Endline: D-I not enough for NASL to challenge MLS

‘Endline’ is a weekly column in which David Martin surveys the NASL landscape for a topic of interest and fires a broadside of opinion. The content below reflects the opinion of the author alone and not that of Midfield Press or other individual staff.

Several weeks ago, we learned that USSF was proposing a change to its Division I minimum standards that would require 15,000-seat stadia, two million minimum populations for 75% of markets, and a minimum of sixteen teams in the league. The prospective changes prompted a backlash from NASL who, through representative Jeffrey Kessler, essentially accused USSF of moving the finish line just as NASL felt they were getting close to crossing it. The cozy relationship between USSF and MLS was highlighted, and the conspiracy theorists needed an extra cup of coffee to keep up with all the dialogue about USSF entrenching MLS’ position as the only top-level game in town.

I’m not big on conspiracies. I feel usually it’s enough to observe and rally against something that is wrong without needing to stir the pot of secret intent and greasy, evil businessmen cackling maniacally behind closed doors. Whether the two parties are conspiring to secure MLS’ throne is irrelevant when a simpler question exists: in an American soccer landscape without promotion and relegation, what is the point of having different tiers of soccer anyway?

One word is used more often than any other in describing the guidelines USSF has set separating Division I, II, and III in this country: arbitrary. Having a D-I tag currently grants you extra opportunities in the CONCACAF Champions League, but otherwise the distinction is currently a nominal one. Kartik Krishnayer has argued persuasively in favor of eliminating the distinctions altogether and allowing the separate leagues to compete freely without the prejudices that come with any given tag. I think he may be right. But if that doesn’t happen, and the status quo reigns as it so often does, would the divisional organization in U.S. soccer keep NASL from achieving its goals?

Minnesota United's 'Dark Clouds' celebrate a goal against the Armada (Photo: Minnesota United FC)

Minnesota United’s ‘Dark Clouds’ celebrate a goal against the Armada (Photo: Minnesota United FC)

Let’s clear up two things. First of all, full promotion and relegation – i.e., among all the leagues including MLS – is not going to happen for a long time, if ever. Personally, I don’t think promotion and relegation is right for this country at this time. You can take to the comments to make me aware of the benefits of the model; you’ll shock me if you say something I’m not already aware of. But my belief is that interest in the local flavor of the sport remains too unsteady for many markets to support a top team plunging to a lesser league, and the threat of relegation will cause investors to shy away from the opportunities they might otherwise jump at. We’ve seen a number of European clubs relegated from top leagues only to break under financial turmoil. How much worse might it be for American clubs with smaller, newer fan bases and a hundred other sporting options locally?

Second, not only is the distinction between divisions arbitrary, but it is probably ineffective. Fans and investors aren’t attracted to MLS specifically because it has USSF’s D-I blessing, but because the product looks and smells like a D-I production. If NASL earned D-I sanctioning tomorrow, the average fan would be either unaware of or confused by the distinction. They would look at the product on the field and say “no, this isn’t D-I.” Because those writing and reading about these topics are so close to the game, we forget that the less-invested fans who see a couple of games occasionally or tune in at home passively while talking with friends are not keeping up with these arguments. They instead see a quality of the sport, a stadium facility, or a television broadcast that they either like or do not. Significant investment can improve all of these factors and create increased interest without needing the arbitrary D-I sticker. Even if the D-I label were earned, only further investment would bolster the attractiveness of a club or league. In other words, this isn’t a chicken and egg quandary as some have painted it to be. Investment must come first, and that is equally rewarding and risky regardless of division standing for a less-established brand like NASL.

A great comparison is independent baseball. Currently, Major League Baseball is obviously the top league in the country and in the world. MLB has something similar to promotion and relegation in its minor league systems, only instead of moving teams among the tiers, the teams simply move players among those tiers. But separately, there exist leagues such as the American Association which are entirely separate from the MLB structure and are not designated to languish as a lesser brand by any formal decree. These independent leagues have every opportunity to unseat MLB as the premiere baseball brand in this country. But they do not, because the quality of the product and experience is lesser and the markets less lucrative; such leagues are considered a lesser option because MLB has established itself as the best there is through a long history and successful operation, and not because a separate body has demanded it be so. There is still opportunity to build within these independent leagues: the American Association’s St. Paul Saints built a brand new stadium for the 2015 season, has attracted numerous fans and had wild on-field success. If enough teams did that, the league could start to make a bigger name for itself, even as it is unlikely it would ever unseat an entrenched institution like MLB.

Al Lang Stadium (Photo: Tampa Bay Rowdies)

Al Lang Stadium Has Seen Significant Renovation For the 2015 Season (Photo: Tampa Bay Rowdies)

MLS is similarly entrenched due to its work in growing its product and selling itself well. Might there be conflicts of interest between MLS and USSF? Obviously, ones that should be addressed. But that would hardly have been sufficient for MLS to position itself so far ahead of its competition in North America. MLS was born in a relative vacuum, and has emerged from some very rough times to blossom into a strong, marketable product. This isn’t to defend everything MLS has ever done, but to say that it now is where it is and is neither bolstered nor protected by its D-I status. It is a D-I product by its own merit, not by USSF’s decree.

NASL is a new and growing league. It is a relatively healthy league for its age. It has been marred by some ownership snafus and failed team launches, but has just as many success stories in that time. Attendance has exploded over the last five years, and the quality of the product has consistently improved. The league and its fans should enjoy that success. But it has come to the table much later than MLS, and likely will not unseat it without significant upheaval. An appointment to Division I would not be enough to have any meaningful change in perception about the league or its quality. If MLS made some terrible missteps and NASL and its teams made the investments needed to start to look like a top tier project, only then would there be a real competition between the two leagues, and a division realignment might be an outcome, but not a cause, of that sea change.

6 Responses

  1. StrikersFan73

    You pretty readily dismiss the chicken and the egg theory, but actually it seems to be the crux of the entire situation if you at all believe anything in the NASL’s letter and some reports out there talking about investors in the league. NASL is coming out and saying, we believe we can meet D1 standards, but only if you allow us try, because without the sanctioning, the investors currently looking at us that will “up our game” so to speak, won’t jump in unless we have it.

    There’s been talk of foreign investors interested in becoming a part of the NASL for awhile now. If it’s true, then what the league is saying makes sense. People from outside the US are going to hold that D1 sanctioning in much higher regard than some in the US do due to the relatively arbitrary nature of the various levels of sanctioning as they currently stand. If getting D1 sanctioning is the key to unlocking additional investment in the league, whether it makes sense to us on the outside or not, then I completely understand the league’s argument and anger at the obvious collusion between MLS and USSF to prevent them from getting it.

    1. David Martin

      D-I sanctioning or no, NASL would need to unseat MLS in the hearts and minds of the average public (i.e., not just people who would read this website). D-I sanctioning will do little in terms of winning that war. I’ve read the same talk about investors joining the fray, but I interpret all that to be people weighing the likelihood not just that NASL will receive official D-I sanctioning but whether the league would then have a legitimate chance of taking over as perceived best league. I don’t see those investors getting in just because we get D-I…there would have to be a firm plan in place to gain ground in terms of popularity, one which would require that investment. So in the end, none of it ends up mattering unless the investment comes first.

      But in part you might be right that different people value that tag differently than I do. All I know is if I’m a millionaire, and I want to stay that way and get richer, I’m not fooled into thinking D-I makes this thing a rising star. The stuff that would truly make it a return on my investment is stuff that is not dependent, nor in my opinion stifled, by the division designation.

  2. When I sent a note to my local paper asking them to include NASL stories in their print edition, they replied that their sports stories came from the AP and the AP doesn’t cover NASL. If D1 sanctioning would change that it might be worth it.

    1. Puck Sherburn

      Ever notice how Grant Wahl can never be bothered by NASL stories, or how he bashed Ibarra on the National Team? His USMNT, and MLS access is dependent upon it.

  3. Puck Sherburn

    As a fan of the game, I have to disagree with you on several points. You have conveniently glossed over the fact that the current MLS TV deal was packaged with USMNT rights, which were the golden egg in the deal. As well that 2 matches last weekend drew a 0.0 rating.

    Another point you completely avoided was the different financial structures between these 2 leagues. While in the NASL clubs are allowed to spend money on players as they see fit. In the MLS the league dictates which teams get which players. The single entity structure within the MLS drastically deflates franchises values, and any profits are able to be hidden within SUM’S financials.

    My personal opinion is that the NASL has filed this letter for several reasons. In part bacuase they have a case, unless inside the sealed Fraizer document is an anti trust exemption from congresd. Its obviouse the conflict of interest in our current Federation is only the start. Secondly with the MLS CBA upcoming, the players Union is unable file suit without folding. (I’m not naive enough to believe this would be anything but a bonus for NASL)

    I personally feel this sport will never reach its full potential in the US until Sunil, and Garber are out of the sports executive level. Most of the executive staff have come out of NBA, NFL, and NHL. We need soccer people running not just our Federation, but our League as well. Yes I said our league.

    I would propose the formation of a US version of the English Football League. A single entity which overseas all divisions of Pro Soccer in the US.

  4. Jim

    I agree with your points on pro/rel as well as the immediate effect D-1 sanctioning would have on NASL.

    However, MLB vs independent baseball isn’t a good analogy. That sport has a very mature infrastructure, especially when it comes to the talent it holds the market on that would have to be used for a separate entity to challenge MLB.

    A better comparison would be where pro football was when the AFL was beginning to challenge the NFL. Heck, if those wild rumors are true and they get the three major FMF investors in the fold, they could have a nice 1A option for soccer in this country. Maybe enough for marginal MLS players to have another option besides a Scandinavian second division club.

    Still, it would be nearly impossible to be on equal footing with MLS.

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