With a Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise announced to begin play in 2017 and an ownership group looking to leave, many felt that now would have been the perfect time for the North American Soccer League (NASL) to move out of way and let MLS take center stage in Atlanta. Instead, the NASL has elected to run the Atlanta Silverbacks FC club themselves in 2015 while seeking out new ownership. This decision marks an escalation in the competition between the two leagues and I think we will all be better off for it.
Yes, it sounds nice in theory to have all leagues and clubs moving forward in harmony to grow the sport of soccer in America but that is not the reality of how the business of sports works. The AFL battled the NFL before merging. The ABA did the same with the NBA. And while ultimately some teams/leagues end up folding, it is very hard to argue with the end results of the competition.
Formed in 2009, the NASL is technically listed as a 2nd tier league but they do not view themselves in that way, nor do they operate as a minor league. Evidence of that is in the NASL’s openness to the promotion-relegation system being introduced. They know what they are up against with MLS but they view themselves as a growing professional league with a different business model than that of MLS’ single entity approach and believe they can find success.
The NASL went into markets that MLS was ignoring and fostered growth at the grass roots level with individual club owners invested more deeply in the community and the success of their market over that of the leagues. Where MLS looks for big money, big market investments, the NASL looked more at a community. They took into consideration the histories of areas and embraced that giving many of the clubs the same name and look as the teams that had been there before. The NASL approach has been a much more progressive blend of respect to history while embracing the future.
Formed in 1993, MLS has had over 20 years to move American soccer up the ranks and solidify its place amongst the other leagues in the world and I don’t know anyone that would say they have done a stellar job of that. Sure, there has been improvement and things are looking better but pressure from an up-and-coming league should not be seen as a detriment but more as a way to keep MLS honest and moving in the right direction.
There is little doubt that in an extended battle against MLS and their financial backing the NASL will come up short, but in the immediate future, in the battle for individual markets, there is no reason to think that the NASL cannot make a difference; especially in Atlanta.
While the Silverbacks did not create soccer interest in the South, they have been around since 1998 (playing in the USL First Division before becoming a founding member of the NASL in 2010) and have provided soccer fans in Atlanta a local team to support for nearly as long as any MLS Club. So, when the MLS club begins play in 2017 they will be relying heavily on the support and love of soccer the Silverbacks have been fostering for nearly 20 years.
I just take umbrage with the notion that an established club with the history of the Silverbacks should be overlooked for the sake of a new big money club. The NASL is doing the right thing by trying to keep the Silverbacks in Atlanta.
In the short-term, competition between the NASL club and its MLS counterpart will only serve to better the fan experience at both venues. Neither club will be able to turn a deaf ear to the wants and desires of their fan base for fear of losing them to the competition. The love of the community and grass roots growth of soccer found in the history of the Silverbacks will be envied and sought after by the MLS club. Whereas, the level of competition found at the New Atlanta Park will fuel a strong commitment from the Silverbacks to maintain the best quality they can on their own pitch. And when both teams are supported and doing well the growth of soccer in the area will be obvious and indisputable.
With that growth established, in the long-term, when the inevitable change to the structure of American soccer development and the hierarchy pyramid shifts, a partnership can be formed. In the absence of a promotion/relegation system coming into place, the absorption of the NASL into the system of MLS is practically inevitable.
By staying put in Atlanta and competing with MLS in the short term the fan experience can be improved and a partnership can be formed for the future. If it is already established that the market of Atlanta can support both clubs, the logical step would be to form an association between the Silverbacks and MLS Atlanta. Not unlike the minor league-major league pairing of the Gwinnett Braves and the Atlanta Braves. Thus allowing the young stars of tomorrow to become recognizable names in their future first team markets earlier. That in turn reinforces the sense of community and fan involvement making for a better more fulfilling soccer market.
I am very much looking forward to the arrival of MLS in Atlanta. I have high hopes for the club and an excitement for their future. I do not however, wish to see the history of soccer community and the previous Atlanta soccer clubs represented strongly in the Silverbacks lost.
I am proud of the fans in Atlanta for rallying behind their Silverbacks and proud of the NASL for responding by keeping the team in Atlanta. And when MLS finally does arrive, I expect to be proud of the city as they show just how much the sport of soccer has grown.
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