USL, which is a sanctioned second division by the United States Soccer Federation, has undertaken a massive effort to increase accessibility of its product to viewers while improving production in a cost-effective way. The league has undertaken a massive $10 million effort to enhance its productions, both for digital and television. The league has also launched a television network that syndicates games in local markets.
The league is the largest second division in the world in terms of teams and broadcasting matches at a high level both for television and digital. It remains a challenge, but one that USL seems well-ahead of the curve in tackling.
World Soccer Talk sat down with USL Executive Vice President Tom Veit this week. Veit spoke to us from USL’s Tampa (Florida) Headquarters and gave a wide-ranging interview about all aspects of USL’s vision, success and remaining challenges for its broadcast and production arm.
World Soccer Talk: What was the genesis behind USL Productions? How did the league come around to the decision to do this?
Tom Veit: We were looking at the long-term future of the league where we wanted to go. Mass media rights are very important so we were already producing the games. We already have over 500 quality football matches being played (in our league) – we realize [we] needed to produce these for content at a professional level and for distribution professionally. So, the genesis was this needed to be produced for television and all the video content, and we needed to put it in a format to distribute it not only for today but for all of the new content and formats that will be coming in the future. We also were looking into building it into something commercially viable for us in the long-term.
World Soccer Talk: As someone who personally has worked in the D2 business (for NASL and USL clubs as well as NASL itself), I can attest that this proved to be a massively expensive undertaking for clubs when it comes to streaming and handling broadcasts. USL Productions seems a really centralized and wise decision to offset costs. Have the teams found it this way?
Tom Veit: Part of this is economies of scale and bringing all the teams together on the same platform in the same production arm. We’re investing close to $10 million into this initiative and a structure that allows the teams to do this at a reasonable cost. We believed this was an investment in our league’s future as much as in players and stadiums, etc.
World Soccer Talk: Some of the broadcasts had a real nice local feel with local announcers. But as we see with leagues like the Premier League and Bundesliga, they broadcast all games with neutral announcers – was this the thinking behind USL Productions?
Tom Veit: It’s an evolution. Some teams still do announcers based in their cities. We are trying to develop consistency with all the announcers doing games. And as the season wears on, you’re seeing them get more involved, talking to the teams, talking to coaches and the PR directors. It’s really important for us as a league that those announcers have a connection to the local teams. As time goes on, talent will go on site and get involved that way, so it is definitely something that is evolving.
World Soccer Talk: Did USL look at centralized productions abroad like the Bundesliga and Premier League when developing USL Productions?
Tom Veit: We looked across the globe and right here in the United States. We looked at those leagues across the globe but also here at home at the Big Ten Network and ACC Network. We looked at the NFL and MLB, and what leagues were doing both on TV and digital and hopefully stealing the best [ideas] for our production. We’ve brought many ideas together and they are reflected in the product we are delivering.
World Soccer Talk: Making the jump from YouTube, which is super accessible, to more TV games is a healthy sign for the league. But does it potentially impact the ability of some fans to see games? You’ve added an ESPN package and last season I heard a few complaints about last year’s final, a game just about everyone who follows domestic soccer in this country wanted to see. You had Swope Park Rangers and Red Bull II with all the good, young exciting prospects, some of the best in this country. But instead of being on YouTube the game was on on ESPNU, which was according to some far less accessible for them than YouTube.
Tom Veit: Obviously when you switch platforms, some people are resistant but we wanted to make our games accessible and to increase exposure. We wanted to make sure everyone has an ability to watch games whether at home or at local bars, etc. It’s definitely something we weighed but the value to keep growing the USL product and drive more fans to our league was the determining factor.
World Soccer Talk: How did the USL TV Network come about? You’re getting games on local over-the-air affiliates in your markets in what must have been a massive undertaking.
Tom Veit: That was part of the plan all along. We looked at a multi-tiered strategy. One was local, two was national and international, and three was a digital strategy. We are using cutting-edge technology to transmit games to deliver high quality broadcast TV to each station. All sports are still local, and the greatest value to any sports property is local fans and markets seeing you. Those fans then grow into national and international markets. Our first goal was to get our teams in their local markets on TV. That was our ultimate goal, and we’ve gone from three teams to 17 teams and some more to come with local affiliate deals. At the end of the day, you have to have your community involved with the team and everything grows from there.
World Soccer Talk: USL is in five of the largest twelve TV markets in the US and three of the six biggest in Canada, which is a lot for a second division. Has being in big markets helped stimulate the TV deals the league enjoys?
Tom Veit: From the local deals, it was great to be in those markets but what is unique now is that communities are looking for content again now. The old syndication model that went away with the growth of regional sports (cable) networks now is shifting, and stations want local programming again. What is old is new again. Getting local sports on stations is the holy grail for these channels because it is local, it’s more or less DVR/Tivo proof, and it involves the local cities. Being in those big markets is great but our local focus helps in every market.
World Soccer Talk: That’s interesting about the syndication model because I am sensing many fans here in Florida and the Southeast are disappointed they cannot get as many games in college sports on the over-the-air channels anymore and I feel the pendulum might swing back in the next few years.
Tom Veit: I am old enough to remember working in the world with Jefferson Pilot and Raycom in those days and I’ve taken those ideas and people say “that’s a great idea,” (because they don’t remember the syndication of sports days on local channels) but that’s our model with this – we have the ability to syndicate that and grow that.
But a big part of our growth is our relationship with ESPN. The relationship includes ESPN3 and ESPNU airing games, sometimes multiple games on ESPN platforms the same week, and we have more to announce this summer. ESPN is a big partner of ours now even on the digital level. They have full access to our content and we’ve seen even in week one us becoming plays of the day on SportsCenter, both first and second. We also have furthered the partnership with more ESPNFC.com coverage of the league, which will eventually include individual team pages on the ESPNFC site.
World Soccer Talk: What’s next from USL Productions/Network?
Tom Veit: We’ll continue to look at digital space, and how to expand delivery from digital. We’ve had a great partner in YouTube for many years but will continue to look to expand our digital content. We want to develop a features unit much like NFL Films, and we will start to story tell. We have so many great teams, games, stars and history in this league, we need to tell those stories. Going into 2018, you’ll see us develop weekly shows, magazine programs, a features unit and more international distribution. We can take any game and broadcast it anywhere in the world in any language you want.
World Soccer Talk: You’ve got Didier Drogba, Joe Cole, Shaun Wright-Phillips and several other big names the English audience might be interested in tracking. Any feedback on interest from England in USL matches?
Tom Veit: Yes, even before they came. we had interest there because we are an international league and have had players from there. But now with the way we do the broadcasts and archive them in full digital, and our ability to distribute it effectively, it means that we are getting lots of inbound requests from around the world. We want to be able to manage that correctly and effectively. This has been a 24 month process and we have a five year plan beyond that to continue to grow. We want to make sure we have each step right and then launch the next steps as we continue to grow.