This post was updated on May 27 and 28, 2015, with new information on the relationship between Traffic Sports and the NASL.
North American Soccer League commissioner Bill Peterson is one of the most outspoken people in the continent's soccer community. He is never shy about his goals for his league, and he's never afraid to speak on the record about those goals.
This past Wednesday, Peterson held a conference call with reporters to preview the NASL's 2015 season.
Here are key excerpts on some of the major talking points for him, his league, and the greater soccer scene in the United States and Canada.
On much-touted U.S. youth national team prospect Haji Wright signing with the New York Cosmos, and how the NASL appeals to other young players seeking a career development path:
This is a statement about how we're structured as a league, and that structure is very similar to most, if not all, leagues around the world - where the players really are true free agents.
So for a young player like Haji, and others, they can come into this league and know they have just entered the global soccer economy, and that they're in control of their destinies. The lengths of their contracts and the terms of their contracts are all basically agreed to by that agent and by that player and they can set the course they want to set.
In this case, I'm not sure what the term of Haji's contract is, but I'm sure it's probably one or two years, maybe a little bit more. At the end of that contract, he's going to be able to go out to the market and test his value with every club in the world.
As we continue to develop players in this country, and players from abroad that come to the NASL, that's got to be a big selling point. They're going to come in, they're going to play at a high level, they're going to have an opportunity to improve their market value, and then either through a sale, a transfer or going back out into the free agent market, they're going to be able to test themselves and get to the highest level possible.
We're proud to have that structure in place. We think it's great for the development of players from around the world, but especially for players in the U.S. and Canada. I think you're going to see more and more instances where people make that choice.
On whether Peterson would advocate to the U.S. Soccer Federation that this is the NASL's primary player development model if it decides to apply for Division 1 sanctioning:
U.S. Soccer will be very aware of all of our efforts. They are very aware of how we are structured. I think they would have to admit that it's benefiting the game here already, and it's going to continue to benefit the game. I think they welcome that effort and welcome the investment that our owners are making in the game.
On whether he thinks it's possible for there to be multiple leagues sanctioned as Division 1 by U.S. Soccer:
I guess you could do anything you want. Look, to me, there's really only a couple categories of leagues, if you will. You've got championship leagues - these are leagues that are designed and structured to play for championships. You have reserve leagues - their main goal is the development of players for someone else, whoever that may be. And you have amateur leagues.
I think that's how they ought to be structured, right there. You're recognized for being a championship league, a reserve league or an amateur league. Anything else, without competition dictating who's at the top or the bottom, doesn't make sense to me. That's what we believe. If somebody thinks that you should have multiple leagues at a certain random division, then so be it. I'm not worried about it. I just don't think it's best for the sport.
On whether the NASL has had discussions with U.S. Soccer about gaining a Division 1 sanction, and if not, whether doing so is in the league's plans:
We have not had those discussions. We might raise that as an issue, but we've been focused right now on getting ourselves to a place where that makes more sense than what it does today. Our main focus is always on the field, and our secondary focus is being relevant in the local markets, and getting to 20 teams.
Somewhere along the way, I'm sure we're going to have those conversations. We're willing to go out and prove themselves, and I think we are. If you look at where we are after four seasons, we're growing, we're developing, we're contributing to the growth of the game. And we expect that to continue. So we'll see how things develop here over the next couple of years, but we have not had those conversations to date.
On the NASL's relationship with Major League Soccer, and whether the NASL's model of developing young player is better than MLS' model:
Yeah, look, we don't sit around trying to figure out how we do things differently or better than MLS. They have their model. They are very happy with that model. We want them to be successful. What we focus on is what we believe is the right model for us.
And yes, we believe it is a good model. It is maybe a better model from a player development standpoint, because it gives the players more opportunities to control their own destinies. So not only can we develop players and move them on in the system, but we can also find players from this part of the world and other parts of the world, and bring them in with a lot more flexibility, I think.
One of the real pillars of this league was to organized itself similar to the game is organized in the rest of the world. It's a global sport. People have been wildly successful for centuries, if you will. We're following along the lines that they've set forward. So, yes, we think it's the right model. We think it's very good.
We don't sit around and concern ourselves with whether it's better or worse than Major League Soccer's. They have their model. Everybody is aware of how it works. And it works for them, because they like it, and they are staying there. But at the same time, we just think ours is more beneficial, and will allow us to reach the highest levels much quicker.
On how he would react if NASL players wanted to unionize and collectively bargain contract terms, among other things, as is the case in Major League Soccer:
If they want to have that conversation, we'd be glad to have that conversation. I talk to the players constantly throughout the season, and once in a while, a player will come up and say, "Hey, when are we going to get a union?" I sometimes answer, "I hope soon, because once we do, we're going to negotiate a salary cap as well."
I don't know why players would want to organize for that reason [bargaining contract terms] - there might be other reasons, but for that reason. Because right now, they enjoy total free agency, they control their own destiny, they know our clubs will look out for their best interests as it relates to other opportunities in this country or other countries. So the concept doesn't seem to fit in.
By all means, if there was an approach, we would have a conversation with them, and look to do what's best for our players and the league itself. But I don't see it happening.
Our owners are treating our players very well. They are slowly increasing the amount of money they are playing those players each year, our roster numbers are going up at a steady rate - but I think a fair rate, based on the revenues we're generating. And if a player doesn't want to play in this league, he doesn't have to. There are other opportunities.
So we think we've got an attractive structure for those players, and boy, if you have a chance to sit down with one and explain the advantages of being in a completely global free agent market, they get it, and they understand it's advantageous for them.
On whether there has been any discussion of relaxing the limit on international players on teams in the league:
Well, our official position is we would probably like it removed, but that's a U.S. Soccer decision, and one they levy on us. So we're at odds with them on that, and we're not sure it actually accomplishes what they're hoping it accomplishes.
I think their position, if you ask them, would be that it gives more American players more opportunities to play, but we think competition is what really forces the bar to be raised. We're a professional league, we're trying to play at the highest levels possible, and that's what our fans expect from us. To have any sort of controls placed over that process, we're generally opposed to.
We'll see where that goes in the future, but we're not sure it accomplishes what it's supposed to.
On what he would make of a potential expansion team ownership group which presented itself as having the ultimate ambition of joining Major League Soccer:
That's a good question. Yeah, I think it would give us pause. I wouldn't say that it would eliminate somebody from ultimately being admitted, but the fact is that there are two different models, and you'd have to understand why they wanted to do that.
There is a clear pathway to move from our league to MLS, and you know, we can't stop somebody from doing that. We wouldn't want to stop somebody who wanted to do that.
Again, it wouldn't be a reason to eliminate a group, but we'd want to fully understand why, and what that timeline looked like, and then really have an internal conversation on if this is the best thing for the league, just like we would with a lot of different issues as we are evaluating potential owners.
Allow me a moment to break up the conference call transcript here, because I want to note here some remarks Peterson gave in an interview on Soccer Morning this past Tueday. He told host Jason Davis the following about the potential expansion ownership groups that are making pitches to the NASL:
Right now, we've got two or three different groups of owners coming and approaching us.
One is a person who is in a community, is passionate about his community, passionate about soccer, understands what this could mean to his community, and he wants to own a team.
We're starting to get a lot more interest from foreign clubs who understand that participation in the NASL allows them to participate in the global player market. They can establish their academies and search for players here who they believe exist - and we believe exist - and develop players with their coaches.
And the third group are people who are invested in the sport around from the world, who are in it for similar reasons. They say, "Hey, here is an opportunity to get in on professional soccer in the United States, in a structure that we recognize, that gives us the ability to develop players and move players."
Davis asked Peterson about U.S. Soccer's mandate that a Division 2 league must have a team on the west coast, which the NASL currently does not. Peterson answered:
We don't worry about that. We have enough interest on the west coast, and we're going to get there. I don't think U.S. Soccer is going to come back and try to pull our designation or take us out of play because we don't have a team on the west coast.
What we've proven is we're capable of building very strong teams and we're expanding very wisely in how we go about all of this. They, I assume, are very proud of the efforts we're putting in, and will realize that we'll be on the west coast when it makes the most sense.
Peterson subsequently stated this in answering another question on expansion:
Whereas before, if we wanted clubs on the west coast, we were waiting for a west coast ownership group, now there might be the opportunity to tie in one of these foreign groups with the locals, and get that done even quicker.
Now back to the conference call transcript.
On whether he is concerned about MLS having set expansion teams in Minneapolis and Atlanta, two MLS markets, with the potential for MLS expansion in other NASL markets including Miami and San Antonio:
Well, look, I'd say we're not concerned at all, because we're all aware that this is the state of the pro game right now in this part of the world.
There is no promotion and relegation, and I don't want to talk about that today, but everyone knows where I stand on that. Without competition determining who's at the top and who's not, it's about your desire to be in one league versus another, and your ability to pay the entry fee, really.
So we don't worry about it, and it's going to shake out the way it is. There's no league in this country that has started that didn't have teams come and go and move. It's great to try to not allow that to happen, but at the end of the day, it's going to happen, and it's just part of where we are in our development as a country with professional soccer, and where we are as a league with the NASL.
That's why we're spending so much time right now on the expansion process: trying to identify ownership groups who are really committed to what we're doing, and we believe we have them. So if somebody changes their mind along the way, then we wish them well, and off they go, and we're going to keep doing what we're doing.
This territory is so big - we're talking about 400 million people between Canada and the United States - we could support hundreds of first-division teams. So we haven't even scratched the surface of pro soccer yet in this area.
On what it was like for him personally to watch Minnesota United join MLS:
Ah, you know, look, it wasn't a surprise. I didn't entertain myself by actually watching [the press conference]. We were working on some other things and chose to do that instead.
Look, we don't want anybody to leave this league. We love this league and we think it has got a great future ahead of it. I guess it is somewhat bittersweet if a club comes up and decides they are going to leave.
It's unique circumstances up there. Bill [McGuire, United's owner] is very focused and dedicated to being involved in professional soccer in Minneapolis, and he felt that when MLS was announcing that they were going to partner with the Vikings, that could threaten his ability to field a team and be successful. So that led to the conversations, and ultimately his decision.
You'll have to talk to him for all the decision that led to that, but once he made his decision, it's made, and we wish him well. They were a good club in this league, and Bill, especially, was a good owner in this league. He chose to go a different route, and we'll just continue to do what we're going to do.
Again, the territory has so many opportunities that this is not going to affect our growth, it's not going to affect who we are or what we're doing, and we'll just keep moving forward.
On the NASL's pursuit of its own direct-entry berth in the CONCACAF Champions League:
Well, that's actually a discussion that's dictated by U.S. Soccer. CONCACAF is very aware of our desire for our champion to play in and get direct entry into the CONCACAF Champions League. We believe that if you take off the labels and line up our league with the others in the CONCACAF region, we would have earned that opportunity.
So we continue to share that opinion with CONCACAF, and it's an issue that we haven't pushed too with U.S. Soccer, but we think that now, with where we're at as a league and how we're performing on the field, really, it should lead to that decision being made. We'll continue to engage U.S. Soccer and look for the opportunity to get that done in the near future. It's an important conversation.
Our guys, our coaches, our players, they relish competition. They love the [U.S.] Open Cup, they get fired up about it, they go out to win. We've had great success in that tournament. We talk about it on a year-round basis. We think it's a great competition for this country. It's one that all of our clubs in the U.S. want to win.
Same with Canada and the Amway Cup. Everybody wants to win that championship and get a chance to go in the Champions League, where you get a chance to play another group of teams competitively, and a chance to win that tournament as well.
Throughout the league there's a culture of wanting to compete and wanting to take people on, and our job at the league office is to try and help accommodate that culture and that desire.
On what it would take to open up the American soccer pyramid, as he desires and has talked about often, since MLS, the NASL, the USL and the many other soccer leagues in the U.S. and Canada are their own corporate entities; and also, given that MLS and the NASL are allied with rival marketing agencies in Soccer United Marketing and Traffic Sports:
I appreciate you coming at the question from a different angle. Let me clarify one thing first, and that is Traffic does not own this league. They own one team in this league right now, Carolina. Our owners own this league, just to be clear with that.*
The answer - I don't have the complete answer. I have theories, I have ideas, and we're not going to go through those today. But the starting point has to be an acknowledgement from all the leaders in those different leagues, and U.S. Soccer, that if we really want to be the most powerful professional soccer nation in the world, we're going to have to look at how best to get there, and how best to be attractive, if you will, to every community in the U.S. and Canada.
To me, from my experiences living in Europe for 10 years, and being around this sport now for whatever it is, 20 years, you've got to have hope in those communities. They've got to believe that their team, no matter what level it is, that there's a pathway for that team to get to the top. They've got to believe that if everything fell into place, their team could get to the top.
Doesn't mean it's always going to happen - it's probably not practical in most places - but they've got to have that hope and belief.
Right now, if you don't have a professional team in the area of this country that you live in, you're probably less likely to be a fan of professional soccer than if you had a club at any level that had a chance to get to the top. That's the premise, I think, I'm hopeful that people one day going are to acknowledge here.
Then once we get everybody to the table, there's no doubt that there's a lot of collective intelligence and a lot of collective experience in soccer in this country, and if we put our minds to setting the course, we can get this done.
Maybe everyone's not going to participate, maybe not everyone has to participate. But that structure needs to get in place for us to accomplish what I think should be the top goal, which is being at the top of global soccer.
* - I put that asterisk there because Peterson's statement about Traffic Sports' involvement in the NASL was false. And a lot of people who are or have previously been involved with the NASL in various ways know it.
Traffic owns at least a majority of the Class A shares in the limited legal corporation that operates the NASL, and perhaps 100 percent (I've been told both over time). The club owners own the Class B shares. In addition, Traffic Sports USA president Aaron Davidson is the chairman of the NASL's board of governors. Make of that what you will.
Update, May 27: A portion of the above reporting about Traffic's investment in the NASL was incorrect. The following was reported by NorthernPitch.com's Brian Quarstad, whose connections within the league are better than mine. So his word should supersede mine.
When NASL was formed, Traffic was (and is now) the major capital contributor to the venture, and the group owns the majority of B stock (66%) in the league. The league has a class A and class B stock ownership structure. The class A stock (representing all team owners in the league) is diluted each time a new owner enters NASL, according to a 2010 flowchart which was supplied to Northern Pitch. The flow chart also showed Traffic contributing $4.5 million, which would eventually get paid back with payments of $450,000 for the first 10 teams that entered the league. If the 2010 document is accurate, Traffic also received 30% commissions on commercial rights of media, sponsorships and merchandising.
All NASL owners vote with class A rights. Class B stock does not vote but gives Traffic the control (veto rights) they needed for limited issues, based upon their risk, to control their return on equity and return of equity, if that ever happens.
A source familiar with the league body said most issues don't revolve around that class B share. "The rights assigned to their shares only come up in very narrow circumstances like budget or approving a new expansion team," the source said. "I've been told they seem to be good citizens and are certainly not dictators in that board room."
Update, May 28: Neil Morris of WRALSportsFan.com added the following in a report on the NASL's Carolina RailHawks, which Traffic owns and operates:
Traffic Sports has deep historical and fiduciary ties with the NASL. Davidson and Traffic Sports spearheaded the group of soccer team owners—including Selby Wellman, then owner of the RailHawks—who broke away from the United Soccer League in late 2009 to form the NASL. Traffic Sports was the chief financier of the nascent NASL and has previously held a majority stake in both the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and Atlanta Silverbacks, both NASL clubs. When Wellman divested his ownership and dissolved the RailHawks' corporate entity in late 2010, Traffic Sports stepped in, acquired the RailHawks brand and reformed the club.
The corporate structure of the NASL comprises at least two legal entities: North American Soccer League, LLC and NASL Team Holdings, LLC, both incorporated in Delaware in late 2009. According to documentation provided to WRALSportsFan, Traffic Sports possesses a pro rata membership interest in North American Soccer League, LLC as one of the league's owners. Moreover, Traffic Sports is a majority shareholder in NASL Team Holdings, LLC, a group comprising the league's founding owners that retains final say over the league's annual budget. According to the documentation, interest in NASL Team Holdings, LLC is redeemable at the option of the company in the event a member ceases to be a member of NASL, LLC.
Simon Evans of Reuters and other outlets added this on the Guardian's website:
For the NASL, the second division league in the US club system, the link is direct. The indicted Aaron Davidson, an American citizen, who along with his company Traffic Sports, features heavily in the accounts of bribes and kick-backs, was the driving force behind the creation of the league in 2009.
It was Davidson who pushed hard for a split in the United Soccer Leagues, which was then the second tier of club competition. It was Traffic who ran the commercial activities of the nascent league. Traffic, with US headquarters in Miami but with Brazilian owners, also took on direct ownership of several teams in the new NASL. Although they now only own the Carolina Railhawks, it was their money that kept teams such as the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, the Minnesota Stars and Atlanta Silverbacks alive.