Can the New NASL Renew Interest Among U.S. Soccer Fans and Marketers?
From 1968-84, the North American Soccer League operated in
the U.S. and Canada on the leg strength of soccer icons such as Pele, George
Best, Giorgio Chinaglia, Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer. It also provided a
platform for such American-born players as Shep Messing, Kyle Rote Jr., Ty
Keough, Bobby Rigby and Ricky Davis. At its height between 1978-80, the league
fielded 24 clubs and established soccer fan bases that have grown and
solidified to this day.
The cash-laden New York Cosmos won five NASL titles and
often attracted 30,000 fans to Giants Stadium-more than double the league
average-topped by a playoff game on Aug. 3, 1977, against the Fort Lauderdale
Strikers in which the announced attendance was 77,691.
But over-expansion, under-financing and poor decisions saw
the NASL drop to nine clubs in 1984 before the league folded.
The new North American Soccer League began play in
2011. The 2013 NASL version operates under a split-season format, with seven
clubs playing 42 games in the spring that began April 6 and runs through July
4. The fall season will have nine clubs playing August through Nov. 2, with the
winner of the spring season hosting the winner of the fall in the 2013 Soccer
The NASL has picked up some initial sponsors, most notably
Toyota, which has a multi-level deal with the San Antonio Scorpions that
includes naming rights to the team's 8,000-seat Toyota Field and jersey-front
sponsorship. The (Raleigh) Carolina RailHawks have a deal with WakeMed that
includes naming rights to the 10,000-seat WakeMed Soccer Park.
Among several expansion clubs for this year, a revived New
York Cosmos team is scheduled to join in the fall season. The Cosmos have fully
embraced their heritage with a marketing campaign tagged, "We're Back!" with
images that include Pele and Beckenbauer and retro tickets from 1983.
This past November, NASL named Bill Peterson as its new
commissioner. Peterson is a seasoned veteran of sports, sports business and
marketing both in the U.S. and internationally. His resume includes stints as president
of NFL Europe and senior VP, AEG Sports, which included managing director
of The Home Depot Center (which in June will be renamed the StubHub Center),
owned by AEG and home to Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy.
Peterson talks here about the NASL's quest to become a major
soccer player in North America.
From a marketing, sponsorship and advertising
perspective is there enough interest in soccer in the U.S. and is there strong
enough support to build the league financially?
We have an amazing group of owners. Part of my process coming into the
league was understanding what their capabilities were and what their passion
was for growing the league. They are very focused on, and very committed to
their communities, their teams and this league. They want top-rate professional
clubs to build alliances in their communities. The financial wherewithal is
there to do great things. What we are trying to do now is focus on being as
strategic as we can in what we do, where we are spending money and which
partners we bring in.
As it relates to marketing partners, there is plenty of
interest, but we are being somewhat patient now in trying to figure out what
our value is to those partners and what the right deals are. That relates to
TV, potential sponsors, merchandise and other areas. So over the next few
months we will start to execute a well-thought-out strategy that we believe
will help us to grow and define the relationship between our clubs and their
Are you looking at traditional soccer marketing
alliances, such as jersey-front sponsorships, as well as trying to create new
activations for marketers?
We will be innovative without being too quirky, but that's in everything we
do. So we are challenging people to not just follow the old models that have
been in place in pro sports in this country for the past 30 years. Let's think
out of the box. Let's think about what really matters to our corporate partners
and to our fans. We want to deliver a professional product. I guess if we have
a mantra, it would be to not follow blindly those who have gone before us. We
want to do whatever we can do to improve our relationship with our fans,
communities and partners.
Would you consider a deal where a company becomes the
presenting partner of NASL?
We have different platforms, different levels in which companies can
participate, different levels of activation. But we will look for a presenting
sponsor for the league. We think with our split season and with the growth we
have, that is a very attractive asset. We are in a position now to talk to some
companies that have shown some initial interest in that. That said, this is a
team-driven league and each team will control a lot of their marketing and
sponsorship inventory. But, obviously, there is a lot of opportunity when you
look at our footprint, when you start to attract upward of one million fans a year,
that becomes pretty valuable for people who want to market to our demographic.
The key thing for us is to find partners that will help us grow, that can help
us to advance exponentially.
How important is the league's website and social media
in connecting with fans and potential marketing partners?
Very important. The goal with the website is to make it vibrant and
informative so that people will come back more than one a day. We want to
generate enough content so that it is refreshed on a regular basis. We know
that a lot of our fans are on social media, so we are trying to have a presence
everywhere they are. We want our teams and players to connect with their
communities, and certainly social media is a driving force behind that.
The original NASL has an important place in U.S.
soccer history, but that was more than 30 years ago. How is the new NASL both
embracing and distancing itself from the old NASL?
There are a lot of similarities between the original NASL and our league,
especially when you look at the early days of the [original] league. We have to
go into new markets, develop team structures, define our position in these
cities and establish our relevance. We need to generate interest in our teams,
and our teams need to be promoters. That's what the teams in the original NASL
were -- great promoters. Owners and executives worked hard to establish their
connection to their respective cities and communities. So we are in the same
place. The major difference is that they were pioneers as it relates to soccer
in the U.S.
Where is NASL's place on the soccer pyramid in the
That's up to us to decide. Technically, we are a second-division league,
although I'm not sure what that means. I've stressed to our guys that we
control our own destiny. There is no limitation to how successful we can be. We
are happy with the cities and venues we have now, and we are evaluating other
cities as we look forward. But at the end of the day, we can sell 6,000 tickets
or 60,000 tickets. It depends on how well we do in connecting with fans and
creating relevance for our league.
The original NASL had success, then overextended
itself, made some poor business decisions and ultimately folded. Do you have a
blueprint for success?
The legacy helps because of the awareness of NASL; there are still people who
have fond memories of the original NASL. It was their first experience with
professional soccer. The league had a lot of personalities and brought a lot of
attention. So we benefit from that. But at the same time, it is 2013 and we
have to make our own way. It all comes back to having a great product on the
field. So we will have competitive matches, exciting games and great stadium
experiences. If we do that, we will be successful. And it's impossible to
predict how successful we can be. In this country and Canada, there are so many
great cities with tremendous soccer participation and a following on TV.
Listen, there's no science behind this, but I can imagine there are 50 or 60
cities in North America that can support top-level soccer. So what's exciting
for us is that there is no limitation and that we can go out, do our jobs and
be as successful as we can.
What are you looking at as far as expansion?
We are analyzing where we are today and where we are going. We are in our third
season, so we're past the start-up mode. We have 12 teams signed up for 2014.
So what do we need to do from an expansion standpoint? One, be more strategic.
Two, look at expanding our footprint across the country. We are looking at a
lot of different opportunities. In the case of the Cosmos [which will play at
Hofstra University], the Long Island area and New York is just an amazing
population with a great soccer fan base. So there is a lot of opportunity for
the Cosmos to be wildly successful. At the same time, we are in cities such as
Indianapolis and other places that are a bit more compact but which still have
a large population base and a lot of excitement for the sport. In San Antonio,
we had an amazing launch for the team last year, and attendance was incredible.
This year, they have their own stadium as part of a strategic deal with Toyota.
When David Beckham joined the Los Angeles Galaxy and
MLS, that brought the league a lot of attention from fans, media and marketers,
and seemed to push MLS to another level in their growth. Do you think it would
take an international soccer star signing with NASL to bring your league to
another level and enhance the dynamics among the league, fans and marketers?
I'm not concerned about that at this point. We have a lot of opportunity ahead
of us without having to do that. I'm not convinced that a high percentage of
the high-profile signings actually worked.
Any plans to get Pele out of retirement?
I haven't asked him but the promoter in me would love to see that. We still
play at a pretty high level, so it should be interesting. We are going to focus
on fundamentals. We have great players in this league and great coaches. Our
games have been very exciting. We think the split season puts a lot of pressure
on the players and coaches to perform and win every week. It is a situation
where teams can't afford to play for a tie. They will have to play for a win
every week to get the points and get into the championship. And that will
create great soccer for our fans. We will run with that model for a while and
keep improving the level of play on the field. We will probably stay away from
any sort of high-profile players.
Q&A was reprinted with permission of NYSportsJournalism.com.