We spoke with Selby Wellman, majority owner of the Carolina RailHawks, after yesterday's press conference in which Sunil Gulati, president of the United States Soccer Federation, announced a provisional agreement to keep Division 2 soccer going in 2010. Wellman spoke to us from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where the North American Soccer League is holding its annual general meeting.
Among the highlights:
Triangle Offense: How do you feel about the news today?
Selby Wellman: Tremendous.
Seems like Gulati made clear this was a short-term arrangement.
Absolutely. This is nothing more than a 2010 transition. After two and a half years of work, we are going to launch North American Soccer League for 2011. And during this transition year we will launch our league. It's a lot of work to launch a league and that'll be our focus at the league level, to launch a league this year. The transition is nothing more than a way to compete on the field. There are nine NASL teams and three USL teams. Three of the NASL teams will play in the USL Conference, but they are members of the NASL body and they will be playing in the NASL in 2011.
Are the three NASL teams playing in the USL Conference going to have to, on any practical level, going to have to answer to the USL, or is the division just cosmetic?
No. It's totally cosmetic. All of us report to the USSF, in terms of administrations, scheduling, disciplinary actions, things like that. That's on the field. Off the field, the USL will run their business—and they have three teams in that business—and we will run our business-and we have nine teams in that business.
You're having a general meeting [in Fort Lauderdale] right now. Do you have nine teams meeting there?
We have nine teams and we have four visiting teams that are prospects that would like to consider joining our league.
They are there to consider you or you to consider them?
Both. Meet everybody, chat with them, start talking about 2011 and joining the NASL.
Is Atlanta one of them?
No, Atlanta is already a member of NASL. They're not part of the nine, though. We have nine team that will play in 2010. Atlanta will rejoin the league in 2011. They're number 10. We'll have an announcement of another franchise within the next two weeks that will start in 2011. That will be 11. Then we have four others here who are talking with us and will be meeting with us about 2011.
Can you tell us which markets they represent?
No, I really wouldn't. But I can tell you they're major markets. It wouldn't be right to share that at this time.
One question I have, something I was thinking about during the press conference... do you feel like US Soccer is sufficiently neutral in this process? From my naïve perspective, it seems like Sunil Gulati [who is president of Kraft Soccer of the MLS New England Revolution in addition to his USSF duties] has dual interests here, and with the MLS facing labor issues, do you feel satisfied that US Soccer is an honest broker?
I really do. I've dealt with Sunil myself directly, lots of meetings up in New York the last six months or so. I feel very comfortable. He's neutral. I do understand there's some conflict there that comes out in the press from time to time. But I do think he's a very straight-up, honest man and I've enjoyed working with him. He can wear both hats and he's done it very effectively.
Did you talk at all about the collective bargaining agreement? Did the labor issues facing MLS play any part in the discussions with US Soccer? There's been noise about a lockout, which could potentially send MLS players to Division 2.
I don't know anything about that, to be honest with you. There's always a possibility that if there were a lockout or something like that there would be opportunities for players over here, of course. I don't know how that's playing out in negotiations over there. Quite frankly, it's just a coincidence that we've been working on this for two and a half years and this came up with the MLS and the players at the same time.
Going forward with this season, it seems like it will be a challenge to market the games you have in 2010 and market the NASL [for the future]. Have you settled on a marketing strategy?
I have no concerns about that whatsoever. We will form our own league staff. We're actually interviewing candidates down here in Fort Lauderdale right now for that staff. We already have in the Miami group—which is owned by Traffic, one of the largest soccer companies in the world—[that] is basically running our sales and marketing right now. We're in full launch mode, we'll do a lot of marketing throughout this year. I don't think that will have anything to do with on-the-field kinds of issues. The way to look at this, the simplest way to view it, is that the USSF will run this league during this 2010 transition year. They will deal with all issues on the field and on the field only. Both the USL organization and the NASL organization will deal independently—and unencumbered by anybody—with regard to all the off the field issues, which include marketing, branding, etc.
How do you feel about the prospects of NASL being sanctioned in 2011?
Outstanding. We're ready to go now. Now that we've got all this behind us, the first thing that's going to happen is Sunil and the USSF—what they've discovered in this process is that the standards for Division 2 need to be tightened up a little bit. There's a piece of work that's going to take place at the federation level very quickly to tighten up those standards in terms of league needs to be in order to be sanctioned a Division 2 league. The day after they revise those standards—we will apply the following day. We already have enough information to know that we will pretty much qualify already. I look forward to getting that sanctioning this year, for 2011.
So you expect that application to be going forward very soon.
Absolutely. We submitted a 644-page application and it was not sanctioned simply because there was a dispute over three teams [Rochester, Baltimore Crystal Palace and Tampa]. There were legal issues and things like that. To settle all that, you're looking at a transition year. We already have nine NASL teams fully committed to NASL, which more than meets the standards already. A few other standards are being put up and there's no doubt we'll meet those as well, and we'll file just as soon as they publish the new standards, or, I should say, the revised standards. We will file a sanctioning application immediately. And we expect it very quickly.
Can you give us an idea what kinds of issues are in those proposed revisions to standards?
No, because that work has not begun yet. But I would expect to see stadium standards. For example, one of the major problems we had in the past with USL was stadiums: playing high school football stadiums on not-properly sized soccer fields with football lines. That's not proper. We need to make that a standard: You've got to be on a soccer field in a soccer stadium. That's one example. And then 'How big is the stadium,' and 'How many does it seat.' And maybe things like the owners' net worth, equity, etc.
On the rumor end: I hear you were one of the last holdouts in making this [provisional] agreement with the federation. Is that correct?
That's a correct statement.
And what was the sticking point?
I wanted to make sure that during this transition year, all this work we put in during the two and half years, that we could launch NASL unencumbered, from the business side. I felt the transition year should deal with on-the-field issues only. Once that was clarified, I came across the line.
You're satisfied that if you meet the sanctioning requirements, the NASL will be sanctioned?
Absolutely. Matter of fact, I'm very excited. When you work on something for two and a half years, David, the way I've worked on this daily... and you're at the end of it and you can now see the clear path ahead, you feel pretty good about it. This is a celebration time.
One other question: I saw an interview with one of the RailHawks' minority partners, Dr. [Harminder Paul] Singh. He said something about the FIFA calendar, and I was wondering if he meant playing from fall to spring.
There's been minimal discussion about that, because there are a lot of problems with it, with the winters, when we have teams in Rochester and Vancouver and Montreal, so there's a little bit of a problem there. But is there a way to work around it? Absolutely. You just do it like some of the European teams do. You take long breaks and things like that, and you schedule in warm climates before and after [the winter breaks], so it is doable. But it's something that's not very high on our priority list right now. I think it's going to take a couple of years to get this thing cranked up to a high level and those kinds of things are down the road. Along with things like, we would hope one day, maybe there's promotion/ relegation in our future, those kinds of things. Which are what people want.
Are you talking about promoting and relegating within multiple divisions of the NASL? Or with the MLS?
Both. I think both are possible. I think it's down the road, a matter of four or five years. We get this Division 2 established at the level we want, as an owner-controlled league, we're already competing with anybody on the field, as you know, right there in Carolina. We play MLS teams and Mexican teams and we do quite well. We know we're producing high-quality professional soccer now. What we have to do is raise the level of the business end and our image over the next couple of years to match what we do on the field.