Keeping drama on the field: NASL trying a more stable path with 2017 season

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

After a tumultuous winter, the NASL wants to shift focus to the on-field product.

The North American Soccer League that kicks off this week is very different from the one that ended 2016. One of those changes was a very public shift in attitude, with the league offering a “cuddlier” version of itself.

On the surface the changes are obvious: five clubs are gone (Minnesota United FC to MLS, Ottawa Fury and Tampa Bay Rowdies to USL, and Fort Lauderdale Strikers and Rayo OKC to cryogenic chambers), and two other clubs (the New York Cosmos and Jacksonville Armada) went through ownership changes. The league’s commissioner, Bill Peterson, and the chair of its Board of Governors, former Jacksonville owner Mark Frisch,- are gone.

The next step or series of steps is critical to getting out of the woods. They’re still in the woods, but they have a map, or at least the ability to make a map to get out of the woods.

- Peter Wilt

December was a long, dark month for the league, filled with panicked meetings and a bizarre uncertainty of which teams might leave and whether the confederation of owners might dissolve. But the league emerged in 2017, still standing and vowing to change.

Interim Commissioner Rishi Sehgal made the media rounds after the league reemerged to begin presenting what he called “a newer, friendlier NASL.” Gone were the days of lawsuits against the U.S. Soccer Federation, and crying foul against MLS. In their place is what Sehgal calls “a return to a focus on the sport and not so much the politics.”

And now that the league has survived, its new (yet familiar) fight is for gaining relevance.

One NASL insider described several of the newer owners (such as North Carolina FC’s Steve Malik and San Francisco Delta’s Brian Helmik) as “warm and fuzzy” guys who wanted a change of rhetoric.

Aside from the change in personnel, though, the NASL insider said “the league has also been scared straight. They realized that taking that road [of confrontation] didn’t get them very far. There is a fear of lengthy and costly litigation and political fallout.”

Former Indy Eleven President Peter Wilt describes the league as continuing in a difficult position. “The next step or series of steps is critical to getting out of the woods,” he says. “They’re still in the woods, but they have a map, or at least the ability to make a map to get out of the woods.”

That map will include a far more rigorous and patient approach to league expansion. Sehgal says the league had options to fast-track some expansion clubs, but he says, “We chose not to rush teams along precisely to avoid problems we’ve had in the past.” Among those problems were the famously disastrous launch of Rayo OKC that lasted only one season and the Emperor’s New Clothes situation of the new Fort Lauderdale Strikers owners that boasted Ronaldo’s involvement, yet tellingly he rarely showed up to events.

Wilt now works for Club 9 Sports, a sports investment firm that has helped raise capital for several new potential NASL expansions, including teams in San Diego and Chicago. He emphasizes a continued need for the league to consolidate power and for any new commissioner to be proactively recruiting new investors. All of this requires collaboration. “In the past,” he says, “if you have 11 teams, you had 11 visions, and there needs to be consensus built among the owners.”

Malik says that consensus-making has already begun. “There’s a spirit of cooperation among the teams,” he says. “We made some competitive balance decisions that are also critical to allowing fiscal sustainability. Seeing people to be able to commit to those kinds of things, in our league, that’s historic.”

From the brink of extinction to defending their title. (Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports)

From the brink of extinction to defending their title. (Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports)

The real test for the newer, friendlier league comes this week as the league begins play again. However, it’s unclear if the owner of the league’s flagship team, the Cosmos, is on the same page as everyone else. At Tuesday’s media day in New York City, Rocco Commisso made headlines not for talking about his team, but for criticizing the U.S. men’s national team, saying his team deserved promotion to MLS, not Minnesota United, and calling for promotion and relegation.

“Here competition is administered by some god up there that says it is what it is in America,” Commisso told the assembled media.

Commisso’s comments aside, the league is trying to return attention to its teams and competition. As Sehgal says, “It’s really about delivering a quality product to the fans. Without fans, we’re nothing.” It’s the owners going beyond the platitudes and trying to keep focus on their players and the action on the pitch.

FC Edmonton, for example, is a club that, perhaps because of its geographic isolation, has struggled to garner the attention it deserves. In 2016, the club made the playoffs for only the second time in its history. Despite being knocked out of the semifinal by Indy Eleven, the club parlayed its on-field success to a boom in season ticket sales, more than tripling their existing base.

Edmonton’s General Manager, Jay Ball, says that the league’s shift in focus from politics to soccer hasn’t affected his club much. “Our focus has always been 100 percent on soccer,” he says.

We’re in the sports entertainment business, and it’s important we offer something competitive and entertaining.

- Jeff Belskus

Malik echoes Ball when speaking about his own North Carolina FC, saying that, to local media and fans, the large-scale turmoil is a foreign thing. “Our market, what they care about is the Courage [Malik’s new NWSL team] getting ready to play and NCFC playing Liga MX Club Atlas this week. I don’t think the typical fan cares about this stuff.”

Since its inception in 2013, Indy Eleven has been one of the hallmark clubs of the lower divisions, boasting large crowds, and elevating the profile of a medium to small market. Indy’s Chairman Jeff Belskus says that the league turmoil has been something of a frustrating distraction. Unlike Malik, he says, local media takes more notice of the storm clouds. “We get questions about the league struggling and what it means for us.”

Belskus, then, welcomes the change in tack from the league so he can start talking about the team’s successes. After several years of struggling at the bottom of the table, Indy made the NASL Championship final in 2016. “We’re in the sports entertainment business,” Belskus says, “and it’s important we offer something competitive and entertaining.” Talking about on the field success, he points out, is how you do that, not talking about what division the team is in.

Belskus says his club is already near the top in every off-the-field metric of ticket sales and sponsorships and there has been a “very positive response” from fans and sponsors as the club finally offered a top on-the-field product to match.

Owners and general managers of teams throughout the league emphasize that their top priority is creating drama for fans on the pitch. They need to sell tickets. So, in many way,s they hope that articles such as this one begin to disappear, and the league’s story can be told 90 minutes at a time.

While Malik was heavily engaged with the winter NASL emergency meetings, he also dismisses their importance. He has a rebranded NASL club, a new NWSL club, and this week announced that two local youth organizations (Capital Area Soccer League and Triangle Futbol Club Alliance) merged to come under his banner as North Carolina FC Youth.

Of course, as one of the 12 bidders for an expansion slot, Malik also has his eyes on MLS, but he doesn’t see this as a problem for NASL. “If there are teams that can move up a notch, that’s good for U.S. soccer. I’m working hard on behalf of the league to grow it. I feel like it’s not incompatible,” he says.

For now, his team plays in NASL, and he says there is a sense of relief throughout the league: “I do think it’s a new day and a dawn of a new era for NASL. We’re gonna just work hard.” And that work, he says, will be all directed toward building a strong league through building strong clubs.

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