Our colleague Rick Liebling offers up a sitdown with North American Soccer League head Bill Peterson.
The NASL is a unique entity in American soccer, existing as both a source of nostalgia and a cautionary tale as well as a hope for the future. In its original incarnation (1968-1984), the league saw tremendous, if sporadic, success before an Icarus-like fall. It then rose Phoenix-like (to mix mythological metaphors) in 2011 and now has established itself as a viable 2nd Division league. The league features several clubs with historical ties to the original version of the NASL, and this year has signed high profile media and an official equipment deal with Under Armour . In recent years the league has attracted notable international talent such as Spain’s Raul (formerly of Real Madrid), and at the beginning of May, former Premiership standout Joe Cole.
The NASL and its current position in the U.S. soccer firmament may be as interesting and complex as soccer in the States itself. In order to get an overview of the league, we spoke with NASL commissioner, Bill Peterson, to hear more about the NASL and his views on soccer in America.
As NASL Commissioner, what is your number one priority?
I think overseeing the growth process in a wide variety of areas – not only through the addition of new teams, but also through the growth of our existing teams. Whether it’s attendance, sponsorship, or communicating best practices, it’s our job to share information that will help our clubs promote themselves and the league to the general public. So it’s really trying to shepherd the overall growth of the league.
When selling the league to sponsors, what is your number one selling point?
First of all, we have a professional soccer fan base that is growing exponentially. It’s a group that has become a very large and very important part of the North American sports landscape. I think a really vital thing for companies who are considering partnering with the NASL is helping them understand just how important of a demographic they’re dealing with. The second piece is the fact that we have a very strong work ethic throughout our league, and we tend to over-deliver on the partnerships that we have. It really is a good value for potential partners. You have an opportunity to partner with a great organization that will work to over-deliver your benefits to a significant demographic that is growing quickly.
Where are the biggest growth opportunities for the NASL?
We haven’t really scratched the surface yet in every area of the business, and even on the field, we still have plenty of room for continued improvement. We’ve added two new broadcast partners in beIN SPORTS and CBS Sports Network, but on the sponsorship side, we’re really just getting started in earnest. We’re obviously looking at securing more national sponsorships. Our teams do quite well locally, but we now feel like there are opportunities on a national level with size of the league and the growth of the league. You’re seeing progress on the field, as we continue to improve our rosters and identify more talent year after year. It’s a big territory and it’s a global sport, so there are a ton of opportunities for us.
What are the NASL’s biggest challenges?
It’s always about executing the fundamentals. Our clubs need to be relevant on a local level, and when we have 20 clubs that are filling their stadiums, we’re going to be a very strong and very important part of the global soccer landscape. We’re trying to stay focused on the fundamentals: playing great soccer, creating great stadium experiences, and being relevant in our communities.
How important is the idea of promotion and relegation to the growth of soccer in the U.S., and specifically to the success of the NASL?
Let’s address it philosophically. I don’t think it would have an immediate impact on the NASL. In the long term, though, it would allow for more of the people in North America to become emotionally tied to professional soccer. It would give people more reason to support their local clubs, and I think it would help raise the profile of the sport. I also think that it would aid in player development and ultimately the competition would be more attractive to the fans. There are a lot of positives to it – it’s just a matter of figuring out the best way to assemble it and get started.
This interview originally appeared in the inaugural issue of The United States of Soccer magazine.
Rick Liebling is a veteran sports marketing professional. You can follow him on Twitter @RickLiebling