February 24, 2013
By Charles Cuttone
Holt: MLS partnership strengthens USL PRO on and off the field
Professional soccer in the United States, especially in lower level leagues, has always lacked stability. USL PRO is hoping to change that thanks to a new agreement with Major League Soccer.
"Not only do we think that this partnership will elevate and strengthen the level of competition on the field for USL PRO, but we also think off the field it helps create a more sustainable financial model for our team owners," said Tim Holt, President of United Soccer Leagues.
"I think we have created an attractive option for players," said Holt. "I think it's one that will help both immediately help boost the level of play and the product that we put on the field, and I think itís also a step in the right direction towards creating a sustainable vibrant business model for professional soccer below MLS--- lower division professional soccer in this country."
The partnership, unveiled in January, calls for a variety of initiatives. MLS teams can directly affiliate with USL PRO clubs, which four already have done, and supply at least four players on long term loan to their affiliate. Those MLS teams with formal USL PRO affiliates will not participate in the 2013 MLS Reserve League. Teams without affiliates will have their reserve teams play against USL PRO teams as part of the regular league schedule.
"What we had announced to date as the initiatives, which tangibly are the interleague play component and the affiliations, itís just the first step or phase in a long term relationship with MLS that beginning in 2014 is going to expand further and become more and more integrated in the years to come," Holt said of the groundbreaking deal.
Holt said the affiliate model is in some ways a hybrid of what sports fans may be familiar with in baseball, where major league teams have minor league affiliates, but also incorporating a European element where top flight clubs have reserve teams playing in a lower division.
"What we are trying to do is borrow models from lower level professional leagues in sports that have worked in the United States and what's worked in soccer abroad and combining those into a new model which can be beneficial to MLS in terms of supporting its player and market development initiatives but also be very positive for USL PRO in terms of further developing its niche in this country's soccer market," said Holt.
The future plan calls for fully integrating MLS Reserve teams into USL PRO.
"It could be in the very same market in the same stadium (as the MLS team), it could be in the same market in a different slightly smaller venue, but one that still meets the minimum standards of USL PRO. It could be in a satellite market," Holt said of how the reserve team integration might work.
While the agreement helps to provide a clear path to MLS from the lower divisions, it also helps the USL PRO teams stabilize, since some salaries will be borne by the MLS team.
"There is some increased profile and awareness that may come with being a formal affiliate of a Major League Soccer team," Holt said of some initial benefits.
Beyond that, things still need to shake out, but could include MLS and Soccer United Marketing helping with generating revenue for USL PRO.
"We don't know exactly how that could be monetized in terms of revenue generation, with sponsors, with fans, that will be one of the things that we learn a little bit, but I think thatís something that we work with," Holt said.
USL PRO has all 11 of the teams that played last year returning for the 2013 season, plus the league has added a team in Phoenix and one in Sacramento that starts play in 2014.
The stability started with an overhaul of the league that came about after a messy divorce with what is now the North American Soccer League.
U.S. Soccer granted the NASL Division II status and USL PRO Division III.
Holt says out of the restructuring came a newfound model for operating the league and the teams in it.
"With our teams itís just a matter of continuing to find ways to generate new revenue and have a model for professional soccer that doesnít require expenses that are out of whack with what can be generated on the revenue side each and every year.
"I think that's been lower division professional soccer's problem over the last 20 years. Those two things aren't synched. When we restructured USL PRO 2-3 years ago, that was part and parcel of what we were doing, where the league model allowed them to achieve profitability on an annual operating basis, provided they were able to maximize those opportunities -- ticket sales, youth programs, sponsorship, etc. -- in their markets. We feel like we are getting there each year with more and more teams."
Holt says part of the process included jettisoning teams that could not meet the new standards, while also being more stringent about who was allowed to join the league.
"We've stabilized and now we are starting to experience some growth, and we've added this (MLS)partnership, so there's a lot of momentum going on. The teams feel very positive about the current and future of the league."