The Tampa Bay Rowdies announced Tuesday a move to the United Soccer League (USL) from the North American Soccer League (NASL).
The move — anticipated for weeks — sent shockwaves through American soccer fandom.
NASL is a designated Division 2 league while USL is a designated division 3 league by the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF). Divisional designations aside, USL currently looks a much safer long-term bet for a club like the Rowdies with a rich history and unlimited ambition.
It is also a safe assumption that divisional designations matter little to casual fans and it is possible USL will soon be a Division 2.
“We are excited to join the United Soccer League in 2017,” said Rowdies Chair and CEO Bill Edwards. “I have said from the day I acquired controlling interest in this club that I wanted to make it one of the most successful teams in North America. The USL is a vibrant league, and this move is a necessary and positive step toward reaching the long-term goals and objectives of the club.”
Edwards guides his team out of NASL at a time when the league is in a major crisis.
Arguably the single-most successful NASL owner, Edwards invested heavily in his team, and attendance has basically doubled since he bought the club in 2014, while the fan experience and ambience is far greater than before.
But NASL is a league whose biggest spending clubs in New York and Miami have created competition regarding spending, and for a practical businessman like Edwards, the stability provided by USL is far preferable.
Currently, NASL has no league revenue streams of note to distribute among its teams, and the cost of travel, TV production and league dues imposed by the league is difficult to offset with local sponsorships and ticket sales.
Add to that, a hands-off approach by the league office, and you have a dysfunctional situation. Many clubs in NASL are bleeding cash and last year San Antonio and Atlanta left the league, with the former shifting to USL.
It is worth noting San Antonio had little drop-off in attendance this season despite the league change.
NASL has voiced the ambition to challenge the top-flight MLS but has shown little discipline or planning in its quest to match the established top league in this region.
On the contrary, NASL has created a culture around it of fans who profess free market principles and “freedom” without understanding the practical aspects of the sports business in North America.
For a businessman like Edwards, a move to USL surrounds his club with similarly pragmatic and practical businesspeople whose focus and emphasis will be on developing a sustainable and successful model.
The NASL currently does not offer Edwards or the Rowdies that option.
“With our league headquartered in Tampa, we are pleased to welcome the Rowdies to the USL for next season,” said Alec Papadakis, chief executive officer of the USL. “This allows us to expand our footprint into the Southeast with a storied soccer brand while meeting our key tenets of market size, committed local ownership and stadium development. In Bill Edwards, we have a dedicated local owner who has invested heavily in the team’s stadium, front office, and media efforts and is considered one of the marketplace’s top business and forward-thinking leaders. Bill is a renowned philanthropist and has donated significant money for children and veterans causes.”
The Tampa Bay media market is the largest in the country without an MLS team. Edwards long-term vision may include a move to MLS. Regardless of whether the Rowdies make the trek to MLS, the club is in safer hands and a stronger position after the move to USL than they were in NASL.