The NASL, Division I Status, and San Francisco Expansion

November 4, 2015

By: Evan Chu

Since the league’s inception, the North American Soccer League closely resembled the International Hockey League of the ’80s and ’90s. Like the IHL, the NASL is a de facto minor league that have and is targeting franchises in major markets either without a big league team or is big enough to support more than one pro team. In the past, there has been a few rumors floating around the grapevine regarding the NASL potentially rivalling MLS but nothing substantial have surfaced until a recent Financial Times article (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/6ef8ed4e500211e58642453585f2cfcd.html) published in late  August.

According to the FT, the United States Soccer Federation is proposing prerequisite changes for Division I status which the league deems unjustifiable.  From the article: “Under the proposed changes, to qualify for Division I a league would need 16 teams, up from 12 under 2014 rules, according to NASL. It would also have to meet a requirement that 75 per cent of its teams be based in cities with a population of more than 2m people, up from 1m.  It adds that a requirement for all team stadiums to meet a minimum 15,000 seat capacity for the entire league to qualify for Division I is ‘highly unreasonable’.”  I assume the population criteria have been misquoted considering there are only 4 cities in the entire country with a population over 2 million people.

In a letter sent by Jeffrey Kessler, the antitrust lawyer representing the NASL, to USSF president Sunil Gulati, Kessler states, “Doubling the population criteria now is an anticompetitive bait-and-switch, with the purpose of entrenching MLS’s monopoly position at the very time when the NASL is threatening to become a significant competitor.” Kessler further elaborates by telling the Financial Times, “The financial damage is significant. Simply put, the actions by US Soccer are hindering the league’s earnings potential with advertisers, broadcasters and other business partners, who will pay top dollar only for Division I, regardless of the quality of play or passion of the fans.”  Personally, I disagree with that last bit. The division statuses are there to specify each league’s quality of play.  I may not be a hotshot lawyer but the notion of corporations paying top dollar for an inferior product with an imitation major league label seems a bit impractical and farfetched.

The NASL have made their intentions loud and clear.  They aspire to become big league.  Compared to the myriad of professional sports leagues, albeit in different sports, that tried and failed in the past to compete with the more established big leagues, the NASL doesn’t stand out.  Although I agree that the proposed population prerequisite changes are a bit unreasonable, you have to wonder why the NASL is jumping the gun by pursuing big league status at this point when the league is peanuts compared to MLS on and off the field. On the field, MLS teams have won every modern US Open Cup with the exception of 1999 while the NASL has won none.  The furthest a NASL team went in the tournament is the quarterfinals in 2013 and ’14 by the Carolina RailHawks.  Off the field, the NASL consists of only 11 teams (13 by 2016, 12 by 2018 with the departure of Minnesota), miniature stadiums with capacities ranging from 5,000 to 24,000, average attendance of 5,909, and lack a big time television contract with games streamed online on WatchESPN.com. Of the 11 teams, 9 play in stadiums with capacities fewer than 12,000.  MLS, on the other hand, consists of 20 teams (24 by 2020); stadiums with capacities ranging from 18,000 to 40,000; an average attendance of 21,574; possess national television contracts with FOX, ESPN, and Univision; and overseas television contracts with Abu Dhabi Sports in the Middle East, BeIn Sports in Asia and Australia, Eurosport in Europe, FOX Sports in South America, Globosat in Brazil, LeTV in China, Sky Sports in the UK and Ireland, Sportcast in Taiwan, Starhub in Thailand. The NASL is a minor league in name and in status.  Ultimately, chasing Division I status could prove to be detrimental to the league as MLS holds an enormous footprint over soccer in America and it’s improbable to suggest they’d be overthrown or have their audience limited to support a second big league.

Though unlikely, what would a Division I NASL look like? Probably not much different considering the league is suing to lower Division I standards to be considered compliant.  Possibly 4 teams (Atlanta Silverbacks, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Miami FC, New York Cosmos) could compete directly with their MLS counterparts in their respective markets.  However, Atlanta’s future is in doubt as the team is owned by the league. But what about expansion? On September 28th, BeIn Sports reporter Sulaiman Folarin tweeted information regarding three potential ownership groups representing Detroit, Oklahoma City, San Francisco pitching to the NASL Board of Directors; further expanding the notion of a San Francisco franchise.  Supposedly, the San Francisco group comprises of investors from Brazil and Silicon Valley.  The city by the bay is no stranger to rival major leagues as San Francisco welcomed the 49ers in 1944 as part of the new All American Football Conference. After the 1949 season, three teams from the AAFC (the Baltimore Colts, the Cleveland Browns, and the San Francisco 49ers) entered the established NFL. The Niners would win five Super Bowl titles for the 1981, ’84, ’88, ’89, and ’94 seasons before heading off to Santa Clara before the 2014 season. San Francisco was also granted a World Hockey Association franchise for the inaugural 197273 season. However, the team couldn’t get an arena deal done and relocated to Quebec City before play began. The rechristened Quebec Nordiques would win the Avco Cup in 1977 and join the NHL in 1979 when the two leagues merged. The Nordiques would relocate again to Denver in 1995 and capture two Stanley Cups in ‘96 & ‘01. Neighboring Daly City was home to the San Francisco Spiders of the aforementioned International Hockey League for the 1995/96 season.

The issues and roadblocks for pro soccer in the city have been well established and well elaborated but just to reiterate, San Francisco is a pretty dense city. As a native, as much as I desire a pro team to represent my city, it just doesn’t seem probable from my perspective.  Available land to construct a stadium is practically nonexistent and extremely expensive especially for a league the size of the NASL. There have been reports in the past linking a potential NASL expansion franchise with stadium sites located “within USF” and “near AT&T” that are complete and utter nonstarters.

(https://twitter.com/EvanReam/status/656689157926838272 ,
https://twitter.com/EvanReam/status/633721497631240192)

Negoesco Stadium, within the USF campus, only sits 3,000 spectators and it’s nonexpandable. And with Proposition D passed yesterday, the only unoccupied land near the stadium, it’s parking lot, would be converted into a housing development. Judging by the aforementioned details, it’s safe to assume rumors regarding a potential San Francisco team are mainly hogwash and should be taken with a grain of salt. Furthermore, of the stadiums that are available, Kezar Stadium could cause some potential conflicts as the stadium plays hosts to Mission High & Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep football and University High field hockey. And with area school’s reliance on the track and since the location of the stadium is adjacent to a neighborhood, renovating or rebuilding a soccer specific stadium e.g. Dillon and Saputo Stadium can prove to be difficult. Kezar would be a suitable temporary venue but not viable as a permanent professional stadium. Boxer Stadium, with a capacity of 3,500, would be deemed too small to host an NASL team as the league requires a seating capacity of 10,000, according to a Hartford Courant article (http://www.courant.com/sports/hchartfordnaslsoccer042820150427story.html).

Throw in the fact that the stadium is located next to a children’s playground within a recreational park adjacent to a residential neighborhood, renovating Boxer to pro standards is implausible.  Could a team play in the suburbs?  Maybe.  Only time will tell if the NASL could solve the stadium situation and legitimately prosper in the San Francisco area.

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