USL Unveils Bold Plan to Expand League to 40 Teams
USL President Tim Holt spoke with American Soccer Now contributing editor Brian Sciaretta about the league's partnership with MLS, its growth plans, and its application for Division Two status.
BY Brian Sciaretta PostedTHE UNITED SOCCER LEAGUE made headlines last week with a rebranding effort that simultaneously unveiled a bold vision for the league's affiliation with Major League Soccer and expressed its desire to be a top lower-division league with a strong footprint in the American soccer landscape. Tim Holt is the president of USL and he spoke to ASN about his longterm vision, the decision to rebrand, the affiliation with MLS, and the league's application for division two status. BRIAN SCIARETTA FOR ASN: You presented a bold vision for USL over the past week—what prompted the announcements? TIM HOLT: I think you're correct in stating that it is a bold vision. I think it is also a really clear vision and it is not one we sort of concocted overnight. We spent essentially the last four years building and rebuilding this particular pro league property to the point where we are starting to see the yield in terms of the strength of the teams on and off the field; the structure of the league; the partnership with MLS; the venues; and the teams that are moving on to MLS based on their performance in USL. So a lot of these things are starting to come to fruition. We just thought that the timing was really ideal to have a new brand—and a new brand identity and look—all the way from the logo to our website to everything about us that fits where we are as a league at the present time and where we're going in the next few years. ASN: You see these reserve teams for top teams in Europe now playing in a formal setting. For example in Germany, the reserve teams are usually in the Regionalliga and 3.Liga. Was this USL model designed after any particular league? HOLT: It's interesting that you mention that because I think it pulls from a number of different sources of successful soccer leagues and sports properties both domestically and internationally. I think the Championship league in England would be one—a top lower league division that is very respected with top clubs and a strong brand. We look at that as part of what we are, and strive to be, going forward. But also some of the American sports models and minor leagues sports have also been successes—like affiliated baseball and affiliated hockey and to some extent the NBA D-League. I think we have pulled a little bit from those, but let's face it, American soccer is unique unto itself and you can't take another model that works someplace else and cookie cut it. Every industry is different. It’s growing so rapidly that we just thought this model A) made the most sense for our league and our owners and B) filled an important void in the sport right now which is sort of an economically sensible yet ambitious lower-division professional soccer model below MLS in this country. ASN: When you see reserve teams named Red Bulls II or Galaxy II, what is going to draw people to these games given that they don’t seem to have their own identity? What is going to make someone go out and support a reserve team? Is it just people who want to see the young players for the parent club? HOLT: The names of the teams, first of all, are the decisions of individual ownership groups. We have eight ownership groups in USL Pro League that also own MLS teams. Most of those, at least in this initial stage, have chosen to name teams, “something II.” That doesn’t need to be a permanent marker. It allows them to move in other different directions but they’re relying on the strength of the existing brand. A couple of have gone on a connected-but-different direction, like Real Monarchs SLC. If you look at the logo and look, it’s clearly associated with Real Salt Lake. But it is its own, different, standalone brand. It's the same with FC Montreal doing something different than the Impact. The other six teams have chosen to go the other route. I think [franchise success] will have a lot more to do with the game experience: the venues, and the level of play on the field. It’s not going to matter if it is Portland Timbers II or if they decide to name it the Portland Bears. ASN: Don Garber has been very public that he wants MLS to be one of the best leagues in the world in 10 years. Every commissioner or president seems to set these goals for their leagues. What are the goals for USL in the next five or 10 years? What are the specific benchmarks that you want to meet? HOLT: We have something that has been shaped by our team owners called Destination 2020. It's an internal strategic plan for us as a league property, and individual teams, to get where we need to be. We want our teams to be operating profitably by the end of this decade. We want them playing in their own soccer-suitable stadium that they own or control. We are about halfway to that point right now. There is some work to be done on that, where all venues have 5,000 or more seats. We want to have a robust footprint in all regions of the country. We are at 24 teams now. We anticipate, without any drop-off in the quality in the ownership groups, that we should be a 30-plus or 40-team league by the end of the decade. Whether that is two conferences, three conferences, or four divisions, it really becomes a function of what the owners want to do. [We want] a geographic or regional competition model that has representation all over the country and it becomes connected in terms of its national footprint. So those are sort of the main things. One is economic, one is venue related, and the quality on the field will continue to blossom not just because of the relationship with MLS but also the focus of our teams to go out and find the best and strongest. Our players skew a little bit younger. The majority of the players that play in USL now are under 23. We’re not a U-23 league, however, and we’re not a reserve league for MLS. We are an ambitious pro soccer league. Yes, there are definitely big ambitions for the league. We feel that we are off and running. Three years on if you look at where we were in 2011 and where we are now, things have come a long way. But we are nowhere close to where we strive to be by the end of this decade. ASN: How tough or easy has it been to find owners and investors in the league? HOLT: I don’t think it’s tough or easy. I think what happens when you are able to demonstrate that when you‘ve proven success with Orlando’s or Sacramento’s and you can show stability and strength, good partnerships like we have with Nike and MLS, then you make a compelling case for prospective soccer team owners that this is the right situation. I would say that interest in USL expansion has risen substantially over the last 24 months. For us it’s just a matter of being really discerning. We’ve had a huge year of growth—13 new teams. Half of those were MLS-owned teams but the other half were not. For each one of those that has come in, there is another 20 that [haven't been ready]. So the interest level is very high. It’s just that the challenge for us is making sure we make really good decisions about the type of owners and markets that we bring in and that they’ve bought into the philosophy and future direction of the league. I think we’ve done a better job of that in the past three or four years than we had done before that. ASN: You applied for Division Two status. What does that mean for the league? Why did you do that and does that now put you in direct competition with the North American Soccer League? HOLT: I don’t think it puts us in any different position with the NASL for competition. In the federation of U.S. Soccer, you can have multiple second-division leagues, multiple division-three leagues, and from my best understanding, multiple first-division leagues. It’s not whether there is a league that meets that criteria. It’s whether your league meets all the standards that the federation has published. It is certainly not in any way about competing with the NASL. It’s sort of just part of the natural evolution of where our league is. We meet or exceed the vast majority of division-two standards currently. I think unfortunately there is a misconception out there that if you’re a division-three league you are lesser or less ambitious than a division-two league. That isn’t necessarily the case. We have great confidence in the strength of our league and our teams and our performance on and off the field. The league and the team owners feel that the time has come to initiate the process of establishing the league as division two by going through the federation’s application process—which will take a number of months. To be clear on that, it’s part of the strategic vision. It wouldn’t be until the 2017 season that we anticipate operating under that platform. It’s not snapping your fingers. It is an involved process and the federation has very explicit standards for that. We are very confident we will meet and exceed all the standards for that. ASN: You’re going to have some teams affiliated with MLS and some teams that are not. Those that are affiliated with MLS have the priority to help the parent club while those that are unaffiliated are focused on winning. Is it going to be tough to have a league where different teams have different priorities? HOLT: We’ve talked about it at length and our owners couldn’t be more on the same page. We don’t act as a league as if we have two different classes of franchises here. We have MLS in USL and we understand these guys are about something else. What we’ve sort of discussed at length with each and every one of these MLS teams that has decided to make the commitment to establish their own second professional soccer team is that it is of paramount importance to our entire property to meet the standards at the highest level on and off the field. We told them that if that is not something that you are willing to buy into, then there are other ways to be involved. You can affiliate and a number of them have chosen to do that at this particular time. Not only have they consented to that but they’re fully behind it. Look no further than the Galaxy—and they jumped into to it before everyone else. I remember being told by a lot of folks that they’re not going to take it seriously and that it’s just for youth players. They took it extremely seriously. They were out to win a championship. We don’t expect it to be different for the other seven. Not only is everybody going to approach it that same way but in a growing number of situations, that some of the environments for these games are just going to be special. We think Seattle and Portland, for sure, with the kind of support and venues that they have and with the way their early tickets are tracking, that they are just going to be really positive and enhance the league. It gives the league a unique and special identity that will attract people to watch the league. And we don’t believe that it will create any new class system. ASN: You said this league could go up to 40 teams. That is a huge league. Do you ever envision tiers with promotion/relegation or do you think regional conferences work best? HOLT: I’m going to stay away from that! [Laughs]. It’s not a specific part of our strategic plan. I think the model we have accommodates 30-40 teams. The more teams you have, the more variance there is going to be in team performance. I don’t mean in terms of standings but in terms of fan support, corporate sponsorship, and the different types of markets. It certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility we could evolve to the point where that could be something that could be implemented. But that certainly isn’t a specific part of the plan that for this decade. Let’s get these markets, let’s get these teams strengthened, let’s get them profitable, let’s get them in the right type of stadiums. Then if you create that type of platform, then you’re going to have as a league all sorts of exciting potential alternatives to consider. I’ll just leave it at that. ASN: When you look at a successful team like Sacramento, now they are looking to move on from the league. How much is that going to hurt USL over the long haul if the best teams keep looking to move on? HOLT: No—we’re comfortable with who we are. We want to be the strongest league on and off the field below Major League Soccer. We don’t have any ambition as a league to be what MLS is. MLS does an exceptional job of being the top soccer league in this country. We’ve all sort of benefited from the ground they’ve plowed over the past few decades. We’re very comfortable as a league property where our niche will be—a vibrant lower-division league with a business model that makes sense for owners, players, and fans. Just like when a player performs at an exceptional level or a coach or an executive, they look to move on. Such is the case here. We’re part of a bigger ecosystem which is the American soccer ecosystem. We accept our role in that. We see it as an overwhelming positive. Sure, when we lost Orlando, we lost the highest-performing market in the league. But what it does is that it reinforces that this, if done right, is a pathway to the major league in this country. I’ll assure that if Sacramento is able to get that opportunity to go to MLS, they won’t be the last one. Someone else will step in an follow the blueprint that Orlando and Sacramento have taken. I think it’s good for the sport and good for MLS and it’s good for USL. ASN: A big part of MLS’s model has been TV deals—both national and local. I know that is a much tougher sell as a minor league but what are you doing to make the league more visible and able to be seen beyond locals attending games? HOLT: USL is a preferred partner of Youtube. All our teams will have all of their games streamed live in HD with a minimum three-camera shoot—for free. For us right now it is about visibility and exposure. In this day in age, being on Youtube you can watch it anywhere—on your big-screen TV, on your devices. We’re not in a position as a league to knock on the door of the big networks. That’s fine. I think for our highest-profile events, like our championship game, we anticipate that we will have a television broadcast that’s available on a national basis as early as this season. But for the 300-plus games and playoff games, our fans in any market—even in markets where they don’t have a USL team—can watch any game they want for free with a professionally produced broadcast. It's about continuing to get exposure for what we think is a really good product. Commercially, we are not monetizing that in a way that is going to completely change the dynamics of what our owners are doing. But with time, we think we can build some real value to our broadcast rights. That’s a longer term play. That’s not a 2015 play. Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. 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February 17, 2015
February 17, 2015