NASL pursuing litigation against US Soccer; Here’s how it might play out

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On Monday, The Financial Times newspaper reported that the second-tier North American Soccer League (NASL) has launched a legal case against the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) regarding first division sanctioning.

In a nation without promotion and relegation, USSF is able to create arbitrary standards with the first-tier league MLS to determine what D1 standards should be. While the USSF is the governing body of soccer in all its forms in the United States, it maintains a very cozy relationship with MLS through its marketing arm, Soccer United Marketing (SUM), which works closely with US Soccer for promotion and television rights purposes.

According to The Financial Times article, proposed changes have been issued in which to qualify for Division 1, a league would need 16 teams, up from 12 under 2014 rules, per NASL. It would also have to meet a requirement that 75 per cent of its teams be based in cities with a population of more than 2 million people, up from 1 million. It adds that the requirement for all team stadiums is to meet a minimum 15,000 seat capacity for the entire league to qualify for Division I, which NASL argues is “highly unreasonable.”

“Doubling the population criteria now is an anti-competitive bait and switch, with the purpose of entrenching MLS’s monopoly position at the very time when the NASL is threatening to become a significant competitor,” Jeffrey Kessler, an antitrust and sports attorney representing NASL, wrote in a letter to Sunil Gulati, head of US Soccer.

“The financial damage is significant,” Mr Kessler told the FT. “Simply put, the actions by US Soccer are hindering the league’s earnings potential with advertisers, broadcasters and other business partners, who will pay top dollar only for Division I, regardless of the quality of play or passion of the fans,” he said.

The NASL claims its second tier status makes it harder to gain access to world tournaments and attract players, team owners and quality referees. Division I status would enable the league to command more in merchandising rights, too.

On legal grounds within the closed system of North American soccer, it would appear the NASL has a strong case. City size and minimum stadium sizes are necessary at the D1 level but requiring a metro area population of 2 million for 75% of the teams and allowing no exceptions to a requirement for 15,000 seater stadiums would seemingly make it impossible for any league to challenge MLS’ monopoly.

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