By Barry Janoff
March 23, 2016: Armed with a league-wide marketing deal from Under Armour, a national broadcast pact with One World Sports and three new clubs, the North American Soccer League is approaching its 2016 campaign with the attitude, "There has never been more interest in our league . . . this will be our best season yet."
"The business side of the league and for our teams continues to grow," said Bill Peterson, entering his fifth year as commissioner for the NASL. "Almost everything we measure, be it ticket sales, sponsorship, licensing sales, all continue to grow at double-digit rates. And that will continue throughout the season."
The re-booted version of the NASL, which began play in 2011 with few ties to the former NASL (1968-1984) beyond its name, starts its split-season on April 2 facing numerous challenges and hurdles, but with more solid footing than in previous seasons.
Under Armour signed a multi-year deal to become the official ball provider and, separately, as the official kit supplier for defending champion New York Cosmos (replacing a deal the team had with Nike), the Baltimore-based company's first such soccer alliances in the U.S. and part of its plan to deepen ties to the sport here.
The NASL also has league-wide deals with TV and media conglomerate One World Sports, New Era (official cap) and Opta to manage and deliver statistical analysis for all of the NASL’s league, cup and post-season matches.
That might pale in comparison to the league-wide rosters of other U.S. sports leagues, including rival soccer circuit Major League Soccer, but has put the NASL into what it feels is a strong position moving forward.
"One of the challenges we have had in the past is our footprint, and not being in all the time zones in North America. And also not havving a stable of 'A' brands and top companies in the space," Peterson said during a media conference call on Tuesday (March 22). "Now what has happened is we've started to prove ourselves, we have a track record. Our teams are able to deliver value to companies such as Under Armour. They have identified us as a value which they feel they can leverage to sell more of their product.
"We are working on a number of different ideas for the future with Under Armour. And with the kit deal with the Cosmos, we are looking forward to a long partnership," said Peterson.
The NASL's marketing moves are in keeping with the sport's growth in the U.S., with sponsorship spend on soccer expected to set a record, reaching upward of $333 million in 2016. That is up nearly 10% from 2015 and is outpacing both the 5% growth in overall sports spending and the 4.5% increase in North American sports sponsorship spending predicted for this year, according to research, sponsorship and consulting firm IEG, Chicago.
With the addition of Under Armour, the Cosmos in particular have a roster of marketing partners that would rival any pro team in the U.S., which also includes jersey-front sponsor Emirates Airline, Seiko, First Nationwide Title, Toto, Northwell Health, Buffalo Wild Wings, Coca-Cola and Sam Adams.
"The next phase is that we are talking about Under Armour today, so when we talk to the next company, they feel more comfortable knowing we are starting to collect some of these 'A' brands," said Peterson. "It's a process. You have to prove yourself. You have to get to a certain point. And we expect that we will see more partners like that come on board in the coming months. "
With the well-established MLS, its 20th season, and the fledgling United Soccer League, which began play in 2011, also vying for marketing dollars, TV time, fans and domestic and global acceptance, the NASL understands the difficulties it faces when it comes to building its product.
"We have three pro leagues that are not linked in any manner. (We) all go out and make the decisions we think are best for our own development," said Peterson.
"At the NASL, we evaluate markets based on their strength in the soccer community, both amateur and professional. We look at ownership groups and what relevance they have in those marketplaces; can they get things done, such as major sponsorships, stadiums and other pieces," said the commissioner.
The NASL member clubs are Carolina RailHawks, FC Edmonton, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Indy Eleven, Jacksonville Armada FC, Miami FC, Minnesota United FC, New York Cosmos, Ottawa Fury FC, Puerto Rico FC, Rayo OKC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
The expansion Miami FC and Rayo OKC clubs will begin play in the Spring Season and Puerto Rico FC will start in the Fall Season. The league also is talking about future expansion, potentially first in Chicago and then cities including Atlanta and in Canada, to reach its stated goal to become "a 20-team league in the near future."
The San Antonio Scorpions folded after the 2015 season, with a USL team, owned by Spurs Sports & Entertainment (which also owns the NBA's San Antonio Spurs), now there playing in Toyota Field.
MLS has on-going expansion plans, as well, which, as is the situation in New York with the NASL Cosmos and MLS NYC FC — plus the New York Red Bulls across the river in New Jersey — means sharing a prime territory.
"Sometimes being in a marketplace with a team from another league might actually help both teams," said Peterson. "And in some cases it probably should not be advised.
“We’re very happy with the model we have, the structure that we have, the success that we’re having," he said. "We think we’re a great league for ownership to come in to. But if somewhere down the road, someone thinks it’s best for them to be somewhere else, then we wish them well and we keep moving. It’s just a huge territory and a few things like that are not going to affect where we’re going long term.”
As part of a multi-year broadcast television partnership, One World Sports will, beginning April 2, be home for such NASL programming as Game of the Week and NASL This Week, a 30-minute highlight show featuring action from around the league.
According to Sandy Brown, president and CEO for One World Sports, "The NASL has become a formidable presence on the international soccer scene with domestic and imported talent cultivating new fans on a regular basis. One World Sports is investing a significant amount of resources to help grow the NASL audience, including access for every fan to view the NASL Game of the Week via the network's Web site and the continuation of our league highlight show, NASL This Week."
The NASL is also seeking other outlets to get its game and message out.
"There have been some rumors of other broadcast deals in the works," said Peterson during the media conference call. "Yes, we have been in some discussions with other broadcast partners. No, we haven't been able to conclude those deals and have them signed off yet. So we are going to hold back on discussing them.
"What I will say is that it's been a very pleasant surprise to have broadcasters approaching us, understanding the type of competition we have in the NASL, wanting to put our matches on the air, working with us in developing partnerships that would be fruitful for both sides. When we get them wrapped up, we will share who they are how that impacts our season," he said.
Major League Baseball made headlines this week with its first game in Cuba since 1999, which included a visit from President Obama and the First Lady Michelle Obama, part of a larger effort to establish relations between the U.S. and Cuba, upgrade the quality of life for Cubans and, on the playing field, establish a pipeline for players in Cuba to legally come to America.
The NASL forged into that territory last year when the Cosmos became the first pro soccer team to play in Cuba since 1978.
"When we were there in 2015, we talked about (starting a process where) players from Cuba could come here," said Peterson. "That sort of blew up when it came to CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) and the region. It has been hard to figure out who can lead those conversations. Honestly, we have not made a lot of progress.
"At the same time, we haven't given up on it, either. We will continue to look at opportunities to get those guys in. We have two Cuban players in the league (Jorge Luis Corrales and Ariel Martinez, both with Miami FC). You have to start somewhere. I'm going to say that happened because of the Cosmos game. We'll see what the President's direction is after his visit there."
Looking at 2016, according to Peterson, "I don't think there has ever been more interest in our league not only from people in North America but from potential owners throughout the world. Teams are bringing in talent and are focused on winning and satisfying the fans, in addition to marketing an entertainment product. It's an exciting time for us.
"The challenge in this country is do we end up penetrating enough of the markets to lift the sport to the top of the game here. "
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