A few weeks into the first season of the USL's second era as a second-division league, I had a good chat with league president Jake Edwards about his competition's present and future. We talked about attendance, recently announced plans for a new third division, and a major investment in broadcast technology that you'll see as you watch games this year.
The USL recently signed new broadcast deals with ESPN and SiriusXM that will put more televised games on ESPNU, and a game of the week and a weekly features show on satellite radio. How important are those new deals?
Tremendously significant for us. I think one of the biggest initiatives we are going to be embarking upon over the next two years is this new broadcast initiative, USL Productions.
The investment we've made into that in partnership with Vista WorldLink, to broadcast all of the games, and using a remote technology to do so - this will be a game-changer for the quality of the production and the ability for us to deliver quality content live. Over one thousand hours of it, a little over 500 live games, anywhere in the U.S. and around the world.
And to do that now in partnership with quality organizations like ESPN, it's going to be tremendous for our league and the exposure it's going to continue to give us. We build upon the partnership with ESPN from last year. We had a run of games where we tested this remote broadcast model with them on ESPN3, and we were sufficiently happy with the delivery and the quality and the consistency that we're now starting to talk with them about a much wider package.
We can build upon it in '17 and also into '18 as we focus on a national linear [TV] opportunity, as well as digital distribution. The good news as well is we're also seeing some tremendous results based on the quality of this infrastructure for our teams in their local deals. We've got 16 clubs now that have been able to sign local TV deals and regional sports network deals. That's going to really help push the exposure of the clubs locally.
SiriusXM is going to be a tremendous partnership. We're going to have an hour show weekly. We're going to have a game of the week with those guys. We kicked that off on Monday night [the weekly show].
[The weekly show airs Mondays at 9 p.m. Eastern on SiriusXM FC.]
The production of games will be done from a remote facility. Will the commentators be on site?
In some instances. We've built a model that's quite flexible. We've built a model that would standardize quality, and we wanted to standardize quality so that a) we can deliver this to a national broadcast partner, but b) our teams could do local TV deals and be able to receive away feeds, and know that their partners in the league are also broadcasting at sufficient quality that they would now be able to put all 32 games, home and away, on local TV. In years gone by, we couldn't have done that. Now we can.
We do everything off-site in a facility in south Florida. We have six production pods that we've built specifically within this Vista complex. We have 20 staff down there working on the broadcasts throughout the week and over the weekend. We have a production studio there where we film halftime content and other shows that we're going to be putting together. We have a full-time commentary team that's based down there, doing both English and Spanish.
We've built a flexible model where we can run everything from top to bottom, and the only thing we need [in the stadium] is the cameras in the building. The production manager is down there [at the remote facility], he's doing all the switching, he's deciding which cameras to go to. We're doing the replays, the graphics, the commercial spots - everything is done off-site. And we're doing that through IP [internet protocol transmissions] and fiber [optic transmission lines]. We don't need to roll trucks up; we're not using satellite trucks, anything like that. So you can consistently keep the quality high, and keep the costs way down.
We've built a model that's flexible. So in the case of Sacramento, for example, they're doing an eight-camera shoot and they've got a great commentary team. We can use their commentary team on site. All of the stadiums are inter-connected, so we can deliver content instantaneously throughout the network of stadiums.
If a team wants its commentary to be on-site, that can happen, but if a team doesn't have a commentary team, it can just take a feed from the crew that's in Florida.
Yeah. We'll run the commentary for the national games, the ESPN games. Then, if they don't have a commentary team for a local [broadcast of a] league game, we can also do that.
But we also want to set standards for the commentary teams as well. So we run training, we will give them all the information during the week about goings-on around the league, and we monitor every broadcast. Not just the production quality, but everything, including the announcers. If we feel the announcers are doing a great job, fantastic. If they're falling short, we'll work with them, or we'll replace them.
As far as on-the-field matters, how is the coordination with Major League Soccer going at the moment?
I've seen some fans who are happy with using USL teams primarily for player development purposes, but also notice that doing so sometimes harms the end product in USL games (which is a polite way of saying some of those teams lose a lot).
So there ends up being quite a difference between, say, Toronto FC II and FC Cincinnati. How do you judge where things are right now?
We have a league of 30 clubs participating. We have 20 independent teams playing in the league this year who want to win the competition, want to focus on improving their team week in and week out, want to put bums in seats and have a sustainable business, and engage the fan bases in those communities.
[Edwards counts as "independent" two teams whose technical operations are controlled by MLS teams that do not own them fully: Rio Grande Valley FC (by the Houston Dynamo) and Reno 1868 FC (by the San Jose Earthquakes).]
It is a different situation for the 10 MLS teams that are integrated into our league, clearly. And we work with all of our clubs, as we work with all of the MLS second teams, to identify ways to engage the fan bases in those communities with those teams. Because ultimately, you're seeing some of the next best players, both for MLS and the national team down the road, on those [USL teams owned by] MLS teams.
They are, for the most part, very competitive on the field, and provide a bit of, I would say, an added element to a game when they're on the road with some of our independent teams, for sure. We've had some very exciting games so far. I was at the home opener for Tampa against Orlando - they had a couple of first-team players in the Orlando squad. It was a very entertaining game.
There are some inherent challenges with having a second team in your marketplace when you're perhaps not selling out your first team [games], and you need to put resources toward selling the first team over and above the business interests of the second team. But make no mistake, the business folks at those MLS clubs are looking at these second teams as a business opportunity as well as an important developmental platform.
We're not trying to say it's something different. This is what the partnership is about with MLS. It's about not losing quality players. It's about putting players in a top-quality professional environment, where they can play in front of crowds in good stadiums and learn how to develop as professional players. And we've had tremendous success now with players coming through into MLS, into the junior national teams, and into the senior national team.
So from the essence of what that partnership and integration was about, it's working well. We're all evolving as leagues, and where we are as a league now is not where we were three years ago when we started the partnership. Now, as a second division, standards continue to rise on all fronts, and we challenge all the [MLS] teams to continue to move those [USL] clubs forward in the right way.
I think we're going to see that maybe there's an evolution of what some of the integration of MLS into our league might look like moving forward. I think it's been a successful model.
Looking at the Houston-RGV affiliation, I think in San Jose [with Reno] we'll see the same success. We can have a quality product on the field, but it's in a different market and independent ownership is running the club and selling it, marketing and doing all those things. That's been very positive, to see how well that has worked out in south Texas, and it seems to be working out in Reno as well. I think that's maybe something we'll see more of.
I'm going to ask you more about that evolution in a moment. But before I do, looking at the attendance figures from last year, a lot of the MLS-owned teams were toward the bottom of the table. While they are achieving their player development goals, do small crowds in places like Toronto, Los Angeles and New York trouble you?
Obviously, some of those teams play in small venues that are not the MLS stadiums, as the Galaxy II do. And some are in other parts of their regions geographically, like TFC II and Red Bulls II. Bethlehem Steel drew 2,573 fans per game, which was in the middle of the pack. But to see TFC II draw just over 1,000 per game - and Red Bulls II under 600 per game - is notable.
Attendance is something that we focus on all the time for all of the teams. It's not just specific to one team or another. This year, we opened the season last weekend with almost 60,000 fans. We were up 38 percent on last year. I'm very pleased with that, and that will continue to go [positively]. We'll break 2 million supporters through the turnstiles this year. We had 1 1/2 million last year.
Our club services department works tirelessly with all of the clubs to share best practices, to help with revenue generation plans, to help with how they build fan bases in all those communities. Whether that's a MLS second team in its own market - how do we differentiate that from the first team, and how do we create an identity and get people to come out to those games? We're with the clubs continually on that.
We've seen some incremental growth with the MLS teams from last year. We'll continue to work with them to try and drive those numbers forward.
Does it help or hurt if the USL team is playing in the MLS stadium? The fans will know where the venue is and how to get there, but a crowd of even 5,000 might get swallowed up in a 25,000-seat stadium.
Well, for example, Orlando City B have moved into their new stadium downtown. They played last year in Melbourne in a small facility [the Titan Soccer Complex, with a capacity of 3,500], and drew very small crowds. Now they've moved into the center of the city, into probably one of the best soccer stadiums in the country, and they had a little over 4,500 in there for their first game [March 30 against Louisville].
As a player, I think playing in that environment, in that kind of quality stadium, on a full-sized field in front of 5,000 fans, with a roof on the building that keeps the sound in, it's a much better proposition than where they were playing last year. Portland will be in the main stadium this season. They'll have several thousand at those games. Real Salt Lake will be in their main stadium this season.
It's not a full stadium [but] there are several thousand in there. Ultimately it's more of a professional environment than perhaps some other options.
[Although RSL is playing at Rio Tinto Stadiu this year, in future years they'll play in a 5,000-seat stadium that's under construction at the club's forthcoming academy facility in a Salt Lake City suburb.]
So, about that evolution. The USL recently announced that it intends to launch a third-tier league in 2019. There is currently no third division, since the USL has now been sanctioned by the U.S. Soccer Federation as a Division 2 league. What do you envision the new third-tier league will look like?
We informed the federation a long time ago that it would be our intent. We look at the country and we see up to 75 million potential soccer fans who don't have access to live, local professional soccer.
I think there's a real responsibility and an opportunity there to bring what we have seen as a successful model of operating a league and delivering quality, building quality clubs. To do that in some of the smaller markets - we're looking at markets that are sort of half a million [population in their regions], give or take, around that area. There are a number of exciting markets.
We've been embarking on this project in the background, and now we have made a statement on our intent to do so and launch it in '19, but we've been working behind the scenes on this for a while. We've had a lot of applications in with the league now for some lead markets. Good operators, experienced sports operators.
And for us, it's just rolling out the same blueprint. It's focusing on markets where we can build regional rivalries. It's focusing on markets that we know have good soccer fan bases. It's looking at ownership [groups] that are well-capitalized, locally based, are committed, and understand the economics of a sports franchise. And it's about getting the right venues. Whether they have to build or there's something in place, it's getting the right venues to showcase the sport.
For us, we're looking now at whether we are launching this as an East Coast league initially and build nationally, or whether we are able to go nationally from the get-go.
It will be complementary to what we are doing with the USL at the second-division level, but it will be operated in the same manner. We'll resource it in the same way, use the same expertise and operational excellence, and focus on getting the right owners in the right markets. So we're very excited about it.
Do you foresee there continuing to be two Division 2 leagues, as there are right now with the USL and the North American Soccer League?
It's a good question. No, I don't think there will be - I don't think that's in the Federation's long-term plans, to have two Division 2s.
Is it something that you have considered as a possibility, in terms of mapping out how your Division 3 league will work, even if it's not in U.S. Soccer's plans?
We're focused now on continuing to evolve and build our second division league into a top-class second division league.
Within that, we've got some more expansion to go now with the USL as a second division. There will be a few more clubs coming in. Then it will cap, and close.
And then we will be operating a structure with a second division and a third division, with differentiations between the two on a number of fronts, including market size and what have you, stadium size perhaps as well.
That's our focus. We've got a little bit more growth in the second division, and then we'll have a second and a third division.
Do you see any of the current MLS-owned USL teams dropping down to the third division when it launches?
No. Not at this moment. We've been working on moving the entire league and all the clubs we have up to the second division. We've challenged them to meet those standards, have committed to meet all of those standards moving forward, and that's how we've been embarking on that second division project.
Right now, as we're looking at the third division, it's focusing on these markets that don't have soccer, and the fan bases there that don't have access to local soccer. So in our mind now, these will be all new expansion clubs, expansion markets, populating the third division.
Lastly, I have to ask this, and I'm sure it won't surprise you: Will there be promotion and relegation between your second and third divisions?
Well, you know, for us, we've got some work to do. We need to build a quality league. We need to build the infrastructure. We need to build the clubs up to a point where we know they are on solid footing, that they have the stadium infrastructure and the operations in place. No different from the USL.
We've had to spend years to get there. And once we get there, which we will do, then that [pro/rel] is certainly something that we will be able to consider at that point. But we've got to get sustainability and stability, and get everything to the right quality, first.