The New NPSL League: Skepticism, Optimism, Reality

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What if I said there’s a new thing in the lower leagues that’s like cotton candy, Jesus, and a new Star Wars film? Ephemeral, difficult to define, full of hope and promise, thrilling in theory, troubling in its potential to fail, hard to understand, easy to poke holes in, far enough in the future to remain fuzzy, near enough to find the fuzziness worrisome, attacked by purists, elites, true believers, non-believers, skeptics, and the faithful. All of these things are true of the words on every lower league soccer fan’s lips - Founders Cup and the professional league to follow.

The Facts

NPSL Founder’s Cup is the still-developing professional league emerging from the NPSL. Set to kick off a full season in 2020, the clubs involved will play in a kick-off tournament called the NPSL Founders Cup in the Fall of 2019. In November, NPSL Chairman Joe Barone described the situation - “Beginning with the Founders Cup, fans will be able to enjoy watching authentic clubs compete with professional players and staff. This new venture will build upon the success and experience of NPSL and its nationwide network of local soccer club members.” Barone has since been replaced as Chair, but the plans for the new league continue to move forward.

I should be upfront in saying that Protagonist Soccer is a media partner of the NPSL and, while that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t criticize the league, that relationship may color the way some of my stated views might be received. So there it is - there’s the elephant in the room. Moving on.

The list of clubs involved so far are ASC San Diego, Cal FC, California United Strikers FC, Chattanooga FC, Detroit City FC, FC Arizona, Miami FC, Miami United FC, Milwaukee Torrent, New York Cosmos, and Oakland Roots - some of the strongest sides in the NPSL, depending on how you measure strength. DCFC and Chattanooga FC are two of the best attended and supported clubs in the lower leagues, even if you bunched USL into “lower leagues” (Against USL attendance numbers this year, DCFC would rank 7th and Chatta would be 19th). If you are measuring strength with financial backing, obviously the two old NASL sides, New York Cosmos and Miami FC, have two of the richest owners in the lower leagues, Rocco Commisso and Riccardo Silva. The rest of the clubs are not quite to the level of the four I mentioned, but more on that to come.

The Reception

As I discussed on a recent episode of the Lower League Soccer Show, the announcement of this league has brought the hot takes from both sides of the argument. And, by definition, hot takes are meant to stir up controversy and spur reactions, but dear God, the unbridled optimism of some has only been matched by the sheer negativity of the other side.

For some, the coming of a professional expansion of NPSL is seen as a lower league response to the “encroachment” by USL into areas with established NPSL and UPSL sides. Those same people despise MLS for all the reasons that people despise MLS, most importantly the lack of pro/rel. And while pro/rel hasn’t been discussed publicly yet, many are hopeful that NPSL Pro will eventually open up the gates for promotion from the NPSL.

On the other side, scepticism is out of control. Some is coming from the old guard in the NPSL who see this upcoming professional league as nothing more than catering to the ex-NASL teams. Other criticism is coming from the other lower leagues’ supporters NPSL has competed against, mainly UPSL. That criticism seems to be more in the vein of “stay in your lane, who do you think you are,” which feels more like jealousy than actual criticism. The last camp of criticism is from the MLS types, who seem convinced that this league will fail and deserves mockery. I will never understand an American soccer fan rooting for a club or league to fail. But they exist, I assure you, just look for the side eye trolling online.

The Issues

While the loudest voices get the most attention online, there’s a segment of the soccer world who have concerns but aren’t burning down the house to make their point. I like to think of these types as the cautiously optimistic. They aren’t wishing for the league to fail, but they are worried about some issues that might arise. I’d like to compile a quick list of these issues and offer my takes as well.

Photo from reddit  u/DomeyDion .

Photo from reddit u/DomeyDion.

Attendance - When listing the strengths of the league earlier, I highlighted the drawing power of Detroit City and Chattanooga. Let’s look at the other teams we have information on. According to Kenn Tomasch’s site, Kenn.com, ASC San Diego drew around 1,000 people for home games (large aside: 1. Massive thanks to Tomasch, who is the only person online I could find trying to track this information. 2. Tomasch is the first to admit his information is severely limited. He begs for more information on his site. Teams should be lining up to help him.). The worst part about this is that ASC San Diego is the only other NPSL Pro club Tomasch has attendance information on. So who knows about the other 8 clubs, leaving a gap in the information leads me to speculate, but I’ll leave it be.

So with only three clubs with information, our data is short on attendance. What I would expect is that NPSL will bring some buzz around the clubs that are in the league. So all should expect a bump, at least in year one. After that, it will all depend on marketing and connecting with fans. Unlike MLS, who uses expansion fees to drive league growth, this NPSL professional league will have to focus on bringing fans through the doors. And if the newcomers can follow the model of DCFC or Chattanooga, maybe that can happen. My concern on that is TIME.

Unlike Detroit City, founded in 2012, and Chattanooga FC, founded in 2009, the newer clubs don’t have 6-10 years to get attendance, they have a year or three to escalate attendance and excitement. Maybe that’s too short of a window for the optimists, but I’m trying to be realistic. I think to get to where they need to be, they need a media deal.

Media Deal - Consider the model of MLS, even if it hurts you for a minute. While clearly expansion fees are funding their organization. According to wikipedia, “ESPN and Fox Sports pay a combined $75 million per season, and Univision pays $15 million per-season.” That’s 90 million a season. That’s aside from local broadcasting deals that some clubs have managed to negotiate. If you’re struggling to fill the seats, media money can help a lot. Or if you’re a brand new league who’s trying to get a foothold into local markets across the country.

If creating a pro league was easy, we’d be overrun with pro soccer leagues.

I’m only working with the information I have here, but several NPSL owners have voiced concerns in private about the lack of a media deal. Even a small deal that didn’t generate a ton of revenue could have the desired effect of drawing eyes to a brand new league. That might drive potential revenue streams in advertising, merchandise sales, and expansion markets. A media deal is a must.

Travel Cost - Consider the distance that Detroit City FC has to travel to their farthest current conference opponent, Milwaukee Torrent - 382 miles. When DCFC moves into Pro (even with the regional divide), the farthest distance will be 1,384 miles (Miami, FL). Even if you limited the number of travelers to 20 (11 starters, 5 bench players, 3 coaches, a trainer), the only way to travel will be by plane for a trip that long. Plus the cost of hotel rooms for overnight stay. Plus feeding your team (these are professionals now). Plus transportation to and from airport, hotel, and venue. This is troubling. And I don’t see an easy fix. For clubs with deep-pocketed owners, I guess they can eat that cost, but for clubs either unable or unwilling to take a loss because of travel costs, I see this as a sticking point. According to one source, the travel budget being discussed is around 400k. That’s almost a third of the estimated 1.5 million budget most teams will be operating under.

The only real solution I can see is expansion and regionalization. But again, with only 11 clubs confirmed for 2020, that’s a long way off. And money will be disappearing down the drain while those new clubs are found or founded.

There are probably some other issues hanging out there, the naysayers are loud and numerous. But that doesn’t necessarily make them right. The concerns I listed were the ones I’ve heard the most and the ones I feel are the most common sense.

The Reality

The list of concerns are daunting, of course, but I’m a big believer in the NPSL, the clubs, the owners, the fans, and the power of hard work. If creating a pro league was easy, we’d be overrun with pro soccer leagues. MLS, SUM, and USSF have made it progressively difficult for pro leagues to be successful. If not now, I seriously doubt it will be easier five or ten years from now. This is an uphill battle, but it’s an important battle, one worth fighting.

My list of concerns has almost certainly been discussed by the 11 clubs set to form this league. While I don’t see easy solutions for any of them, I do not think the men and women involved are stupid or blind to the challenge. On the contrary, I am confident that there are solutions and that those solutions are being planned. Some may say that’s ignorant trust, but the NPSL has been the most stable lower league for the last fifteen years. It has a track record of measured, steady growth. Why shouldn’t NPSL Pro be the next step?

So we shall see what comes. I am certainly excited about this league, but that excitement is tempered by an awareness of stumbling blocks that will need to be cleared. Success can be found, but it will take great effort in searching for it. I am a believer in soccer, especially lower league soccer - this can be done. Let’s put our shoulders to the wheel and move this thing forward.

- Dan Vaughn

*This article was edited to delete the use of the phrase “NPSL Pro.” Apparently the upcoming league will not be using that name and has yet to determine or announce the final label for the league.