New league seeks to finally bring pro/rel to US soccer
by Kartik Krishnaiyer
Peter Wilt is one America’s most experienced soccer pros. The man who built the Chicago Fire into a powerhouse during the MLS 1.0 period is rolling up his sleeves and embracing another project – perhaps his biggest yet, a new professional soccer league.
The National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) is a new independent third division professional soccer league founded by Wilt. The league plans to start with teams throughout the United States in the spring of 2018. NISA will be based in Chicago and has according to Wilt letters-of-intent from 10 investors in various cities. Wilt and NISA are also in discussions with more than two dozen more markets about joining.
NISA anticipates growing to a maximum of 24 teams by 2021 at which point the only avenue to entry will be via purchasing an existing team or through NISA’s planned promotion and relegation structure with other independent professional soccer leagues. In speaking with me last week, Wilt indicated NISA is open to working with the second division NASL and fourth division NPSL in such a structure.
Meanwhile, the United Soccer League (USL) based in Tampa and operator of one of the nation’s two provisionally sanctioned Division 2 leagues announced plans in late March to begin a D3 league which will commence play in 2019. USL was previously sanctioned as a D3 league from 2011 to 2016 and operated a Division 3 league as a separate entity from its other pro league (A division 2) within USL’s larger pyramid prior to 2010.
USL has a tremendous advantage of being a growing company with a well-built out front office and a reputation for engaged club services. This has been one of the reasons USL has gained an upper hand in its battle to oust NASL at the second division level. Another advantage USL has is cost controls and more regional travel. USL has gained an advantage over NASL by controlling costs including cost offsets on matters such as broadcasts, giving far superior club services and regionally grouping teams which not only offsets some travel costs but importantly creates localized rivalries which drives fan interest and media coverage.
NISA is hoping to counter to USL by using outside consulting firms Club 9 Sports and Level 7 Interactive. Club 9 is a sports advisory firm with expertise in raising capital and providing advisory services. Level 7 is a marketing firm that will work with NISA and its teams to ensure stability according to the league.
Wilt believes the league is being formulated in a sustainable fashion even if the the revenue predictions do not come to fruition. But despite the involvement of Club 9 and Level 7, it must be stated that finding national sponsors to help offset clubs costs is very difficult at the minor league level in a closed league system.
USL and NASL’s struggles to provide league-wide sponsorships on a national level and NASL’s inability to offset the escalating costs for its clubs for the past seven years speak loudly to this reality.
But NISA’s idea of opening the leagues up by creating an alternative structure with promotion and relegation might in fact be the trump card that stimulates the type of long-term investment and sponsorship the closed leagues with a franchise system in the US and Canada have failed to attract.
However if NISA isn’t able to attract investment based on the prospect of PRO/REL, USL D3 must be seen as the more viable short-term prospect.
Backed by USL’s three decades of experience in the soccer business, a robust staff based in Tampa and a franchise-model oriented setup, USL fits the current closed league system in the US better than NISA or NASL could ever hope to.
The peculiar institution of the US’ own soccer structure, unique compared to others around the globe and offensive to many fans in this country favors leagues that are able to sell franchises to investors for a high fee and reinvest those profits into top-down league structures. MLS and USL have shown this is the way to operate in the current structure.
NISA is hoping to use consultants to bolster the league office and top-down approach while retaining more club independence than is possible in the USL structure, but again in any closed league this is a tough balance to strike.
Wilt stated last week to me that some NISA sides might have similar operating budgets to low-end NASL teams. Given the struggles NASL clubs have had to get by these last few years and the inability of the league to effectively either control costs, or offset them with league-based programs, the hope of PRO/REL and the dollars that might allow to flow into clubs and the independent league structure eventually might be what allows such spending, which on the surface appears unsustainable to take place.
The idea of an independent soccer structure outside of the MLS/USL alliance is appealing to a great many fans who have been displaced or disaffected by the politics of closed leagues. Many of these fans have opted to enjoy football from abroad while ignoring or showing contempt for the domestic game. NISA gives these fans hope, but also faces obstacles to be successful.