United Soccer League (USL) has made headlines recently with new developments and partnerships that all point to the fact that the USL is setting itself up for some fairly significant growth over the next few years, both on and especially off of the pitch.One of those new partnerships includes a deal with Buffalo, a PR and marketing agency, who will be tasked with helping USL to broaden its reach and continue to develop the league’s brand in North America and beyond. Business of Soccer spoke with USL President, and former player, Jake Edwards about the new relationship with Buffalo, as well as the growth of the league and all of the exciting recent developments. Edwards commented,
The time was right to engage with an outside PR firm for us, given that the growth over the last two years has been strong on multiple fronts, but now we’re spending a lot of time developing the other sides of the business. We want to speak to a wider audience, beyond the core base that USL and its clubs have and it’s two-fold: letting people know about the USL and the brand values and the mission and getting that message out to various stakeholders, whether they be fans, players, or members of the business community.
USL has experienced tremendous growth in recent years, especially in 2016 with attendance figures soaring over 1.5 million total fans flowing through the turnstiles. The addition of FC Cincinnati has certainly helped those figures, the club often out-selling many MLS stadiums with crowds in excess of 30,000 at times. Edwards spoke at length about the league needing to ensure that it had a strong foundation and sound business fundamentals before trying to grow too large too quickly, which ultimately is a recipe for failure. Partnering with an outside PR firm like Buffalo at this stage enables USL to leverage Buffalo’s network and wealth of experience in the sports industry that can help quickly bring the league to the forefront of the soccer community. Edwards added,
We felt the time was right to start getting our message out there. We spent some time looking at different PR firms and we met with Buffalo and they had done some work with US Club Soccer and put a really good proposal together. They’re very engaged with the growth of the sport and have a lot of good executives there that have played the game and have been in and around the game and we just felt it was a really good match. They understood where we are now as a league and as an organization, where we want to go and where we want to be. So they were very quick to understand what the message should be. I think it will be a really good partnership for us.
League communications is just one area of focus for Edwards and company as they look to start developing the league off of the pitch. One of the major areas of revenue generation for soccer clubs and leagues is through broadcast deals. Partnering with Vista Worldlink, based in south Florida, USL will have all 500+ league matches broadcast next season. This deal enables USL to bring all the matchday production under one roof, which will bring consistent higher quality to each game and ultimately raises the value proposition for regional and national broadcast partners. Speaking about the league’s future in this space, Edwards said,
Over the last 18 months we’ve been able to move into the next phase, which is to address the other areas of the business. We’re investing over 8 million dollars over the next 3 years into our broadcast program so we’re very excited about what our broadcasts are going to look like from next season onwards. We’ve had some initial games with ESPN this season and we’re in discussions with what that looks like for the future, so it’s a big area of focus and investment for us and we’re excited to see where it takes us.
One of the exciting changes developing in the sports industry, and business in general, is the constantly evolving realm of “digital” and what it means for clubs and leagues in terms of various revenue streams, as well as technological capabilities for match broadcasts and fan engagement. Hitting on both broadcast enhancement and increasing fan engagement, USL announced it will team up with sports data provider Opta as the league’s official data partner. The three-year deal will begin with the USL Cup on 10/23, and will see Opta manage and deliver statistical analysis for all USL matches. Edwards offered his thoughts on the partnership and what Opta brings to the league and to its fans:
It will really enhance the broadcast and enhance the fan experience with all of the live match data that they can provide. It will really enrich the experience, bring it to life a bit more and we’re going to be able to do some really interesting things now on the digital side, with mobile applications and then of course the teams and coaching staffs will benefit tremendously from this data and this partnership as well.
Part of what has helped with the surge in growth and development for USL is their partnership with MLS and some of its clubs in the generation of secondary squads that compete in USL, such as Seattle Sounders II or LA Galaxy II, or some other clubs that benefit via an affiliation with a USL team, like D.C. United and the Richmond Kickers. We asked Edwards what he thought about the success of the partnership with MLS and to offer his thoughts on how the relationship may evolve in the future:
That’s been tremendous added value for the league and those teams. For us they’ve certainly helped to increase the level of play and level of competition when you look at the playoff picture now as well as the regular season and how that’s evolved. I think where we are now and where we are in a couple years may look a little different. For some teams in some areas to have a second team in your market is a challenge. If you’re having a challenge selling your first team then you’re definitely going to struggle to sell your second team in the same market amongst the same fan base. Soccer fans can only consume so many games, so you can’t just give them 50 matches to go and watch. So there’s a challenge there. Ultimately it’s about growing the game and improving players and improving the quality of the matches and building a very competitive league. We have to look at it holistically and address it as needed, but I think overall we’re very happy with it and I think so is MLS, but I do think it will evolve a little bit going forward and we’ll experiment with some different affiliation models where we need to and where it makes sense.
Looking ahead, perhaps one of the biggest looming questions still hanging out there in the American soccer landscape is the USL’s petition to become a Division 2 league within the U.S. Soccer pyramid, right behind MLS, and on par with NASL. There has been a lot of talk recently surrounding the uncertain future of the NASL, and those questions become even more pressing should the USL be granted Division 2 status. It had been rumored over the summer that U.S. Soccer would announce its decision sometime early this fall, however no word yet has come out of the federation’s Chicago headquarters. We asked Edwards if he could share any news about the progress of the decision, and he said,
We’ve been going through the process with U.S. Soccer for some time. They’re in the final stages of their due diligence now, and they’re going through our application with a fine-tooth comb, as they should do. We’ve put forward what I believe is an extremely strong proposal. All of that will be fully finished and we’ll be given a date for an announcement that we’re hopeful we should get this side of Christmas. Obviously we’re hopeful that we get all of this sorted out ahead of next season so that we go into it with everything ironed out prior to the first kick-off.
Regardless of the outcome of the petition for Division 2 status within U.S. Soccer, it’s irrefutable that the league has made tremendous strides in developing on and off of the pitch in recent years. For soccer fans in the U.S. it’s an exciting time to see development across all professional levels, and as the future soccer landscape starts to take shape USL will almost certainly play a major role. Edwards offered his final thoughts, and said,
We’re pleased with where we are at the moment. We’re executing upon the plan that we put into place and there are a number of things that we need to continue to work on. We haven’t arrived yet. We’ve got a long way to go, but I think there are some recent successes that we can see over the last few years that hopefully are just a sign of things to come so we’re very excited about the next few years.