By Barry Janoff
April 2, 2015: Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, the North American Soccer League with the sport's major professional player in the U.S. boasting clubs coast-to-coast and rosters filled with such international icon's as Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Johann Cruyff, George Best, Carlos Alberto and Giorgio Chinaglia and homegrown talent including Shep Messing, Bob Rigby and Kyle Rote Jr.
Over-expansion, financial woes and other insurmountable challenges saw the league decimated from a high of 24 clubs in 1978-80 to just nine in 1984 before folding prior to the 1985 season.
In 2011, a new NASL launched as a U.S. Soccer Federation Division II entity, offering fans, players and marketers an option to the more-established Major League Soccer (a USSF Division I league).
Although there were detractors, the NASL is now on embarking on its fifth season, with 11 clubs in place and growing support from the likes of ESPN, which, having lost its deal with FIFA for broadcast rights to the men's World Cup (now handled by Fox), is ramping up its coverage of pro soccer via the NASL and MLS.
NASL is also making noise in marketing, signing this week a deal with global lifestyle brand New Era Cap, already the official on-field cap for MLB and the NFL, which the league called its "first major licensing agreement," with the promise of more league-wide partnerships to come.
Of at least equal importance, NASL is attraction attention on the international political front. This summer, the New York Cosmos will visit Cuba for a friendly match against the Cuban National Team in Havana, becoming the first team to play on the island nation since the U.S. restored diplomatic relations this past December.
"It's a busy time for us as we head into the 2015 season," Bill Peterson, now entering his third season as commissioner for the NASL, said during a media conference call on Wednesday (April 1). "We are excited to be on the eve of our fifth season (April 4) and we are proud of what has been accomplished during the first four years of this league.
"We've seen incredible growth. We are satisfied with the direction in which we are headed. We are going to stay focused in making sure that the game on the field is the first priority and being relevant in our communities as the second priority."
NASL's 11 club roster is short of the 20 clubs — including expansion teams New York FC and Orlando City FC — that MLS put on the field for its 2015 season. MLS plans to add franchises in Atlanta, Los Angeles and Minnesota in 2017 and 2018, with the latter moving from the NASL.
MLS is also trying to get a club in South Florida under ownership headed by soccer icon and former MLS star David Beckham.
Regarding the NASL's future, Peterson said, "We will continue to grow and expand. We expect to be at 20 teams but without a deadline on that. We want to have the right owners in the right cities."
According to Peterson, “Expansion is a complicated process and there are a lot of things we’re looking for before we grant an ownership group and city entry into this league. I can tell you this, we’ve never had more interest from more ownership groups that are qualified. We’re working with each one of them diligently to explore what their real interest is, what the city they’re interested in has to offer not only to the owners but to the league itself as well.”
NASL's alliance with ESPN gives the league key access to core and casual fans, as well as those viewers who might not be fans of the NASL or soccer.
"It's significant for us to have the support of ESPN and have that exposure," said Peterson of the coming season that will see a minimum of 120 league matches air live on ESPN3, ESPN Play and ESPN Player in 75 different countries. "We are proud that they came to us and asked for more programming than in the past. It's another step forward in this league's development."
Although each club has its own roster of local and regional marketing partners, the NASL lags far behind MLS in national partners. Peterson said the new deal with New Era is a major step toward building more national alliances.
"We've got some more partnerships that will be announced," he said. "Working with New Era represents more than just a quality cap deal for our fans — it's the NASL's first major licensing agreement. It shows that more and more companies are seeing the value in partnering with us, and this is just the beginning of our league building out its commercial capabilities."
The trip to Cuba also gives NASL credibility beyond the pitch, with the potential of a longer-term alliance a possibility.
"We’re very happy to involved with the Cosmos going to Cuba this summer," said Peterson. "As soon as President Obama changed the rules we engaged with the Cuban Federation. We’re obviously dedicated and focused on being good partners in that region of the world. And to be able to start some dialogue with them we think is important for the future of soccer in that area.
Peterson hinted at a stronger relationship to come with Cuba, not saying but opening the door to the possibility of bringing in Cuban players or a putting a team there. "We’re looking forward to a much deeper relationship beyond just playing friendly games.”
Even with its growth on numerous fronts, the 800-lb. gorilla for NASL remains MLS, which has numerous new or recently built soccer-specific stadiums complete with strong company naming rights holders, a bevy of official league-wide national and global marketing partners and at least the perceived perception that it is leaps and bounds ahead of other pro soccer leagues in the U.S.
Which only seems to add fuel to NASL's motivational fire.
"We don't sit around trying to figure out how we do things differently from or better than MLS," said Peterson. "They have their model; they are very happy with their model. It works for them. We want them to be successful. What we focus on is what we believe is the right model for us. We believe it's a good model, a better model, more beneficial to allow us to reach the highest levels much quicker.
"We been very impressed with the efforts of all of our clubs, coaches and technical directors to really scour the earth, if you will, for the best possible players to bring in. The messages I've gotten back from every team is that they've made significant progress in upgrading the level of play. That will benefit the fans because it means we will have an even more exciting competition this year."
"We don't sit around trying to figure out how we do things differently from or better than MLS. We focus on is what we believe is the right model for us."
Peterson understands that growth is imperative, but knows that the NASL has to it under its own strategy, which means continuing to move forward even with the impending loss of Minnesota to MLS.
“There’s no league that has started that didn’t have teams come and go and move," he said. "It’s great to try and not allow that to happen but at the end of the day it’s going to happen and it’s just part of where we are in our development as a country with professional soccer and where we are as a league with NASL."
The NASL again will go with its unique Spring-Fall split season, with the winner of each meeting for the championship.
"It's going to be a heck of a season," said Peterson. "Buckle your seat belt and hang on."
Editor's Note: The NASL set several modern era attendance records during its opening weekend: 44,479 fans attended five league matches on Saturday, establishing a new modern era league record for attendance in a single match week. Jacksonville Armada FC broke the NASL modern era attendance record, drawing 16,164 fans at EverBank Field, and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers set a modern era team record by playing in front of 11,691 in Lockhart Stadium.
NASL 2015 Roster
Atlanta Silverbacks, Carolina RailHawks, FC Edmonton, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Indy Eleven, Jacksonville Armada FC (expansion club), Minnesota United FC, New York Cosmos, Ottawa Fury FC, San Antonio Scorpions FC, Tampa Bay Rowdies
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