By Barry Janoff
November 10, 2016: The North American Soccer League is fast-approaching the end of its 2016 season,, with the championship game between the Indy Eleven and New York Cosmos scheduled for Nov. 13 in New York.
For some, the event represents the reward to a rigourous, but successful, campaign.
For others, the game represents the conclusion of a season in which the league faced financial and logistical problems so severe that the future of the NASL was put in doubt.
"It’s an honor to be part of a league that once again presents incredible competition for our fans," NASL commissioner Bill Peterson said during a media conference call held as a prelude to the title match. "It’s been a busy year for us. First and foremost, it’s always about the competition. And this is a very competitive league.
"We’ve had a good year in some areas off the field. We are particularly proud of the partners we brought on. Having CBS Sports Network broadcast games, beIN broadcast games, One World Sport improved their coverage and did a great job covering our games. And the partnership with ESPN3 and all the local broadcasters really gave us a lot of exposure and a lot of opportunity to promote our players, our teams, our competition. They made a big difference in who we are today versus who we’ve been in the past," said Peterson.
The commissioner also stressed the impact of league and team marketing partners, led by Under Armour, which came in this year as the official ball and the Cosmos kit provider Peterson implied that the Baltimore-based sports apparel, footwear and equipment company went beyond that, perhaps including financial support.
"They are really good partners of this league," said Peterson. "They were able to get things done for us on a couple of occasions where we were in a bind. And we have had some great conversations with them about what the future looks like not only for our league but their company and the sport in general."
Some NASL clubs had financial problems this past season, including the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers, which, according to ESPN and other media outlets, were "in serious financial jeopardy" and Rayo OKC, which "faces similar financial trouble."
This also was the farewell season for the Minnesota United, which is moving from the NASL to Major League Soccer in 2017. In October, the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ottawa Fury said they would move their franchises to from the NASL, a Div. II circuit, to the United Soccer League, a Div. III operation as determined by the U.S. Soccer Federation, the sport’s overseeing body in this country.
"What I say today and what our owners say today is that we get up every morning and try to figure out how to build a strong league and build it so that it is stronger today than it was yesterday," said Peterson. "And continue to deliver great competition for our fans and everything else that is involved with professional sports, be it stadiums or marketing or television.
"This may be a golf analogy, but we play our ball and focus on what we are doing more so than what others are doing. And if we continue to do that and work hard, we will be successful," said Peterson. "How successful is impossible to predict. We have a very dedicated group of owners who want to continue to build a strong and stronger league, and that’s our focus right now."
The NASL also faced challenges when it came to finding a venue for its championship game. The No. 1 seeded Cosmos had home-field advantage, but were not able to host the game in 11,000-seat Shuart Stadium, on the campus of Hofstra University on Long Island, due to a contractual dispute.
The move, said to be permanent, from what had been the Cosmos home stadium for the past few seasons reportedly dates back to an altercation between some of the team’s fans and fans of MLS’s New York City FC during an interleague friendly game in Shuart Stadium in 2015. Complaints of the altercations led Hofstra school executives to indicate to Cosmos executives that their lease at the Stadium would not be renewed following the 2016 season.
"We have a very dedicated group of owners who want to continue to build a strong and stronger league, and that’s our focus right now."
That, compounded by other factors — including Shuart Stadium not being a soccer-specific venue— was a catalyst in driving the league and team to look for other locations. They included MCU Park in Brooklyn, home to the Brooklyn Cyclones, a Minor League Baseball Class A affiliate of MLB’s New York Mets. The Cosmos played their post-season semi-final game there on Nov. 7.
Eventually, the league and Cosmos struck a deal with St. John’s University in Queens to have the title game played in the on-campus 2,500-seat Belson Stadium. The game will air live on CBS Sports Network (7 PM ET), available in 60 million homes across North America.
"We are thankful to St. John’s for stepping up and hosting us," said Peterson. "(The Cosmos) have been trying to resolve a scheduling issue, which we at the league office have been aware of for weeks. We tried to work with them to contemplate a lot of different outcomes. The No. 1 issue for us was allowing the Cosmos’ fans to have the game on home territory.
"We contemplated moving the game (out of New York), but the damage it would do to the fan base and the trust that fan base has in the club ultimately was the reason to keep the championship game in New York. We are going to fill the place up; it will be an incredible game," said Peterson.
Looking at 2017, the San Francisco Deltas FC are joining as an expansion club, but replacements for the three departing clubs may not come until years down the road.
"The movement of clubs — fortunately or unfortunately, depending on where you sit in the discussion — is part of the game today in the United States," said Peterson. "It’s a product of how we are structured. Any club owner can make a choice of what league he would like to play in and file for admission in that league. That becomes a personal decision. It’s not just us. We have seen it in all the (soccer) leagues.
"There is nothing in the law that prohibits that. It is a lot of movement in one year with teams coming on, teams going out. Is it something we like? No. We don’t like to see teams leaving to go other leagues. But at the same time we understand the reason for it. We wish them well."
According to Peterson, "At the end of the day, it’s going to take three strong leagues here (MLS, NASL and USL, which has applied to the USSF for Div. II status) to really grow the game and be part of the community, be part of the fabric, in this country. I don’t think you’ve seen the end of it from any of the leagues.
"We certainly will look for ways that it doesn’t occur (in the NASL) and try to prevent a situation where an owner would want to move his team," said Peterson.
Regarding expansion, the commissioner said that the NASL, which traces its roots back to the original NASL in the 1960s but was relaunched as a new NASL in 2009, is working with a half-dozen "very serious ownership groups" looking to join the league.
"We are confident that we will get a number of those groups onboard," he said. "What’s the timetable? I don’t know, But a few of them, if not all of them, could be playing in 2018, But we still have work to do. We have a very robust evaluation process that we go through.
"This league has grown, is stronger on the field and bigger off the field than it was when I came onboard four years ago. And it’s going to continue to grown. Our priority is to protect the game and grow the game. Adding teams, but in a smart manner with very strong ownership groups in cities that will be here for years to come," said Peterson.
NASL Eyes Future Despite Growing Challenges
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