Friday, April 21, 2006
USL Vice President Tim Holt
took questions from fans over the past week for a USLsoccer.com Q & A. He answers a number of questions concerning expansion, media and the internet, competition and other topics in depth.
“Are there any expansion teams coming in the near future?”
There are always USL expansion teams coming in the near future! This has been one of the hallmarks of USL over its 20 years of existence – the ability to identify and add new ownership groups in different markets across the United States, Canada and Caribbean interested in growing the game at the professional or senior amateur level.
I think many fans would be surprised at the volume of expansion inquiries we receive. For every USL expansion franchise, there are countless other inquiries that do not come to fruition. Why? Over the past several years, we have revamped our due diligence process at all levels to make it more stringent. USL and its senior leagues have reached the point where adding quality franchises are far more important than simply adding numbers. To this effect, each league now has an Expansion Committee made up of team owners and executives, which evaluate serious candidates. Conducting a comprehensive screening process to ensure prospective franchise owners are a good fit for our respective leagues are what we believe differentiates USL (the PDL and W-League in particular) from all of the various other regional and national adult soccer leagues across the country.
“I think about there being no professional sports in Hawaii. The MLS held an exhibition game out there prior to last season. I wonder if the USL would ever consider starting a team there and why (not)?”
As long-time USL fans will recall, the Hawaii Tsunami competed in USL during the 1990s and we are certainly not averse to returning. Due to geography, it is a challenge to incorporate a Hawaiian team into an American sports league. This has also created some challenges for Hawaiian soccer to continue to develop at the rate of most of the country, but it is clear through attendance at exhibition matches and the emergence of homegrown players like Brian Ching (former USL standout and current U.S. National Team player) that this is a vibrant soccer market. Considering some of the economic hurdles related to travel (for a Hawaii-based team and its opponents), the only league where this would seem plausible is in USL-1 and despite some conversations over the past 18 months with interested parties, a USL franchise in Hawaii is not imminent.
“There is a big void of USL-1 teams in the midwest and southwest. It's seems like a catch-22 - that no team can afford to jump into the league because they'd be the only one, and travel would be a problem; therefore, the void continues. Is there any hope that some teams will come out of these barren areas in the future? “
I am not convinced the “vicious cycle” theory is the basis for USL-1 not having a presence in these regions of the country on a level similar to its presence on the east coast and in the northwest. Yes, there is indeed hope of USL professional soccer moving back into these areas in the immediate future and expansion west of the Mississippi River is a priority for both USL-1 and USL-2.
“I was wondering whether there was an effort afoot to re-establish franchises in Calgary and Edmonton in the future? These two cities are a natural geographic fit for Vancouver and other West Coast cities. --- Any possibility of USL-1 or even PDL soccer coming back to Calgary or Edmonton?”
For starters, it was a disappointment to us that the USL franchises in Calgary and Edmonton earlier in the decade were unsustainable. We believe that the lack of USL-1 appropriate venues (either too small or too large) and poor execution of reasonable business plans are the primary reasons for the failure of these teams to gain a foothold. With that said, we fully expect to be back in both markets at some level of USL within the next couple of years, most likely in the PDL and/or W-League. There are currently youth clubs from both areas competing in our Super Y-League (SYL) and USL Super-20 League. We feel it would be a natural extension of their club structure for any of these organizations to vertically-integrate a USL senior franchise. Regardless of the group, the biggest challenge will remain identifying appropriately sized venues to host USL matches and having the clubs make a real connection with the soccer community.
“Does USL have any expansion plans, existing PDL excluded, for USL-1 or USL-2 in the Akron or Cleveland areas of Ohio?”
Aside from the Cleveland Internationals, which operate a highly successful youth soccer club and are the owners of PDL and W-League franchises in the market, we have no concrete expansion plans for a USL professional league team in Northeast Ohio. We do believe this region would support a USL professional soccer franchise. Those who follow current events in American soccer will be aware that former Crunch GM Paul Garafolo is behind a project that could potentially bring outdoor professional soccer to Northeast Ohio, perhaps at the MLS level. We certainly believe that Paul and his group could achieve their objectives with a USL-1 franchise, however respect the ongoing process. Increasingly, prospective American and Canadian soccer franchise owners are realizing USL-1 provides an alternative business model and approach to owning/operating a top-level professional soccer team.
“Are there any plans for USL to implement another team in Puerto Rico? There's reports in the news that there are plans for an affiliate of River Plate making a team in the city of Mayaguez down here.”
We are aware of the establishment of a River Plate affiliate academy in the western part of Puerto Rico and that there may be interest in establishing a professional soccer team as part of this project. Our primary concern is supporting the Puerto Rico Islanders, who have made a major investment into the future growth of soccer at all levels on the island. They have achieved relative success in their first two seasons in USL-1; however it is crucial that they continue to be afforded every opportunity to cultivate the support of the fans and corporate community. In the future, if the Islanders believe the addition of a second USL-1 franchise in Puerto Rico would not cannibalize their support we would only then explore whether a particular group possessed the wherewithal to be able to own/operate a USL-1 franchise. River Plate is an important club and brand internationally and we are flattered by any interest they may have in fielding a team in USL. If it is ultimately deemed infeasible for two USL-1 teams to cohabitate in Puerto Rico, we hope River Plate would consider other markets for a USL expansion team.
“When can we expect a men’s pro USL team in the Philly and Tampa areas?”
As a Philadelphia-native and Tampa-resident, it pains me that both markets are without outdoor professional soccer. In both situations, there are challenges in terms of a venue that works for USL professional soccer and to date identifying a local ownership group committed to making this a reality has not yielded results. Both markets have a strong history of supporting the game at the professional level, most notably during the NASL era, however without the ownership and venue solutions the fans in both markets will continue to lack the teams they richly deserve and would passionately support.
MEDIA / INTERNET
“Many USL teams do not have webcasts. What is your view on fans of each club making the commitment to devise their own webcasts in support for there team?” --- “Are there any new media outlet ventures coming in the near future that will help soccer fans be more in tune with the USL First and Second Division? It is quite clear that the more influence the game has on fans, the better the turn out will be at games.”
In order for USL to explore opportunities that collectively benefit USL and all of its teams, it is necessary for us to continue to control all broadcast rights of our matches on network, cable, satellite and internet networks. It is the objective of USL to make the broadcast transmission (audio and video) of as many of our matches available to as many fans as possible. Understanding this serves to drive our broadcast strategy forward, it is important to recognize that the presentation of these matches must be done in a professional and uniform manner.
Presently we have an inadequate number of our USL-1 matches available to maximize affinity to our league and often times for fans to be able to follow their teams on the road. As technology continues to open up opportunities for sports leagues of all sizes to enter into the world of broadcasting, as never before, we believe the future for USL broadcast initiatives is bright. In no other USL league is this more important than in USL-1. If we intend to be perceived as a credible major professional sports league, it is imperative that our total broadcast footprint become significantly larger. Fortunately, the market environment lends itself to achieving this objective. Not only is there unprecedented interest from amongst several cable/satellite networks as to USL team and league televised programming opportunities, but also the potential of web/internet-based video broadcasting that have the capability of making USL more accessible than ever before to our fans. It is the mission of USL management to capitalize on these opportunities and actively identify different means of exposing the highest number of USL-1 matches across as broad a platform in North America as possible. To this end, we have established a Broadcast Committee, which is assisting league management in exploring initiatives and otherwise find ways for USL (primarily USL-1) to increase its profile through broadcasting. It seems likely that in order to make a majority of our league matches accessible to a national audience, internet video broadcasts will be part of the equation. Within twelve months, we expect to be able to make the majority of USL-1 matches available for fans to watch either on television or the internet. It is possible the fruits of some of these efforts may be evident as early as this season. Meanwhile, our fans can continue to follow select USL-1 regular season, USL League Championships (all levels), and look forward to the introduction of a new feature-based show on Fox Soccer Channel in 2006.
“Has there ever been any consideration in creating a Spanish version of the USL website in hopes of spreading info about the league?”
We are always actively working on ways to make USLsoccer.com more fan-friendly not only for our Spanish-speaking fans, but also those who speak French. The introduction of weekly video highlights is one way we are able to minimize the effect of the language barrier. Those regularly visiting our site will also have noticed an increased emphasis on the generation of new content and features focusing on all levels of USL. This is just the tip of the iceberg and we expect to better utilize our website to tell compelling stories about the owners, coaches and players that make USL unique.
“Is there any consideration of breaking down the USL First Division into regional brackets? I feel that the lack of traveling fans due to long distances depreciate the value of the team. I know that it is quite difficult, as a fan, to travel to Vancouver from Atlanta to see an away match.”
We do not feel that regionalizing USL-1 is the model that works best for this league. This is the model that works best for USL-2. The single-table format in USL-1 is resonating with our fans and allows for each market to see 11 different opponents over the course of the season, rather than just half of the league’s teams. Geographic rivalries are a critical component in the growth of our league over the years and to ensure an emphasis on this we have made additional “rivalry matches” beyond the home and away against every team as part of the scheduling process. We believe the combination of a variety of opponents from all over the league and a focus on maximizing the geographic rivalries so that fans can travel to certain away games is the best of both worlds in a league that covers such a vast geographical expanse.
“Will USL ever consider getting rid of the playoff system? In my personal opinion, it squanders the season. There is no fire until the playoffs. The fans that can't travel far distances to see their teams that play in the finals are stuck having to watch it on tape delay or on a channel they can't afford. My opinion, give the game back to the people, they are the ones who love the sport the most.”
We don’t believe conducting a playoff to serve as the culmination of the competition takes the game away from the people. While I am a big proponent of embracing the tradition of the game as it is internationally, it is important to simultaneously recognize that we are a North American sports league and that not every concept taken from North American sports is wrong simply because it may not be the norm in world soccer. I am not advocating bigger goals or the reintroduction of the 35-yard shootout, but we strongly believe that the playoff phase of our competition is not only welcomed by the majority of our fans but also adds an exciting finale to the competition. In USL-1, we have gone to great lengths in developing a league structure that rewards excellence over the regular season. First, we award our regular season champion with the Commissioner’s Cup, which is a very important trophy in USL-1 (and formerly the A-League) and recognizes performance over the entire season. Additionally, we provide both the Commissioner’s Cup winner and the second place team with automatic berths into the league semifinals. As anyone who has attended or watched our USL-1 Championship broadcasts on television will attest, the excitement generated by a single match to crown a champion is special. It certainly has the aura of a Cup Final, which is something fans worldwide will recognize as a pinnacle moment.
“A lot of USL fans like the idea of their teams knocking off MLS clubs in the US Open Cup and would like to see that extended to knocking off every other team on the planet. Is there any discussion regarding granting a seed in the CONCACAF Champion’s Cup to the US Open Cup winner, rather than both spots going to MLS?”
This is a question for the United States Soccer Federation more so than USL. It seems unfathomable that the winner of the Federation’s only national championship event is not afforded the right to represent the United States in the CONCACAF Champion’s Cup, yet this is the case. The Federation Champion, presumably the U.S. Open Cup Champion, should be the primary representative at this event. Although we advocate the two U.S. Open Cup Finalists (regardless of league affiliation) serve as the two USSF representatives at the Confederation competition, we accept that the MLS Champion would receive one of the berths. We are at a loss to explain why both of these prestigious berths serve only as a possibility for 12 teams, rather than for all American teams determined on merit; however it lends credence to the opinions of many fans of the sport in the United States that the U.S. Open Cup is not taken seriously by our national governing body and the lack of any true reward for winning it prevents our domestic Cup from becoming the competition it deserves to be.
“USL-1 runs a draft every year, yet it seems that draft picks pretty much can sign with whomever they please, which seems to make it rather pointless. Can you shed some light on this and is there any way you see that this can actually become more effective, or am I misunderstanding something?”
Actually, I believe an increasing number of players selected in the USL-1 College Player Draft have signed with those teams over the past three years. While our College Player Draft remains a vehicle by which teams can obtain recent college players, we do not promote or advocate that this is the primary means by which our teams are or should be building their squads. Our paring down of the College Player Draft to two rounds is consistent with the preference of our league to emphasize the importance of developing players through a vertically-integrated club structure to include Super Y-League (U13-U17), USL Super-20 League (U20) and PDL (U23) teams in addition to the college soccer infrastructure. For now, our College Player Draft continues to provide some offseason publicity value and allow teams to establish themselves an exclusive negotiating period with those recent college graduates they highly value.
“My comment contains three questions. Since Miami FC has joined the USL, they have done more major signings then many of the other USL-1 franchises in the recent past. Do you think that the signings of Romario and Zinho will help the league overall? Also do you think the "big league" feel of this new team will help the USL compete with MLS for players? Finally, do you think more major clubs will show interest in the USL over MLS due to the ability to control ones own club (ex. Ajax Orlando)?”
This is fabulous series of questions and is the essence of the main talking points of this past offseason.
First, we are thrilled to have added an ownership group like Traffic Sports USA and have every confidence Miami FC will be a success on and off the field. Certainly the signings of Romario and Zinho have garnered quite a bit of media attention for their club and for our league in outlets that we have typically not been regularly exposed. This is wonderful for the league in terms of making greater inroads into the consciousness of the casual sports fan. Playing with and against players of such international experience and stature will only serve to raise the level of competition in our league and help develop our younger professionals.
While Miami FC has taken all of the necessary steps thus far to be perceived as an important club in North American soccer, I would argue that we have a substantial number of USL-1 franchises that are “big league.” By the end of the 2007 season, we will have seven USL-1 teams competing in soccer stadiums that their ownership group owns or controls (Atlanta, Charleston, Virginia Beach, Rochester, Montreal, Portland and Cary) with Vancouver coming on board by the end of the decade. I cannot overstate the importance of this to the stability of the league, the viability of the individual franchises, and future growth opportunities for both. USL-1 teams have been competing with MLS teams for players since the inception of their league. While MLS has certainly been successful in procuring the signatures of the current pool of U.S. National Team players, it is not as if the top 300 players in the country ply their trade in MLS and then the next 300 play in USL. One could make the assertion based on past results in meaningful competitions between the two leagues that any difference on the field is as a result of the top 4-6 players on a MLS roster. As you suggest above, this could begin to change if USL-1 places a greater emphasis on international club affiliations/relationships.
Going back to Miami FC, it is through their extensive network of relationships in the game abroad that Traffic has been able to make the Romario signing a reality. The business model differs between MLS and USL in terms of owning/operating a soccer franchise. There is not necessarily a right or wrong way, just different ways of trying to present professional sports entertainment. Philosophically, USL leans towards providing its franchise owners with a greater level of autonomy as it relates to the building one’s team and controlling all local revenue opportunities. We feel both serve as incentives to invest in and grow a soccer club. MLS has made a tremendous amount of progress off the field over the past five years and continues to be an important factor in the development of professional soccer in the United States. We have every respect for the investment of their owners in the sport domestically, yet what is often overlooked is the cumulative investment of USL owners at all levels in the development of the game in this country. It no doubt rivals the contribution of any other single soccer organization in the United States or Canada. Increasingly, USL-1 represents a viable alternative for well-capitalized, prospective individuals or entities to enter into the business of owning/operating a top-level professional soccer team in an established North American league with 20 years of history.
“Northern Virginia dropped from a pro league to an amateur one, isn’t that unfair to the other teams in the league if they keep all their players?”
You are correct in stating that the Royals, in moving from USL-2 to the PDL, went from a professional league to an amateur one by USSF definition. One of the main implications of this is that they are no longer able to pay any players registered as professionals on their roster provided they are using players with collegiate eligibility remaining. Thus, any players that remain on their roster from the 2005 season will now be competing on a non-compensated basis. It would be a mistake to assume that a team moving from USL-2 into the PDL with a semblance of their old roster intact will dominate the PDL. Ask any of the several dozen professional teams that have been knocked out of the US Open Cup over the past decade how they feel about the relative quality of the PDL and you will find that this league features not only the best professional prospects but also some of the top teams in the U.S. and Canada regardless of league affiliation.
“I really enjoy the US Open Cup. I was wondering if there was one for women?”
Unfortunately, there is neither a US Soccer Federation run Open Cup for women, or for youth.
Without a significant number of top-level women’s teams that are together for periods greater than three or four months, it would be a challenge to conduct a comprehensive Women’s Open Cup. Frankly with the top women’s club teams in the country playing in the W-League, the W-League Championship is the most important women’s soccer trophy in North America. If, and when, a women’s professional league re-emerges, the time for a US Women’s Open Cup will have arrived.
What is more unfortunate is the absence of a National Youth Open Cup in the United States. A decade ago this would have been completely unnecessary as the top competitive clubs in the country competed exclusively within the USYS National Championships. However anyone familiar with the landscape of youth soccer in the United States over the past five years will recognize the top competitive clubs are now fragmented amongst a host of different organizations, namely Super Y-League, USYS, US Club Soccer, and even currently unaffiliated teams. A USSF-operated Youth Open Cup to pit the best teams regardless of league affiliation against one another will be the only way to crown a true youth national Cup champion and would nicely complement the North American league structure that defines the SYL.
“Does USL have a program like MLS to sign the top youth national team players before college?
Unlike MLS, the centralized USL office is not in the business of signing players. This is the domain of our teams. In the USL structure it is the league office’s responsibility to manage competitions and create programs that offer the best possible landscape for the development of players signed by our teams. Thus, rather than sign a handful of elite prospects annually we have taken the approach of creating a pyramid of leagues for elite level competition and leaving it to the teams to identify, develop, and train players. For instance, a top player in Richmond (VA) can compete within the Richmond Kickers competitive team programs until the age of 13 at which point they can proceed into the SYL program teams, then graduate onto the Super-20 team, followed by the PDL (U23) team, and eventually sign with the USL-2 professional team. It is through the creation of a competitive environment for the top 1% of soccer players in the United States and Canada that we can have the greatest impact on player development.
“Is it going to be possible to take the USL First Division and the USL Second Divison and merge them? -- Will the USL and MLS come together so that there will be relegation and promotion, because if football is going to be big then we need to have teams fight for the top spot in us football like they do in the great EPL?”
It is not our intention to merge USL-1 and USL-2. Each has its own unique identity, philosophy and business model.
As it relates to USL–MLS promotion/relegation, I do not suspect you will see this in the short to medium term. It has never been a serious topic of discussion between the two entities and in a franchise-based league model this is a complicated process even if both leagues are committed to making it happen.
We appreciate some of these difficulties because we continue to explore the implementation of an internal form of promotion/relegation between USL-1 and USL-2. Again, this is complex considering an owner obtains certain rights with the purchase of a sports franchise, thus it will require a creative combination of factors beyond simply one’s place in the league table in a given year to adopt such a system. Needless to say, if we can find a way to make this happen it would add an element of excitement to the competitions through the end of the season and make every match that much more meaningful.
“With Rochester and Atlanta soon to have their own soccer-specific stadiums, could we see a few more US Men’s National Team friendlies like the Jamaica-USA match in Cary?”
The proliferation of soccer-specific stadiums within USL should lead to a greater frequency of these venues hosting important Men’s and Women’s National Team gmes in the United States and Canada. Whether it is Atlanta, Cary, Rochester, Virginia Beach, Charleston or any number of others, teams that own and/or operate venues that are appropriate for National Team events and international exhibitions will definitely have a leg up on those which do not.
June 3, 2006 will be one of the most important dates in USL history as not one, but two, USL franchises, (Rochester Raging Rhinos and Atlanta Silverbacks) will play their inaugural matches in the newly built PAETEC Park and Silverbacks Park respectively. All the credit goes to owners Frank DuRoss (Rochester) and Boris Jerkunica (Atlanta) for their commitment to making these projects a reality. We also eagerly anticipate other stadium projects already in the works in Vancouver and Montreal, both of which are to be privately funded by the franchise ownership groups.
Thanks for all of your thoughtful questions and my apologies if I did not get to all of them. The calendar year 2006 represents twenty years of the USL family working to develop the game at its highest levels. We owe a major debt of gratitude to all of the USL owners (past and present) who have supported the game by operating teams. They are in this because they are passionate about the sport and believe in its potential in the United States and Canada through USL. It is on the strength of their commitment and vision that USL will continue to make a lasting impact on the advancement of the game. Yet they realize as well as we do that without the fervent support of fans in all of our 100+ markets we cannot achieve our objectives. We sincerely appreciate your support of USL. Any member of our hard working staff is always willing to entertain any thoughts you may have on how we can improve the operations of our leagues. Send us an e-mail if you are ever so inclined – we love hearing from you!