Division 2 status for the 2017 season. However, in September U.S. Soccer has decided to take back the awarding of Division 2 status to the NASL. New Division 2 standards state that a league needs to have 12 teams. The NASL has 8. U.S. soccer has been accused of collusion with the MLS and USL to remove the NASL as competition to either of these leagues. With the only league that would stand to benefit from a promotion and relegation system facing an uncertain future it is certainly not something we can expect anytime soon.