NASL football sets US expansion goals

New York Cosmos v Ottawa Fury Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption New York Cosmos, in white, were the NASL 2015 Soccer Bowl champions

The North American Soccer League kicks off its "fall", or autumn, season on Saturday accompanied by a new nationwide TV deal that it hopes will help spread the popularity of football and the division in the US.

The NASL is a famous sporting brand name, thanks to the Pele-led razzmatazz days back in the 1970s, when the New York Cosmos were the big name in a pioneering drive using global superstars to woo American sports fans.

The present-day NASL, and indeed the current Cosmos, are different entities to their predecessors, and rather than leading the charge this time around, the league is now the second tier in the US, the equivalent of the Championship in England.

But the current regime is not content to play second fiddle to the top tier Major League Soccer (MLS) and has expansion plans; in terms of team numbers, geographical spread, broadcast reach, and sponsor deals.

'Higher level'

The NASL hopes that the new deal with CBS Sports Network, starting on 2 July with nationwide coverage of the game between Oklahoma City-based Rayo OKC and Canadian club FC Edmonton, will kick-start additional fan interest.

"This is a tremendous development and opportunity for us," says league commissioner Bill Peterson, who points out that CBS was the NASL broadcast partner 40 years ago, during the Pele and George Best heyday.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The original NASL folded in the mid-1980s

"Television is very important for our experience and growth, it means we move to a higher level of sports awareness across the country. It means NASL will be seen by 90 million additional viewers a week. "

Peterson says that as well as the 12-game TV schedule with CBS, a deal signed with BeIn Sports - formerly Al Jazeera Sport - during the spring football season, will continue during the autumn season. BeIn is currently in about 17 million US homes.

Meanwhile, NASL also has a broadcast partnership with ESPN's streaming service ESPN3.

'Community engagement'

That exposure, it is hoped, will in turn lead to business benefits too, as potential new entrepreneurs emerge.

"We continue to see a lot of interest throughout the US and Canada from people looking to potentially bring soccer to their city," Peterson.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption NBA basketball star Carmelo Anthony is the owner of the new Puerto Rico NASL franchise

"These people are very serious, and we have half a dozen instances of potential owners wanting us to go through and outline with them the processes involved in being admitted.

"We have explained to them exactly what is needed to become involved, about how we expect our clubs to engage with their local communities, local business and politicians."

Image copyright NASL
Image caption Former AC Milan star Paolo Maldini and entrepreneur Riccardo Silva are NASL club owners in Miami

Three new teams have emerged so far this year: in Miami media mogul Riccardo Silva of M&P Silva and Italian legend Paolo Maldini are co-owners.

In Oklahoma, Rayo Vallecano of Spain's La Liga is a partner with a local businessman; and in Puerto Rico the new club owner is NBA star Carmelo Anthony.

The NASL has also admitted a team in San Francisco for next year, and the Carolina Railhawks has a new owner, Stephen Malik, a local healthcare entrepreneur.

'Wild West'

However, on the downside the league has lost the Atlanta Silverbacks (ceased operations) and San Antonio Scorpions (to the third-tier United Soccer League), and also looks set to lose Minnesota United to the top-tier MLS.

With regard to Atlanta, Peterson says "we feel for fans of clubs that don't continue", and on the other two changes, adds "it is something that comes with the structure and newness of soccer in the USA, it is still a little bit of a Wild West out there".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Minnesota United are poised to join the MLS as part of that league's expansion plans

Unlike the centralised MLS, the NASL is not a "single-entity" structure, nor does it have a salary cap, which gives owners the freedom to build a franchise as they see fit.

"Our business model has established itself," says Peterson. "Our plans now are to continue expansion until we come to 18 or 20 teams."

West Coast

He says that since its emergence in 2011, the new NASL has allowed the process of franchise growth to happen organically, having waited for towns and cities to approach them, rather than going out with a masterplan to cover the entirety of the country immediately

"With San Francisco coming on board, we now have a presence on the West Coast," says Peterson.

"Of those six instances of interest that I mentioned, four would be also considered West Coast. So before the end of the year we could have another club out there. That would help with our national footprint, and also help attract potential sponsors."

Image copyright Under Armor
Image caption The NASL has signed a ball supply deal with US sports kit maker Under Armor

At the moment the league does not have a title sponsor, but Peterson believes that will come about when the league reaches 18 to 20 teams.

"In the meantime we are talking to a lot of other different companies about coming into supporting the league as partners, and how we can help their firms by spreading awareness of their brands through the NASL."

He points to the deal signed with US sports kitmaker Under Armor, to provide the official league football, as proof that they are getting big names on board.

'Untapped market'

On the playing side, names familiar to British football fans are Joe Cole at Tampa Bay, and Georgios Samaras at Rayo OKC.

"But we do not just recruit former big-name players from overseas," he says. "We now have a mix of more and better US players, appearing together with better overseas players."

Image copyright Tampa Bay Rowdies
Image caption Former Premier League footballer Joe Cole signed for Tampa Bay this year

One thorny issue the NASL is in constant contact with the US Soccer Federation about is promotion and relegation between the MLS and NASL.

"There is a lot of promotion and relegation in football around the world. But for club owners in the US that can be a scary prospect," says Peterson.

"There are advantages and disadvantages, and we are in discussions about it, which would not have happened a couple of years ago. If it is not for today then it might be for the future."

As for the future growth of soccer in the US, he says the size of the country means there is scope for dozens of new teams, and thousands of new fans.

"There is a huge untapped interest out there," he says. "We have barely scratched the surface so far."

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