by Neil Morris
However, Downs has also spent over 30 years in the television broadcast industry as an executive with ABC Sports and Univision. In 2009, he was tapped as the Executive Director of the USA Bid Committee and its ultimately unsuccessful bid to host the 2022 World Cup.
On April 4, Downs was named the first commissioner of the North American Soccer League (NASL), the second division U.S. soccer league in which the Carolina RailHawks currently compete.
Triangle Offense caught up with Downs last week during his visit to WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, prior to the RailHawks match against FC Edmonton. An affable, polished executive, Downs is equally at ease discussing the evolution of the flat back four defense in the U.S. as he is dissecting ownership and market growth potentials.
Downs spoke on a variety of topics, including his qualifications for NASL commissioner, the role of second division U.S. soccer, and promotion/relegation (a subject he brought up, not us).
TRIANGLE OFFENSE: How did the position of NASL commissioner come your way?
DOWNS: As you know, I worked on the [2022 U.S. World Cup] bid for two years on behalf of the U.S. Soccer Federation, and that was all-consuming. While I was in that position, I couldn’t take time to think for one second what else was ahead of me in life. I thought we were going to win the bid, and I would have assumed I’d be a major part of the organizing committee for the next 12 years as we prepared for the 2022 World Cup.
I also made an awful lot of friends in the business in that time. One day, I was sitting around my house outside New York City and the phone rang. It was some representatives from the [NASL] asking if I would consider [becoming commissioner]. It turned out the timing was perfect for them and me, and the opportunity was right for me. I had fallen in love with my role in the sport as an administrator and organizer, so the opportunity to continue doing that was too good to be true.
Did the officials from the NASL who called you tell you what strengths they believe you bring to the position and why they wanted you for commissioner?
I don’t really recall that, but I do think it’s a very good signal for the league that they came after me because I think I bring to the table not only great relationships with people in the world of soccer - from FIFA to the U.S. Soccer Federation to MLS - but I have also worked for 35 years in the sports and television industry to build a reputation for fairness and ethical behavior. That’s what you want in a commissioner, somebody who is going to adjudicate the league’s issues in an impeccably fair manner. We are a league that’s owned by the teams, and yet the teams need someone sitting atop that league to make sure it’s fair for everyone.
Division two soccer in this country has always been, for lack of a better phrase, a troubled jungle, and recently an uncertain jungle. What do you see as the role of division two soccer in the U.S.?
I believe there are over 100 million soccer fans in the United States. That’s not a made-up number; that’s based on Nielsen measurements of unique viewers in the America market, ESPN polls, etc. And, they’re spread out all over the country, not just our top 10 urban markets. Going through the [World Cup] bid process, we determined that there were probably 30 or 40 markets that could have legitimately hosted and sold out World Cup matches.
We all know you can see the best games and leagues around the world soccer now 24/7 on television. But, there’s something equally valid about going out and seeing soccer in person, experiencing it in the stadium and being intimately close to the players. That’s the service we provide in each of our markets because we are at the top of the professional [soccer] pyramid in each of those individual markets. So, it’s fine for someone in the Raleigh-Durham area to watch Barcelona play Real Madrid, but it’s also special to come out and put on a RailHawks jersey in an unbelievably beautiful setting for an affordable price on a nice evening.
Beyond fans, how do you persuade people with money to invest in these teams, because ultimately that’s going to determine whether the NASL or any other lower division soccer league survives.
That’s certainly one of the prime responsibilities in my job. But, I don’t think it’s all that difficult a sell. I will admit that sports at almost every tier of every major sport in the United States is fraught with operating loss. But, each of our clubs has a model that shows how they get into the black, and there is a long-term benefit to owning sports franchises that seems to exist around the world that gets owners to step up and buy clubs, even clubs that are currently losing money.
I don’t think it’s that tough a sell when you combine that with the enormous growth potential of the sport in the United States. If an owner stepped into the NASL, they’d be stepping into something that is at the bottom of the escalator and moving up inevitably.
But, what is the sales pitch you can give to people with money that hasn’t already been tried before in certain markets, often without success?
Well, I’m sure this has been said before. But, in a nutshell, what you say to a prospective owner is you have the chance, for a very low entry fee, to get into the sport team owning business in a sport that’s incredibly hot in a market that isn’t physically served by another professional soccer team. I think that is attractive to a certain type of owner.
MLS is now commanding $50 million expansion fees—we’re not asking for that. And, MLS is also requiring soccer specific stadiums to be built in those markets, and that could be hundreds of millions on top of the expansion fee. We provide a very reasonable entry into the business with tremendous upside potential. And, because the entry is so reasonable, there’s not a lot of risk.
Plus, MLS is eventually going to reach a maximum saturation point and prospective owners will have to turn to the lower divisions.
Well, saturation and/or a FIFA cap. FIFA would prefer that we’re not past 20 teams in the top division. Again, if you look around the world at the commercially successful division one countries—England, Germany, Italy, Spain, etc.—you see a commercially successful division two right beneath it. Yes, they have promotion and relegation; maybe that’s something we can dream about. But, one of the ironies about not having promotion and relegation is that you can’t definitively say that a team in second division is worse than a team in first division, because they don’t play each other on a regular basis and they don’t earn their way up.
No, all kidding aside, Montreal will be “promoted” to MLS at the end of this year and they’re 0-2 right now. I’m hoping they’ll be a lot better when the season ends, but I’m not sure it would be the worst thing if another team besides Montreal actually won the league and, in a competitive sense, proved the equal of a team that’s advancing to MLS.
Like Puerto Rico last year.
I wasn’t even going to you ask about pro/rel because, in my opinion, it’s a pipe dream that’s never going to happen in this country.
I come from the TV industry, and one of the things that is absolutely essential in American sports in order to have a national TV package is having capable teams in the largest markets: New York, L.A., Chicago, etc. One of the downsides of promotion and relegation is that you could actually lose the L.A. Galaxy or Red Bulls to division two. In other countries where sports are organized in a slightly more free market manner—less of a salary cap situation, less pooling of national revenues—you would never lose the club from London, Madrid, or Barcelona to relegation because they have competitive advantages that will always keep them [in first division], not the least of which is the Champions League, which gives them a windfall and almost seems to propagate returning to the Champions League every year.
In the United States, where our leagues seem to go out of their way to advantage the last-place team with the highest draft choice and salary cap space, you are going to occasionally get the situation where the team from the very tiny market outperforms the team from the large market. God forbid you’d have the team from the large market drop out [from division 1] and negatively impact your TV deal.
You spoke about how growing lower division soccer requires a market-by-market analysis. From what you know, what is the best plan for the Raleigh-Durham-Cary market? As you know, there’s been a lot of upheaval with the RailHawks over the last two-three seasons.
First and foremost, this is a great market for soccer. I’m very familiar with youth and college soccer in the United States, and you can’t beat this area. As you know, currently one of the league owners owns a considerable portion of the RailHawks. That’s not something that we see as viable in the long, long term. We’re very eager to see if we can get someone to step in and take over this team.
But, because of this region being such a hotbed for soccer and this facility being so incredibly perfect—a pitch that’s nicer than half the pitches in the Premiership and a stadium that’s the perfect size for division two—it would be a shame if we didn’t sort out the ownership issue and get the RailHawks independently owned for the long haul.