This week, The Guardian newspaper was able to score a rare interview with New York Cosmos owner Seamus O’Brien regarding the future of the iconic soccer brand he leads in the United States. O’Brien purchased the Cosmos in 2012 soon after opting to join the second-tier North American Soccer League (NASL) rather than attempt to win an expansion franchise in Major League Soccer (MLS).
As we’ve noted several times at World Soccer Talk, the NASL is experiencing serious growing pains, and is dealing with the residual impact of its long-standing relationship with Traffic Sports, a company that is at the center of the FIFA/CONCACAF scandal. Meanwhile, MLS has seemingly not missed a beat with increased expansion with rights fees escalating over $100 million for each new team, as well as the addition of several high-profile global superstars.
Despite this backdrop, the Cosmos still appear bullish about NASL and their original decision to join the upstart league.
O’Brien told The Guardian:
“When I agreed to take over the managing part of this, I was of the same mindset as most people out there: that MLS is the only league and we would have to be in the MLS. Through the due diligence process that we undertook, we rapidly came to the conclusion that we did not think it was a very good investment.”
The Cosmos opted against Major League Soccer because they did not feel the entry fee justified the gains, O’Brien said. When looking at which league to invest in and their potential futures, O’Brien said that the Cosmos ownership came to a similar conclusion that Stefan Szymanski, author of Soccernomics and Money in Soccer, wrote about a few months ago.
While O’Brien feels MLS may not represent a “good investment,” the analysts over at Forbes seem to disagree. Just this week, they published a list of MLS franchise values (excluding the newest teams in Orlando and New York City) that painted a picture of a league whose investors are reaping the rewards of smart growth and a structure that benefits investors in the long-term.
“The business opportunity is the same: pick a city, run a professional soccer team. One will cost you $100m, and by every bit of advice I have seen, is a license to spend more money; this one, at the moment costs, around $3m, and if you do it well, you can make money.”
Some of the appeals of the decentralized NASL that O’Brien has mentioned in the past – lack of salary cap; low entry fees; the freedom to spend, should an owner wish – will continue to attract new investors, he thinks, not necessarily from the biggest cities in the United States. (“I am a believer that you don’t have to be in a big city to run a great soccer team, and to run a financially successful one that plays a key part in the league.”) With the number of teams and the quality on the field continuing to increase, O’Brien believes this will lead to a lucrative TV deal – or deals – down the line as are enjoyed by the major soccer leagues of the world. The league’s decentralized model, he added, will allow clubs to negotiate their own deals.
This rhetoric has been the staple of the NASL’s “appeal” to non-American soccer fans since the breakaway of its teams from USL in late 2009. However, alignment with the global game, lack of restrictions on spending and business in addition to low entry fees has done little to stimulate NASL’s growth to this point in time. While many inside NASL and fans of the league continue to tout ultimate competition with MLS, the real opponent is the third-tier USL, a league NASL’s teams originally broke away from.
The NASL’s on-field quality can be questioned despite O’Brien’s claims of improvement. In seven 2015 US Open Cup matches against the third-tier USL, NASL clubs won zero matches, lost six and drew one (a match that was then lost on penalty kicks). Meanwhile USL has recently announced several new franchises including last week the addition of a well-funded Cincinnati team.
O’Brien’s views about long-term growth in five years were also quite interesting.
“What do I think we will look like in, say, five years’ time?” “I think we will be playing in our own stadium, in a league of 18 to 20 teams, and we will be competing at the highest level in this country.”
While it is noble to have big dreams, and many — myself included — find much in the MLS model that we don’t like, this sort of rhetoric — which is completely and utterly unrealistic — is one of the two reasons (along with the involvement of Traffic Sports) why NASL has become such a polarizing league to many soccer fans in North America. No realistic scenario exists where NASL will become equal to or overtake MLS within five years. On the other hand, several scenarios exist where USL could become equal or overtake NASL within the same time.
NASL has made some much needed changes to the way lower-division soccer operates in the United States. Competition has helped change the way USL itself operates and has made that league more robust as well as accountable to its team owners and fans. The success of NASL is clear, making second division soccer more visible and viable throughout North America.
But the good work of NASL continues to be threatened by the hubris shown at various times by team owners and league officials including O’Brien. Challenging MLS in the next five years is not only unrealistic, but probably unhealthy for the sustained viability of NASL. The league must stabilize itself first and see off the challenge from a resurgent USL before continuing to talk in such grandiose and unrealistic terms. The North American soccer landscape is better with a healthy NASL filling its role in the pyramid. It is now important that the league and its fans focus on that goal and continue to build the best possible lower division product imaginable.
In time, as O’Brien states the market will react and maybe then NASL can make its move.
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