Bill Peterson in January 2013 during his first visit to WakeMed Soccer Park after becoming NASL commissioner.
On Tuesday, Bill Peterson, embarking on his second season as commissioner of the North American Soccer League (NASL), held a couple of media conference calls in advance of the 2014 NASL regular season, which kicks off this weekend. Next week, Peterson will visit North Carolina when he attends a Carolina RailHawks fan forum planned for Wednesday, April 16 at 6 p.m. in Raleigh. In the meantime, the RailHawks open their 2014 campaign this Saturday when they visit Indianapolis to take on Indy Eleven in the debut match for that new expansion club. Indy Eleven anticipates a sellout crowd of approximately 11,000.
Both during his prepared statements and extended question-and-answer sessions, Peterson elaborated on the league’s topics du jour
, from present and future expansion, to the league's new four-team playoff (yes, he used that word) format, to the news about Major League Soccer (MLS) apparently expanding to Atlanta.
Not surprisingly, Peterson said that the “outlook for the league is very, very bright.” He said the excitement about the impending debut of expansion clubs in Indianapolis and Ottawa will segue into an “edge-of-your-seat” spring season that finds teams playing nine games each to determine one berth in the league’s new championship format.
Peterson teased a few coming announcements, including, “a fairly significant commercial announcement in the coming days [that’s] one of our first league sponsorship deals with a great brand company.” He also said the league will “also have a broadcast partnership that we’ll make further announcement about later this week.” Peterson didn’t provide any details on this topic, although any suggestion this means an impending television broadcast deal was scuttled later when the commissioner said that, “our next focus of television is to secure a weekly highlights show on one of the major sports platforms … After that step, we’ll focus on getting a game of the week on a national type of platform, either cable or broadcast.”
Below are the highlights of Peterson’s remarks on particular topics, drawn from both conference calls:
On future NASL expansion:
PETERSON: We continue to look at other cities where we could possibly expand. Our focus is on the Midwest and West. Without going into any specific cities we’re talking to, I will tell you that right now there are a number of robust conversations. We will continue to take our time and make sure we’re securing the right ownership groups in the right cities before we make any final announcements.
Canada is in those plans, and we have discussions ongoing with at least one and sometimes two cities up there. I don’t think anything is imminent, but we have talked with interested ownership parties in a number of cities.
We have evaluated ownerships groups in Las Vegas. We’re not currently speaking with anyone very seriously there. We’ve had conversations throughout California, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego and others. I do believe we’ll end up with one or more teams in California sometime in the near future. But trying to handicap expansion is a losing proposition because it’s a long, slow process. There’s a lot of people who have to end up on the same page and understand what it’s going to take to be successful.
Updates on the status of expansion clubs in Northern Virginia and Oklahoma City:
In both cases, basically we’ve gone through an ownership reorganization for completely different reasons. They’re starting to come out of that process, we’re hopeful we’re still on target for 2015 with both clubs. There was a delay in the stadium in Virginia. That led to some other issues among the group that was going to build the stadium. Ultimately, that’s forced [the Virginia Cavalry FC] ownership to consider different options, and that’s the process we’re going through now, as well as reorganizing that ownership group. I hope we’re getting close to finishing that process and will be able to share more information when everything is buttoned up.
Oklahoma City is very simple. It’s a very clear cut ownership reorganization, and the focus now locally is securing the stadium where they’ll play in 2015.
Jacksonville [Armada FC, in Florida], on the other hand, is gangbusters. As you know, I live in the area, and it’s just amazing the reaction they’re getting from everyone, whether its fans or people in the general community. Companies want to sponsor them. They’re going to open up very strong next year, and we expect all three [expansion clubs] to open up next year.
Thoughts on the reported expansion of MLS to Atlanta, currently home to the NASL’s Atlanta Silverbacks:
There’s no surprise here; I think everyone’s known for some time of [MLS’] intentions in Atlanta. We continue to evaluate what that means. My personal opinion is that Atlanta is a city that would benefit from more than one professional soccer club and may actually raise the awareness and excitement levels throughout the region. I think this could be a good thing for all of us, on and off the field. Having said that, I’m not the owner of the team. [The team’s owners] continue to evaluate their situation. They don’t have to make a decision today; I don’t think [the MLS club] will play before 2017. We do have a long tradition with the Silverbacks and Silverbacks Park … They feel very good about the direction they’re heading.
At some point [the Silverback’ owners] have to decide whether it matters that there’s another club in the Atlanta area. They’re going to think about what type of effect this may have on their commercial sponsorships, their fan base, and on community and government support.
The NASL’s current relationship with MLS:
We really don’t have formal relationships with other leagues in this country. That is, I guess, on purpose. We’re not a developmental league. Having said that, we’re a decentralized league and part of what we contend is the global soccer economy. You see players moving back and forth between the leagues, and that’s healthy. You see a lot of cooperation and discussions at the team level, and that’s healthy. But, they do what they do, and we do what we do, and that’s best for everybody right now. That’s probably the way it’ll stay for some time.
The NASL’s new four-team playoff format instituted for 2014:
It’s a piece to our competition that we think makes our regular season more exciting, not less exciting. Our next goal is to get to 18 clubs … but part of that vision is to maintain the split [regular] season and maintain a single table once we get to 16 or 18 clubs, and also institute a small playoff feature at the end of the season. Basically, the question came down to why wait until we get to 16 clubs, we can do this now.
There are a number of reasons we felt this [playoff format] was beneficial. One, it still maintains a strong reason to play hard and win the spring and fall seasons. At the same time, you’re recognizing teams that played really well over the course of two long seasons, and they get a chance to prove that they’re the best team in the league. We’ll keep the competition at four teams going forward. This is not a way to allow mediocrity into the finals. This was a way to create even more competition.
By awarding the Soccer Bowl hosting rights to the spring season champion last year, it allowed the league to advance plan around the championship site months in advance. That advance determination has been eliminated by this new playoff format. Was any consideration given to preserving that element?
This whole concept was debated for months, and a lot of different models were put forward with a lot of evaluation. At the end of the day, we felt the structure we settled on was a better competitive structure. It may not be the best business structure. I think if we determined our championship location after the spring season, there’s a good chance we’d sell more tickets and get more sponsorship and local support. But, we weren’t sure it would provide the best competitive balance for the clubs. So, it’s a case of doing the right thing. We may have sacrificed some short-term revenues. But it was more important to have the competition line up correctly and get those teams seeded in a manner we felt was reflective of what they earned throughout the season.
Reasons why the NASL decided to implement a paid service for live match streaming this year:
We want to provide all of our fans with all of the action, whether their team is home or away. But that costs money. At this point in our development, we’re not looking at receiving substantial rights fees from any broadcasters. So we’ve got to come up with a model that makes the most sense for everybody where we can provide those match feeds, currently over the Web, while at the same time find a way to help offset some of the cost. Maybe we’re heading in a direction everybody is going to follow one day soon anyway.
It’s also forced our clubs to improve their broadcast quality. So I think the fans who have followed us in the past should be pleasantly surprised when they start to see the improvements in the production and entertainment value of those matches.
The reasons behind the NASL’s recent announcement that it’s moving its league headquarters to New York City:
The New York move was more about efficiency. As we’re starting to grow and develop, you find that you can develop more of those relationships in New York than other places. It’s more about efficiencies in having broadcasters, potential sponsors, agencies and marketing companies all located there. We’ll maintain a small presence in Miami. We have an executive who stays in California. We’ll continue those locations. But everybody else we bring on will be based in New York moving forward.
The seemingly widening player salary imbalance between the NASL’s member clubs:
I suspect salaries for players have increased. The teams are becoming a little more competitive. They’re reaching for slightly better players. That doesn’t always mean you have to pay more money, but sometimes it means you have to pay more money.
I expect to see some margin between what clubs are spending, and as long as we don’t feel there is a competitive disadvantage to what somebody is spending or not spending, then we’ll let the guys go out and participate in the free market system. There’s no indication there’s anything wrong with the system we’re in right now, and there’s no real concern on my part at this time. The clubs are spending within their means, and a lot of the clubs are increasing their revenues and putting that money back into the club.