Dear Ladies and Gentlemen:
On Monday August 9, you begin meetings concerning the future of Division 2 soccer in the United States, that will affect not only the United States, but also Canada, and to a lesser degree, the entire CONCACAF region. I realize that much of the discussion will concern the results of fact-finding observations that the USSF has made over the last several months regarding individual USSF D2 teams as well as the USL and NASL organizations. I would hope a spirit of cooperation emanates from these meetings, and all entities involved with professional soccer in North America are onboard for creating a stable environment for professional soccer on all levels. I would also hope that you take a strong leadership role and also consider the following suggestions.
1. Encourage MLS to name a 20th franchise ASAP, and stop MLS expansion at 20 teams. Although North America is expansive geographically compared to many other nations, a twenty team first division is traditional and has a certain appeal to soccer fans raised on European soccer. Capping MLS at 20 teams would perhaps entice more investors to become involved with D2 soccer, as they won’t be laboring under the false hopes that the team they invest in will someday become an MLS team, or shrink from investing in professional soccer until that day comes. It would also make fans in D2 markets aware that D2 is the only way to go for their home team, and to not take the attitude of “I’ll wait until we get an MLS team ” to get involved emotionally and financially with supporting their local team and buying tickets.
2. Do not make D2 soccer a reserve league for MLS teams. I understand that MLS would sometime again like to create a system for developing young players who aren’t quite ready for significant roles on their squads, and the need for roster flexibility is important to MLS teams competing in the SuperLiga, US Open Cup, Canadian Nurtrilite Championship and the CONCACAF Champions League. I am all in favor of limited loan agreements between MLS and D2 teams. But to make D2 cities/markets function as reserve squads for MLS teams simply would not fly in D2 markets that have a long tradition of being “major league” in other professional sports. Miami, Tampa Bay, Minneapolis-St. Paul and other markets do not want to be “farm” teams for MLS. Intelligent, well-managed loan agreements could be beneficial to both MLS and lower division clubs and cost-effective, while the D2 teams and their fans maintain a sense of independence and autonomy.
3. Provide strong leadership. The growth of soccer in North America and the CONCACAF region demands strong leadership and cooperation. Not only a cap on MLS expansion should be considered, but a cease-fire on hostilities between NASL and USL ownership groups needs to be again STRONGLY encouraged. I have read in the past that the USSF does not want to be in the business of running D2 soccer, but unless there is evidence of cooperation between existing and potential ownership groups, perhaps USSF should be in that business. A stable, regionally based structure for D2 soccer needs to be considered so that owners can reduce expenses without diminishing the product on the field. This can be accomplished if USSF takes a leadership role and creates a timetable in which current ownership groups, potential groups and former markets, along with USL-2 and PDL markets can look ahead to the existence of a 20-24 team regionally based D2 league, perhaps beginning in 2013 or 2014. Interested investors would have a good idea of what is needed to be involved in D2 as far as financial commitments, stadium agreements and potential salary and travel expenses. The benefits of regionalized travel for a bulk of a team’s games, plus the added factor of fans being able to travel more easily to rival cities, could create a healthier financial environment for D2 soccer to succeed.
4. Devote time and effort to market D2. Seemingly, many D2 teams have limited marketing budgets that inhibit growth in attendance, and even basic awareness of their franchises in their local markets. MLS now has fifteen years of marketing experience, and successful plans can be taught and implemented by D2 teams. Lower level teams could benefit from league-wide sponsorship arrangements with interested businesses. What is the official soft drink of D2? Official airline? Official hotel? Offical car rental agency? Certainly some league-wide sponsorships of D2 would help stabilize those franchises. National and regional television exposure would help also. And D2 teams should be encouraged not to overlook supporters groups, bloggers, and other interested fans who would voluntarily help with front office duties such as developing and distributing fliers, decals, bumper stickers and other branded team material. There is a role in D2 for volunteer fans to help teams market with limited front office budgets.
5. Create an attractive season ticket package for D2 fans. What would be an enticing season ticket package for a D2 fan? How about requiring MLS teams to play one friendly against D2 teams, and develop a relationship with foreign teams so that their tours of North America could be incorporated into a season ticket package in D2 cities. Portsmouth, Boca Juniors, Colo Colo, Fiorentina, Atlas, Manchester City, Bolton and other foreign clubs with tradition and name recognition have played in D2 and D3 cities in North America the past summer. If a season ticket for a D2 club included 14-15 league home games, and additionally a game against a foreign club and an MLS team, I think there would be higher demand for season tickets. Work can be done to make tours to D2 cities by foreign clubs not only financially attractive but worthwhile in terms of brand recognition of individual foreign clubs in North America.
6. Develop more bridges to other CONCACAF nations. Most North American cities have large immigrant populations, many of whom are already soccer fans. By developing relationships with teams and leagues in other CONCACAF nations, including national team friendlies, tours of popular teams in those countries and loaning of players to D2 teams from those countries, these immigrant populations may more easily become fans of their local D2 team also.
7. Emphasize the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. The tremendous growth in tournament competitions in North American sports has been fantastic, from the NCAA basketball “March Madness” to the NCAA College Baseball World Series and now the NCAA Hockey playoffs. The United States has a cup tradition in soccer that is almost 100 years old….the USSF should nurture and grow the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup….it gives fans of PDL, D-3 and D-2 teams a chance to upset a higher level team, and create greater pride and excitement. “Cup” nights, with televised coverage of highlights, commentary and interviews, could eventually turn into “must see” tv for soccer fans as the evening could begin with early East Coast games and conclude with the late night West Coast matchups. Make the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup an event.
You can be justifiably proud of the growth of MLS and the performance of the US Men’s and Women’s national teams over the last 20 years. Soccer in North America has come a long way. Please take the time, at this crossroads in our soccer history, to ensure that not only our national teams and MLS but lower levels of professional men and women’s soccer will stabilize and look forward to a bright future. D2 soccer is an important part of the soccer pyramid in North America. I’m convinced that having local teams to root for creates and unites more fans of the game. A stable environment of D2 teams also creates a deeper talent pool of players and coaches that will help the United States and the CONCACAF nations compete more successfully on the international scene.