On Thursday, NASL announced New York Knicks superstar Carmelo Anthony as an owner of a new expansion team in Puerto Rico. The league last had a team in Puerto Rico during the 2012 season. The previous year, in 2011, as the Islanders were coming off a double-championship season (both USSF Division 2 and the CFU Club Championship), which included a 5-3 win over two legs over the LA Galaxy, the club averaged less than 2,500 fans in NASL play.
Since Puerto Rico saw declining attendances for Islanders in their last few seasons, it’s a mystery as to why the NASL would return to the island. But celebrity ownership seems to be the NASL’s new calling card. Three weeks ago, the league announced a new club in Miami, where the former Division 2 club routinely played in front of audiences of a couple hundred people. But that club has in Paolo Maldini a celebrity name attached with it, much like the new Puerto Rico club has Anthony.
NASL has faced a rash of questions about the ownership shares in the league held by Traffic Sports USA, who has plead guilty in US court already as part of the FIFA scandal. But the addition of expansion teams and new owners helps NASL move its business away from Traffic by bringing additional investment into the league.
But questions must be asked about NASL’s expansion strategy. The celebrity angle is pretty clear, but the choice of two failed second division markets yields serious questions. It is also worth noting that the longest road trip in NASL, where team budgets and revenues are substantially lower than Major League Soccer, will now be longer than the longest such journey in MLS. The insistence of NASL on having every team travel to every other league site means both Puerto Rico and Edmonton will be making extremely long road trips potentially with multiple connections beginning in 2016.
The new club will begin play in the fall of 2016, once again showing the potential benefit of NASL’s split-season format. However, many fans who already decry the peculiar setup which includes a ten game, two month “season,” that yields a champion will cry foul. NASL has seemingly adhered to this unique and somewhat confusing setup because it allows the league the flexibility to bring teams into competitive play in the second half of the season, as was done in 2013 with the New York Cosmos.
Puerto Rico supported the Islanders passionately when they faced off with MLS or Liga MX competition in CONCACAF Champions League play. But when the Islanders faced NASL clubs, the support was tepid at best. With potentially less investment in this club than the Islanders, will that change? Thus the question must be asked if NASL is far enough along in brand recognition to alter that perception. Or maybe the celebrity owner, Carmelo Anthony, will make all the difference. That seems to be what NASL is banking on to make their second foray onto the island of Puerto Rico successful.
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