Soccer

Successes and missteps define 2015 NASL season; League growth undeniable

Posted November 18, 2015

The officials lead the teams onto the field before the start of the game. The Carolina RailHawks defeated the Indy Eleven by a score of 3-1 at Wake Med Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina on October 30, 2015. (Photo by: Jerome Carpenter/WRAL Contributor)

— After the New York Cosmos won the 2013 North American Soccer League (NASL) Championship by parlaying a fall season-only title into a Soccer Bowl win over the Atlanta Silverbacks, I ended my recap of the championship match with this appraisal:

Meanwhile, the rest of the NASL now realizes business (and budgets) as usual may not be enough to win titles. It will be interesting to see how the next few years play out, whether other teams will cede championships to the well-heeled New Yorkers or (over)spend in an effort to keep up with the Cosmos … Soccer Bowl 2013 weekend was a success for the NASL. What remains to be seen is whether on-the-field success for its members now comes with a price tag many cannot afford.

After 2013, the league instituted a four-team post-season playoff. In the past two years, two teams—the Cosmos and Minnesota United—have made playoffs both years. Not coincidentally, those clubs have two of the three largest player payrolls in the league (the other being the Tampa Bay Rowdies, which finished two points outside the last playoff berth this year).

Last weekend, the Cosmos won their second neo-NASL Championship, a 3-2 victory over the Ottawa Fury. New York’s victory reinforces the growing league-wide reality that spending more on player talent is the most reliable way to perennially challenge for the championship of a league that has full free agency and no salary cap. New York, Minnesota and Tampa Bay continue to expend large sums on players. Meanwhile, the owners of Indy Eleven, Jacksonville, Carolina and an incoming expansion club in Miami have signaled intentions to ramp up their player budgets, even if they won’t—or can’t—keep up with the Cosmos.

According to multiple reliable sources, this spending spree has dramatically increased average player salaries in the division two NASL, triggering a feeding frenzy for proven players and their agents. It’s debatable whether this represents welcome growth and investment, or unsustainable spending. What’s undeniable is that the paradigm shift triggered two years ago is in full swing.

This year was another season of successes and missteps for the NASL. Notwithstanding the unending current of online prognostications predicting the league’s imminent collapse, the NASL completed its fifth season as a US Soccer-sanctioned division two league. It saw the arrival of new clubs and owners, while watching some existing members maneuver their departure. It enjoyed rising attendance and league exposure, but it also suffered one of its founding financiers being ensnared in an international soccer scandal. The propriety of the NASL’s apparent application to US Soccer for sanctioning as a division one league has yet to play out, and developments on that front next year will have a tremendous impact on the future of the league.

In the meantime, here are a few things the NASL got right and wrong in 2015. As Edmund Burke once famously said, “Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.”

What the NASL got right—Increased attendance

League-wide, per-match average attendance this year was 5,913, a 7 percent increase from 2014. Moreover, it’s a 27 percent jump from 2013 and 55 percent leap from 2012. Expansion side Jacksonville Armada enjoyed an outstanding debut with the third-best attendance in the league. Five of the 10 NASL teams from last year enjoyed higher attendance, while three others remained largely the same.

The only appreciable ebbs are at the top and bottom of the attendance table. FC Edmonton’s average plummeted over 14 percent from a year ago, although their 3,122 average for games at Clarke Stadium, their usual home ground, is closer to (yet still below) last year’s average. The 1,369 fans the team averaged for their two games at Fort McMurray, a five-hour drive north of Edmonton, gutted the club’s numbers.

Indy Eleven again led the league in attendance, but their 9,866 per game average is a 6.3 percent drop from last year. Some of this is inevitable receding for the club’s sophomore season. Some may also be due to growing discontent over the team’s lackluster on-field performance.

What the NASL got wrong—Midweek matches

In 2014, there were just eight weekday (Monday-Thursday) matches across the league. This year, there were 20 weekday matches, all during the fall season. The effect on average attendance was profound. The average per game attendance for those 20 weekday matches was just 4,442. Conversely, the league-wide average attendance for Saturday games was 6,624.

League officials claim these weekday matches are the consequence of more teams, and thus more games, on the schedule, coupled with limited weather windows to accommodate the northernmost league members. But there were only two additional games per team for the 2015 fall schedule compared to 2014, and this year’s fall season began a week earlier than last year. There were weekends in the fall season when teams didn’t have any games on their schedule—for example, the Carolina RailHawks didn’t play on two weekends while having to play four matches on Wednesdays.

Instead, it appears apparent that the additional weekday matches—mostly Wednesdays—were scheduled to accommodate the One World Sports television arrangement announced before the fall campaign, during which OWS televised a weekly NASL game each Wednesday. It’s certainly in the league’s interest to procure national television deals. But unless the OWS partnership produces tangible revenue for the league members—a specious proposition—it hardly seems worth sacrificing over 2,000 fans and tens of thousands of dollars in ticket revenue for each of these weekday games. There’s also the grind of teams having to play three games in a week on multiple occasions throughout the fall season, which irked coaches across the league.

What the NASL got right—Spring-Fall split season

Forget the added excitement the league trumpets as justification for their apertura/clausura format. The split season—yes, even the much-maligned uneven spring and fall seasons—is more a consequence of arithmetic. If the 11 NASL teams competing in 2015 played every other team twice, that would generate just a 20-game regular season, far too few for owners needing to maximize potential ticket revenue. If teams played each other four times, that results in a 40-match season, far more than the calendar and most clubs’ facility leases would permit.

Once you accept the middle ground of playing each league opponent three times—the 30-game 2015 regular season—the 10-game spring season and 20-game fall season is born from an effort to manufacture some semblance of balance in the schedule. A single regular season competition in which some teams play, for example, the New York Cosmos twice at home while others play them twice on the road, is inherently unbalanced. The uneven split seasons at least carve out a balanced subset—the 20-game fall season—within the arching regular season format. It’s a suboptimal, but necessary schedule until the league grows to around 16 teams.

What the NASL got wrong—Scheduling snafus

A constricted calendar probably prohibits the NASL from avoiding any play during FIFA international breaks. But the league’s competition was certainly hampered by the protracted absences of notable players like Lance Laing, James Marcelin, Darwin Espinal, Pascal Millien and others while away on international duty. This adverse effect was further exacerbated by the league’s increased midweeks matches, which sometimes required teams to play multiple games during a single international breaks without key contributors.

One other snafu is an easy fix. On the final weekend of this year’s regular season, all five NASL games kicked off at different times spread over three days. With the final playoff berth and top overall seed still undecided, this staggered schedule impacted the tactics teams like the Cosmos and Fort Lauderdale Strikers employed and compromised competitive fairness. Simple solution: all games on the final weekend of the regular season must kickoff at the same time. It’s done around the world, and the NASL did it in 2013.

What the NASL got right—Ongoing expansion

The Jacksonville Armada continued the league’s run of successful expansion debuts. Behind the leadership of club owner (and new NASL Board of Governors Chairman) Mark Frisch and president Steve Livingstone, the Armada averaged 7,927 fans per game. New announced expansion clubs brought in high-profile owners like media magnate Riccardo Silva (Miami FC) and NBA star Carmelo Anthony (Puerto Rico FC).

What the NASL got wrong—Truncated rollout of expansion clubs

In a January 2013 interview, NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson said:

“We’re giving each [expansion] team 18 months from closing [the expansion deal] to opening [their debut season],” Peterson explains. “The league is coming out of the phase where, ‘You gotta have eight teams, you gotta get teams,’ to where do we want teams, who do we want to own those teams, and how much time do we take to really build an organization?”

Indeed, Indy Eleven was announced that same month and began NASL play 15 months later. The Ottawa Fury were announced in 2011 and didn’t begin play until 2014, after their stadium completion. The Jacksonville Armada officially joined the league in July 2013 but didn’t kick off until 2015.

However, the most recent league expansion efforts seem to have reverted to the truncated rollouts that Peterson and the league claimed to overgrow. Miami FC was announced in a May 2015 media advisory to begin play less than 12 months later. Puerto Rico FC was unveiled in June and will join the league’s fall season around July 2016. And although some the management for an Oklahoma City expansion club has been in place since 2013, Rayo OKC was publicly introduced last week and will begin play in five months.

The reasons for this run-up retreat are undoubtedly unique to each circumstance—owners ready to cut expansion fee checks; the accelerated expansion of USL into prospective NASL markets, etc. But one of the NASL’s hallmarks has been giving its expansion clubs adequate time to gestate, a successful strategy that is now being jeopardized.

What the NASL got right—ESPN3 deal and broadcast improvements

Improvements in Internet bandwidth and other broadcast capabilities mandated by the NASL for its member clubs paved the way for the ESPN3 broadcast arrangement that provided the cachet of the Worldwide Leader in Sports, a wider online audience and a polished portal far superior to last year’s failed NASL Live.

What the NASL got wrong—OWS TV deal

Traditional television deals are important, and the league’s arrangement with One World Sports was the NASL’s first stab at one, It’s a partnership likely to continue next year. But besides the adverse midweek schedule that came with it, OWS is not presently availability on Time Warner Cable, DirecTV, Comcast, AT&T U-verse and other cable TV providers. Moreover, regular season matches broadcast by OWS were not available via ESPN3.

What the NASL got right—Sale of the Carolina RailHawks

As news of the FIFA corruption scandal rocked the soccer world in May, its reverberations were acutely felt by the NASL and particularly the Carolina RailHawks. Traffic Sports USA, the owner of the RailHawks, pled guilty to felonies related to the FIFA scandal. Aaron Davidson, Traffic Sports USA’s president and chairman of the NASL BOG, was indicted as part of the US Justice Department’s investigation.

Speculation soon ran rampant over the future of the RailHawks, including concerns that the club would become league-owned or even shutter following the 2015 season. Behind the scenes, the ferverish recruitment of potential new owners progressed throughout the summer. Ultimately, Steve Malik, a Triangle-based tech entrepreneur, purchased the RailHawks from Traffic Sports, just five months after the FIFA investigation became public.

What the NASL got wrong—What Carolina RailHawks?

Undoubtedly upon the advice of counsel, NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson and the rest of the league didn’t publicly mention the RailHawks at all during the regular season, deferring any requests for information to club president Curt Johnson. And once Malik purchased the club and was introduced to media and fans on Oct. 30, the league brass was nowhere to be found.

In fairness, Peterson made several trips to North Carolina during the owner recruitment process. But after spending all season not publicly acknowledging the existence of one of your members, whilst also quietly managing Johnson’s efforts to maintain local confidence in the club’s future, one more plane flight to RDU to re-embrace local supporters and media during Malik’s debut would have been nice.

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