Interview: NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson talks expansion (NASL and MLS), U.S. Open Cup, and other soccer league issues

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NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson
Although Bill Peterson has visited his native North Carolina a few times since becoming commissioner of the North American Soccer League last November, this past Wednesday was his first time watching the Carolina RailHawks in action this season. Unlike his besuited predecessor, Peterson strikes a more casual pose, roaming WakeMed Soccer Park clad in a casual button-front shirt and blue jeans. But what Peterson may lack in haberdashery he more than makes up for in confidence.

Prior the RailHawks’ victory over Chivas USA to advance to the quarterfinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, I sat down with Peterson to discuss a wide range of issues, including the new NASL split season format, both NASL and MLS expansion, and updates on the status of Virginia Cavalry FC and the Puerto Rico Islanders. We began with a discussion of his thoughts about the U.S. Open Cup.

PETERSON: It’s our opportunity to match up with everyone else in the country. I love the competition and the whole idea behind it. I know our teams were very excited. I think the teams that lost early were disappointed that they didn’t make a better run. But it’s that one time of year where you really get to measure yourself against the other teams. So, I think for us this competition is always going to be important. Every team in our league has the stated goal to win the U.S. Open Cup.

TRIANGLE OFFENSE: Has the prize money made a difference in the competition this year?

I’m not worried about the prize money. There’s a lot of things I would like to see improved with the competition, but prize money isn’t one of them.”

Such as?

I think the concept of this competition is wonderful. It’s now been around a hundred years. I think it’s time to put some resources behind it, explain it to the public a little bit better, get a little bit more buy-in from maybe one of the other leagues. I think it’s unfortunate that [U.S. Soccer] scheduled a friendly on the same night that they were running the U.S. Open Cup. So, I think that there are some things that can be done to raise the profile of it because the concept is exciting for any fan in any league. If the other guys don’t think so, then they shouldn’t show up, because I know for the USL and ourselves this is exciting stuff, this is fun, this is the international game. So, I’m on the [Open Cup] committee, and they’re aware that we’re going to have some conversations after this run.

Do you know what changes MLS wants for the U.S. Open Cup?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I have experience from being around the teams at AEG. And I think there are some clubs—it’s team by team, not across the board—that I think consider it a nuisance. [Winning the tournament] is not their stated goal, so then they bellyache a little more than others, or they don’t send their head coach, or whatever. My answer to that is come to play and come to win, or don’t enter. But, there are a lot of teams in MLS that also love it. You see many more teams today putting an effort behind it than maybe back in the early 2000s.

Are there any specific changes that you’d like to see?

I’d like to see more marketing effort go into the brand—the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. From the time I left soccer day-to-day in 2006 until now, I’m blown away by how big the audience for professional soccer has become. I don’t believe enough of that pro soccer fanbase understands the competition. So, I would like to see some effort put into the brand, and I would like to see the teams participating market and sell it as an opportunity, including our teams. I think we did a really weak job of taking advantage of this. If I was running a team in this league, I would put sponsorship money behind it, I would find a way to sell the stadium out because here’s our chance for us to match up against everybody else. I think there has to be a change in mindset, including NASL, going forward.

We’re reaching the midpoint of the NASL season. What’s your assessment of the new split season format?

The format is wonderful; I love it. My e-mail, text and Twitter accounts all lit up Saturday night, and I said, “The playoffs are here.” Fans were ranting and raving about issues, and people were excited, sometimes in a good way and sometimes in a bad way. Every team’s still in it and we’re going into week 10. I think by Sunday morning that might not be the case, but the format has proven a couple of points. First, this league is closely matched right now, and two, this system creates a lot of interest.

MLS expansion into New York appeared inevitable. Is possible MLS expansion into Miami a coincidence or based something else?

I don’t know. Is there a serious effort by the group to go down there and put a team in, or was it a couple of lads running around having a good time over the weekend? I’m not sure what’s going on down there; it’s not my league.

Well, I’ve heard you say before that you always worry about your league and not MLS, but you have to be mindful about what’s going on in D1. It affects you, or do you disagree?

I don’t worry about it. First, I can’t control anything they do, and two, I think what we’re doing is just different and it doesn’t interrelate to what they’re doing. If they put a team in Miami and it draws six, eight or 15 thousand fans, our team’s up in Fort Lauderdale. It’s a world away. If I was running a team in Fort Lauderdale, I wouldn’t worry about it. I think I’d take the same approach Seamus [O’Brien, CEO of the New York Cosmos] takes: “Bring ‘em on, let’s play, let’s get this thing going.” Because that sort of approach to this will get more people interested in soccer in this country and cities we’re in.

You made some comments recently about possible expansion into Los Angeles, and I’ve heard some rumors that there may be expansion into Oklahoma City. What can you tell me about that?

We’re in conversations in three or four cities that I think are positive and moving at the speed I want them to move. But all this has to go before a board meeting for a vote, and that’s probably not going to happen before July. So nothing’s imminent yet. Here’s what I can say: we’re coming across potential ownership groups in cities that are exciting and people who understand what we’re trying to do as a league and fit in very well.

What are the markets under consideration?

Yes, we’re looking at Los Angeles. Yes, we’re in discussions with a group out of Oklahoma City. There are two others I’d rather not say because they’d rather I not say. And then once we get through that process, either yes or no, there’s another group of four or five cities that I’m going to get started on in August that are very strong and have people signaling that they have interest.

A couple of other rumblings I’ve heard. Is Virginia Cavalry FC going to be ready for the 2014 NASL Spring season?

Well, it’s a construction project, isn’t it? So, in my experience very few of them ever finish on time. But, they have a contingency plan and they will play [in the 2014 Spring season]. They have two options they’re looking at, and I think they’ll lock one of them up in the next week or two. Same with Ottawa [Fury], by the way.

What is the current status between the NASL and the Puerto Rico Islanders?

There’s no progress to report. We are now reaching territory from a timing perspective that’s become a little more critical. I was extremely confident when we started the process that we would have resolved it by now, and we haven’t. So, I’m starting to have my own doubts about whether we’re going to be there. But over the next six weeks it really has to be resolved one way or the other.

I read an interview you gave recently in which you made the statement that you didn’t think there was any ownership group in the NASL that had any aspirations to join MLS, and I was stunned by that statement. Do you believe that?

I believe that. When I talk with these guys, nobody’s come to me and said we have a plan to go to MLS. Quite the contrary. I think most people have looked at their model and, for whatever reason, decided that wasn’t the direction they wanted to go, and that’s why they’re here. If you’re an owner and you want to be in MLS, you should call Don [Garber] directly and get the deal done. I talk to our guys every day, and I see no one pointing in that direction. I think everyone believes in what we’re doing, everyone believes we can be successful and this model works for them. That’s what we talk about during expansion, making sure that [potential investors] believe in this league. You want to go to the other league? Call Don.

When I talk to other NASL followers, the one question we always pose is trying to figure out what direction the league is going. One concern we have is whether there’s a dichotomy between trying to fill unserved markets—Indianapolis, Oklahoma City—and being preoccupied with entering bigger markets that are already occupied—New York, LA—and whether those two directions can coexist.

Absolutely. We look at a vision for 2018 with 18-20 teams by then, we see a mix of being in some of the larger metropolitan markets, maybe four to six out of 18 teams, and the rest of the league being in places like Carolina, Indianapolis, or wherever. It’s going to be a mix.

But why is that important when you have so many unserved markets?

When you look at ultimately where you want to be as a league, you’re going to need to service the larger markets in order to feed the media eyeballs and get certain sponsors involved. So, if you put a team in LA, you’ve exposed yourself to 13 million people. When you’re in New York, you’ve exposed yourself to 12 or 13 million people. And I think you have to do that to reach your end goals eventually with television and sponsorships and the dollars to drive all this. But at the same time, a city like Indianapolis with 1-2 million, that’s a large city. That’s not a second-tier city. So, to be in those cities and own professional soccer and be able to capture the entire city, that’s what I think is going to make this successful. So, it’s a mix and, I think, the right way to put this league together.

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