The North American Soccer League (NASL) has faced many questions about expansion and its long-term goals over this offseason. However, with the 2015 Spring Season underway, those questions have been put on the back burner and the league has shown its on-field competitiveness and quality as well as increasing depth of support.
After two weeks, the average league attendance is 7,323 a game, which is an increase of almost 1,000 fans per game from the same point last season. Jacksonville set a modern day NASL record with over 16,000 fans in its opener. Fort Lauderdale drew almost 12,000 to its opener while in this past weekend both Indy 11 and Tampa Bay sold out their home matches.
Stadium improvements have helped fuel this attendance growth. The massive overhaul at Al Lang Stadium in St Petersburg, home of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, leads the list. Al Lang has essentially been converted from a baseball stadium to a soccer-specific one over the offseason. Al Lang offers a vista like few other stadiums in America, with Tampa Bay in the background and walking distance from downtown St Petersburg.
Al Lang is not the only facility upgrade NASL has experienced this offseason. We have also seen facility improvements in Fort Lauderdale, which have included a new LED board and chair back seats in Strikers’ colors. That goes along with recent stadium improvements in Carolina and Minnesota. Add to the work that Jacksonville has put in at Community First Park to make it more soccer-friendly and you have a widespread commitment to improving stadiums throughout the league. This demonstrates a commitment to long-term sustainability from many of NASL’s owners.
Last season, the league featured 42 senior international players from 22 different countries. Already in 2015, the league has featured 46 senior international players from 24 different countries. The league has 44 players that have featured for their youth national teams and six players with UEFA Champions League or UEFA Europa League experience. Four current NASL players have featured on a FIFA World Cup roster.
The accessibility of the league via ESPN3 has made watching and tracking the NASL easier than ever as have the upgrades and improvements to the league’s website. But a key component to the success and growth of NASL has been the visible upsurge in marketing budgets from many of the clubs.
In the past, lower division soccer relied on word of mouth and minimal marketing to draw interest. In 2015 however, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, San Antonio, New York, Indy 11, Fort Lauderdale, and Jacksonville have rolled out robust marketing plans that include TV commercials, billboards, and other key media to promote their product. The marketing may not quite be at an MLS level yet but it is certainly an impressive statement of commitment and belief from these NASL clubs.
Certainly many unanswered questions will continue to swirl around NASL. But as the season progresses, the on-the-field product and atmospheres around the stadium should continue put a smile on most fans’ faces.
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