By Barry Janoff
April 16, 2013: From 1968-1984, the North American Soccer League operated in the U.S. and Canada. It featured such soccer icons as Pelé, George Best, Giorgio Chinaglia, Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer. It also provided a platform for such American-born players as Shep Messing, Kyle Rote Jr., Ty Keough, Bobby Rigby and Ricky Davis. Between 1978-1980 the league fielded 24 clubs, and many established soccer fan bases that have grown and solidified to this day.
The cash-laden New York Cosmos won five NASL titles and often attracted 30,000 fans to Giants Stadium — more than double the league average — topped by a playoff game on Aug. 3,1977 against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in which the announced attendance was 77,691.
But over-expansion, under financing and poor decisions saw the NASL drop to nine clubs in 1984 before the league folded.
The new North American Soccer League began play in 2011, with the name intended to "pay respect to the players, coaches and leaders who were pioneers for men's professional soccer in North America" while also looking ahead to growth and new challenges.
The 2013 version of the NASL operates under a split-season format, with seven clubs playing 42 games in the Spring season that began April 6 and runs through July 4. The Fall season will have nine clubs playing August through Nov. 2, with the winner of the Spring season hosting the winner of the Fall in the 2013 Soccer Bowl.
The NASL has picked up some initial sponsors, most notably Toyota, which has a multi-level deal with the San Antonio Scorpions that includes naming rights to the team's 8,000-seat Toyota Field and jersey-front sponsorship. The (Raleigh) Carolina RailHawks have a deal with WakeMed that includes naming rights to 10,000-seat WakeMed Soccer Park.
The other five clubs in the Spring season are the Atlanta Silverbacks, FC Edmonton, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Minnesota United FC and defending NASL champion Tampa Bay Rowdies. Scheduled to join in the Fall season are the new New York Cosmos and the Puerto Rico Islanders. The Cosmos have fully embraced their heritage with a marketing campaign tagged, "We're Back!" with images that include Pelé and Beckenbauer and retro tickets from 1983.
Expansion clubs scheduled for 2014 are Indianapolis, Ottawa Fury and the Virginia Cavalry.
This past November, NASL named Bill Peterson as its new commissioner, replacing the retired David Downs. Peterson is a seasoned veteran of sports, sports business and marketing both in the U.S. and internationally. His resume includes president of NFL Europe; svp-AEG Sports, which included managing director of The Home Depot Center (which in June will be renamed the StubHub Center), owned by AEG and home to Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA; a member of the MLS Board of Governors, Finance Committee and Competition Committee; COO for the United Football League; and evp for Centerplate, which manages food and beverage, retail, restaurant, and events in sports facilities, convention centers, and entertainment complexes.
In addition, Peterson is the chairman for USA Cycling Board of Directors and a member of the USPRO Cycling Board of Trustees.
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Bill Peterson about the NASL and its quest to become a major soccer player in North America.
NYSportsJournalism.com: The original NASL has an important place in U.S. soccer history, but that was more than 30 years ago. How is the new NASL both embracing and distancing itself from the old NASL?
Bill Peterson: There are a lot of similarities between the original NASL and our league, especially when you look at the early days of the [original] league. We have to go into new markets, develop team structures, define our position in these cities and establish our relevance. We need to generate interest in our teams, and our teams need to be promoters. That's what the teams in the original NASL were — great promoters. Owners and executives worked hard to establish their connection to their respective cities and communities. So we are is the same place. The major difference is that they were pioneers as it relates to soccer in the U.S.
NYSJ: Do you see any advantages over where the original NASL was at this stage in its development?
BP: The advantage we have today is that the sport has established itself in this country both on an amateur and professional level. So we don't have to go into markets and explain what the game is, how the score is kept or any of the basics. There are a lot of similarities in getting started and building relevance, but our future is in our own hands. They built a league and kept it operating for many years. We have to go out and do that on our own.
NYSJ: Where is NASL's place on the soccer pyramid in the U.S.?
BP: That's up to us to decide. Technically, we are a second division league, although I'm not sure what that means. I've stressed to our guys that we control our own destiny. There is no limitation to how successful we can be. We are happy with the cities and venues we have now, and we are evaluating other cities as we look forward. But at the end of the day, we can sell 6,000 tickets or 60,000 tickets. It depends on how well we do in connecting with fans and creating relevance for our league.
"There are a lot of similarities. They built a league and kept it operating for many years. We have to go out and do that on our own."
NYSJ: The original NASL had success, then overextended itself, made some poor business decisions and ultimately folded. Do you have a blueprint for success?
BP: The legacy helps because of the awareness of NASL; there are still people who have fond memories of the original NASL. It was their first experience with professional soccer. The league had a lot of personalities and brought a lot of attention. So we benefit from that. But at the same time, it is 2013 and we have to make our own way. It all comes back to having a great product on the field. So we will have competitive matches, exciting games and great stadium experiences. If we do that, we will be successful. And it's impossible to predict how successful we can be. In this country and Canada, there are so many great cities with tremendous soccer participation and a following on TV. Listen, there's no science behind this, but I can imagine there are 50 or 60 cities in North America that can support top-level soccer. So what's exciting for us is that there is no limitation and that we can go out do our jobs and be as successful as we can.
NYSJ: What are you looking at as far as expansion?
BP: We are analyzing where we are today and where we are going. We are in our third season, so we're past the start-up mode. We have 12 teams signed up for 2014. So what do we need to do from an expansion standpoint? One, be more strategic. Two, look at expanding our footprint across the country. We are looking at a lot of different opportunities. In the case of the Cosmos [which will play at Hofstra University], the Long Island area and New York is just an amazing population with a great soccer fan base. So there is a lot of opportunity for the Cosmos to be wildly successful. At the same time, we are in cities such as Indianapolis and other places that are a bit more compact but which still have a large population bas and a lot of excitement for the sport. In San Antonio, we had an amazing launch for the team last year, and attendance was incredible. This year, they have their own stadium as part of a strategic deal with Toyota.
NYSJ: There are enough fans to go around, but from a marketing, sponsorship and advertising perspective is there enough interest and is there strong enough support to build the league financially?
BP: We have an amazing group of owners. Part of my process coming into the league was understanding what their capabilities were and what their passion was for growing the league. They are very focused on and very committed to their communities, their teams and this league. They want top-rate professional clubs to build alliances in their communities. The financial where with all is there to do great things. What we are trying to do now is focus on being as strategic as we can in what we do, where we are spending money and which partners we bring in. As it relates to marketing partners, there is plenty of interest, but we are being somewhat patient now in trying to figure out what our value is to those partners and what the right deals are. That relates to TV, potential sponsors, merchandise and other areas. So over the next few months we will start to execute a well-thought out strategy that we believe will help us to grow and define the relationship between our clubs and their fans.
NYSJ: Are you looking at traditional soccer marketing alliances, such as jersey-front sponsorships, as well as trying to create new activations for marketers?
BP: We will be innovative without being too quirky. But that's in everything we do. So we are challenging people to not just follow the old models that have been in place in pro sports in this country for the past 30 years. Let's think out of the box. Let's think about what really matters to our corporate partners and to our fans. We want to deliver a professional product. I guess if we have a mantra, it would be to not follow blindly those who have gone before us. We want to do whatever we can do to improve our relationship with our fans, communities and partners.
NYSJ: Would you consider a deal where a company becomes the presenting partner of NASL?
BP: We have different platforms, different levels in which companies can participate, different levels of activation. But we will look for a presenting sponsor for the league. We think with our split season and with the growth we have, that is a very attractive asset. We are in a position now to talk to some companies that have shown some initial interest in that. That said, this is a team-driven league and each team will control a lot of their marketing and sponsorship inventory. But, obviously, there is a lot of opportunity when you look at our footprint, when you start to attract upward of one million fans a year, that becomes pretty valuable for people who want to market to our demographic. The key thing for us is to find partners that will help us grow, that can help us to advance exponentially.
NYSJ: Are you looking at a majority of U.S.-born players on rosters or is there no real ratio of American-to-international players in place?
BP: I would like to see a mix, which would represent the game on an international level and also represents the make-up of this country. The first thing is that teams will want players who can win games, and the second is to have rosters that will be attractive to our fans. Soccer is played around the world, and people in this country come from all walks of life and all parts of the world. So we would like our league to represent that diversity.
NYSJ: How important is the league's Web site and social media in connecting with fans and potential marketing partners?
BP: Very important. The goal with the Web site is to make it vibrant and informative so that people will come back more than one a day. We want to generate enough content so that it is refreshed on a regular basis. We know that a lot of our fans are on social media, so we are trying to have a presence everywhere they are. We want our teams and players to connect with their communities, and certainly social media is a drving force behind that.
NYSJ: When David Beckham joined the Los Angeles Galaxy and MLS, that brought the league a lot of attention from fans, media and marketers, and seemed to push MLS to another level in their growth. Do you think it would take an international soccer star signing with NASL to bring your league to another level and enhance the dynamics among the league, fans and marketers?
BP: I'm not concerned about that at this point. We have a lot of opportunity ahead of us without having to do that. I'm not convinced that a high percentage of the high-profile signings actually worked.
"We will look for a presenting sponsor for the league. We think with our split season and with the growth we have, that is a very attractive asset."
NYSJ: Any plans to get Pelé out of retirement?
BP: [Laughs.] I haven't asked him but the promoter in me would love to see that. We still play at a pretty high level, so it should be interesting. We are going to focus on fundamentals. We have great players in this league and great coaches. Our games have been very exciting. We think the split-season puts a lot of pressure on the players and coaches to perform and win every week. It is a situation where teams can't afford to play for a tie. They will have to play for a win every week to get the points and get into the championship. And that will create great soccer for our fans. We will run with that model for a while and keep improving the level of play on the field. We will probably stay away from any sort of high-profile players.
NYSJ: The situation regarding athletes and drugs is one that all leagues must deal with. How strong is the NASL's policy?
BP: I am still evaluating where we are and what our capabilities are. That doesn't stop us from educating our players. We will work on our program to spend more time with them and to educate them. As far as policing it, we are just now thinking through what our capabilities are and what our responsibilities are as it relates to anti-doping agencies in the country. We will get to that sometime during the season and start to formulate a program.
NYSJ: Having dealt with players from the NFL, MLS and in cycling, which has been in the news a lot because of Lance Armstrong and other riders, what can you do to stay on top of the situation?
BP: From my experience, you really have to be out in front of it and really focus on education and brining a message to the players and making sure they understand what the consequences are before they get into a situation where they make that decision. Is it 100%? Probably not. Can you limit it? We will try to a good job of explaining the disadvantages and having them know the affects it can have on their body and their career. We will take an active role in that, just as we will take an active role in a lot of things, be it fair play and other issues that impact the sport.
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