MBPT Spotlight: Can the NASL’s Pitch Score Goals With Fans, Investors, Media, Marketers?

The North American Soccer League recently entered the fourth season of its second life.

The original NASL operated from 1968-84, fielded as many as 24 clubs and included among its players international icons such as Pelé, George Best, Giorgio Chinaglia, Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer; and American-born players such as Shep Messing, Kyle Rote Jr., Ty Keough, Bobby Rigby and Ricky Davis.

Over-expansion, under financing and poor decisions saw the NASL drop to nine clubs in 1984 before the league folded.

The new NASL began operations in 2011, but made significant strides in 2013 with the implementation of a split season (Spring/Fall) and the hiring of Bill Peterson as commissioner. Last year also saw the revival of the New York Cosmos—the most high-profile team from the original NASL years—and the return of Pelé, arguably the best-known soccer player of all time.

In 2014, the league will have ten clubs—including first-year franchises Indy Eleven and Ottawa Fury—a new broadcast deal and new league-wide marketing partners. They include Voit as the official soccer ball and Perform as the league’s Internet and content provider, which includes an enhanced NASLLive.com, offering paid subscribers access to all matches leading to Soccer Bowl 2014.

The NASL strategy is to have strong and growing foundations in each of its local markets. Four clubs have jersey-front sponsors: Indy-Honda, defending-NASL champion New York Cosmos-Emirates, San Antonio Scorpions-Toyota and the Tampa Bay Rowdies-Seminole Hard Rock.

Among the clubs whose venues have naming rights deals are the (Raleigh) Carolina Railhawks-WakeMed Park, Ottawa-TD (Canada Trust) Place Stadium and the San Antonio Scorpions-Toyota Field.

To help facilitate league growth, the NASL has moved its headquarters from Miami to New York, putting it in a Mecca of marketing, advertising and media.

The spring season began on April 12 and will run until June 8, then take time off during the FIFA World Cup. Fall season will begin July 19, followed by the playoffs and Soccer Bowl 2014. The NASL is planning to add three clubs in 2015: Jacksonville Armada, Oklahoma City FC and Virginia Cavalry.

The NASL’s moves come at a time when fellow-league Major League Soccer is experiencing a steady growth in fans, marketing, media support and expansion. MLS currently has 19 clubs, the majority of which have jersey-front sponsors; league-wide partners that include adidas, Allstate, Anheuser-Busch, PepsiCo, AT&T, Visa and Wells Fargo; and plans in place to add clubs over the next few seasons in New York and Orlando with deals pending in Miami and Atlanta.

Prior to the 2014 season opening weekend, Commissioner Peterson held a media conference call to talk about the growth of the NASL, marketing, future plans and the league’s relationship with Major League Soccer.

Can you talk about the impact of moving NASL headquarters from Miami to New York regarding being in touch with national advertising and marketing?
The New York move was one of efficiency. We are starting to grow, develop and move into other parts of the business, and we find that we can get more of those meetings and relationships in New York than you can in some other places. It’s about having the broadcasters and potential sponsors, the agencies and marketing companies all located there. We will be able to get a lot more done. We will still maintain a presence in Miami and in California. But everyone that we bring on will be based in New York.

NASL strategy is to build strong local marketing and sponsorship relationships, and four of your clubs currently have jersey-front sponsorship deals. As part of building local alliances, would you like to see every club have a jersey-front sponsor?
From a marketing standpoint, similar to other areas of the league, you are starting to see some quick growth. We do have [clubs] that have significant jersey sponsors with significant companies and brands. They are paying good market value for that exposure. For the other clubs, the direction they are all headed is a lot more conversations with top brands and top companies in the local markets this year than there were a year ago. So as some of those deals start to come to term, the clubs will have opportunities to either renew in a better deal for them or have other companies step in and take over those positions.

How significant is this?
There is a lot more marketing and promotion at the club level happening this year than there was a year ago. That’s due to the clubs maturing and starting to understand the business and putting their resources toward the things that are important to growing their local fan base. Those things are exciting. There is still work to be done for everyone, whether it’s the clubs or the league. We are nowhere near where we ultimately want to be. But people are starting to recognize the value of being partnered with us. And that’s due to all of the work we are doing and the reaction we are getting in the local markets.

Can you talk about the league-wide sponsorship deals that have been signed?
We have a new league-wide deal with Perform, the owner of Goal.com, which launched a new-look NASL.com website and all of the club websites. They will also be providing a live stream of every match throughout the league through our NASL site. That has helped to introduce us to new commercial partnerships. Our relationship with Goal.com is still developing. [In January] we signed a partnership with Voit that will include the sporting goods manufacturer providing official NASL-branded match balls for matches and events. We will have news on a new league-wide [marketing] partnership and broadcast partnership, which is all part our long-term planning as we continue to grow and move forward.

What are you anticipating most going into the 2014 season?
We are very excited to be in a position to have ten teams competing and 13 teams in the league [including upcoming expansion clubs]. In just over three years, this is quite an accomplishment and one of which we are quite proud. By no means are we finished with our growth or finished building out the teams we currently have.

What is the biggest change you are seeing from last season?
It’s nice to be in a position where we are moving out of start-up mode and being more into a growth mode. We have a lot of things developing that are positive, and the outlook for the league is very bright. We continue to look at other cities where we could possibly expand. Our focus is on the Midwest and the West. Without going into any specific cities at which we are looking, I will tell you that there are a number of robust conversations in progress. We will continue to take our time to make sure that we are securing the right ownership groups in the right cities and building the proper relationships before we make any announcements. There is a growing interest.

What is the NASL’s timetable for expansion?
We have ten teams this season, with Indianapolis and Ottawa as first-year clubs. We are anticipating three more teams for 2015: Jacksonville, Oklahoma City and Virginia. We are looking to have 18 clubs over the next two, three, four seasons. One or more in California in the near future. We’ll get there when the time is right. Expansion is a long, slow process. The worst thing anyone can do is try to handicap it.

Why was the NASL ready for expansion this year?
There are two teams coming in: Indianapolis and Ottawa. There is a lot of excitement in both cities. They are both great organizations. They have built their clubs out and have built their relationships with their fans out in a proper manner. You see an incredible reaction in both cities, not only from locals and a developing fan base but also from the corporate support of the teams. This is an indication of how we will operate and manage going forward. We put these teams in place with great ownership groups, great leadership on the ground. They were able to take 18, 24 months to build out a club the proper way. Now they are reaping those benefits. There is talk of Indianapolis being sold out for the entire season. In Ottawa, they will open the spring season in a temporary stadium, then will move into an incredibly beautiful 24,000-seat stadium for the fall season [TD Place].

How will the World Cup in June-July impact the NASL this season?
This will be a unique year. Deciding not to play during the World Cup forced us to have a short spring season. That will make it edge-of-your-seat type stuff. All of the clubs will know they need all of their points and that they cannot afford to lose.

Do you have a relationship with MLS?
We really don’t have a formal relationship with other leagues in this country. That has been on purpose. We are not a development league. Having said that, we are a decentralized league and are part of what we think is a global soccer economy. So you’ll see players moving back and forth between the leagues, which is very healthy. I know there is a lot of cooperation and discussion among the coaches and people at the team level. That’s very healthy. But from a formal standpoint, we don’t have a relationship. They do what they do, we do what we do. That’s best for everybody right now. And that’s probably the way it will stay for some time.

This interview was reprinted with permission of NYSportsJournalism.com.