Traffic Sports USA and its president Aaron Davidson saw themselves as ultimate competitors to Major League Soccer (MLS) and MLS’ marketing arm Soccer United Marketing (SUM). Following the revelation of alleged misconduct by both Traffic Sports and Davidson this past week as part of a the bombshell DOJ investigation into FIFA and by extension every aspect of the sport, the motivations for the purported wrongdoing became clear.
As someone who worked at the North American Soccer League (NASL) for three and a half years including the period where some of the alleged misconduct began, the chain of events that make up a large part of the federal case against Davidson and Traffic Sports makes perfect sense.
When the NASL was formed due to the discontent of several owners in USL’s First Division (at the time the only sanctioned Division 2 league in the US or Canada), Traffic Sports USA took the lead in forming the Team Owners Association (TOA). The TOA challenged USL’s leadership and eventually attempted to form another Division 2 league. In late 2009, the TOA announced the formation of the NASL and with the two leagues sparing with one another, the US Soccer Federation (USSF) governed a joint league with both USL and NASL teams in 2010.
During 2010, NASL’s leadership dropped hints about future expansion to big markets and potentially challenging MLS down the road. The critiques of MLS were valid in the eyes of a minority but still a large number of American soccer fans – single entity, salary caps, allocations, drafts, etc were all creations of American sport and did not jive with the European or South American game so many fans had either grown up with or had acquired as a taste during the boom in soccer’s popularity that coincided with the 2010 World Cup.
In those days, I would hear from fans that spoke to Davidson outside games that the Chairman of the NASL Board of Governors would talk aggressively about Traffic Sports’ ability to bring high level international games to the US, build NASL into a competitor for MLS by attracting big-name sponsors and blue chip owners as well as the ability to compete with SUM for the biggest soccer properties. Davidson, even from time to time, would mention that the USSF rules had no provision preventing a second league for applying for D1 status.
But the business of lower division soccer in the United States has never been stable and when NASL faced sanctioning problems in late 2010 and early 2011, Traffic refocused on stabilizing the league and maintaining clubs that might otherwise have disappeared in Carolina, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale and Minnesota.
By early 2012, NASL was stabilized, being the first Division 2 league in well over a decade not lose a team as a result of financial collapse. The only team that left NASL following the 2011 season was the Montreal Impact that jumped to MLS. With a solid foundation, NASL was looking good especially when compared to the relative instability that had been fostered in the years of USL’s control of Division 2 soccer.
During this period, MLS and NASL engaged in discussions about a potential loose partnership. While the conversations were not terribly advanced, they were still occurring and showed at least on some level that NASL, and by extension Traffic, had accepted a soccer pyramid with MLS at the top.
But then came two massive events in July of 2012 that changed the entire picture. Traffic Sports USA might have wanted to be a competitor for SUM but the reality was that they were not even in the conversation until Traffic Sports US Vice President Enrique Sanz was, in a shocking move, appointed General Secretary of CONCACAF. The appointment of Sanz sent ripple effects through the US Soccer community especially when coupled with the announcement days before that the historic behemoth New York Cosmos would be joining NASL rather than MLS.
SEE MORE — Interview with NASL President Bill Peterson.
Suddenly, the rhetoric once again shifted within NASL and Traffic circles from stabilizing Division 2, to a pseudo-competition with MLS and SUM. Davidson began to talk openly of competition with MLS, and the NASL ended all discussions of partnering with the top flight American league. This would lead directly to the negotiations that culminated in the USL/MLS partnership we see bearing fruit today as USL, which was dropped to a D2 league in 2011, now looks poised to obtain D2 status next season due to increasing standards that can be credited to the MLS relationship.
As we now have learned thanks to the DOJ documents, the appointment of Sanz as well as the shift in rights from SUM to Traffic of CONCACAF properties was procured due to alleged bribes. Traffic changed its tune and was in “challenge MLS/SUM mode.” The desire to challenge MLS was echoed in repeated public statements by NASL officials in 2013 and 2014 while a feeling permeated around Traffic that having the New York Cosmos in the league suddenly made the league an international brand and would attract dozens of new investors and potentially more expansion teams.
Instead, NASL has had to deal with two expansion debacles in Oklahoma City and Virginia while watching USL’s partnership with MLS bear fruit. Still, Traffic’s CONCACAF relationship was taking a small chunk out of SUM’s American business, especially after the announcement of the 2016 Copa America tournament was to be held in the United States and marketed by Traffic.
In the meantime, anti-MLS fans on social media gravitated toward NASL as a viable alternative to the top-flight league. This happened after the Cosmos entry to the league and was in large measure without any degree of real critical analysis or understanding of NASL’s business model. Instead, a simple assumption that a league that professed to be team owned and not single-entity must be the right formula for the future of the pro game in North America.
But as we have recently learned as a result of reporting of Jonathan Tannenwald, Neil Morris and Brian Quarstad, NASL is in fact owned in large measure not just by its teams but by Traffic Sports. These revelations call into question the rhetoric long espoused by NASL fans.
Traffic Sports USA’s modus operandi in launching NASL and securing CONCACAF rights was largely aimed at challenging MLS. Whether this was done for vanity purposes or for financial reasons is difficult to ascertain. However, it is also challenging to see how Traffic remains relevant or perhaps even solvent in the American market after last week’s revelations. On the other hand, NASL if they can completely cut ties with Traffic Sports, still is an authentic and organic league that can be successful at a lower level if they can find new investors.
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