Monday, May 28, 2012

On Minor League Soccer In The South

This is from an exchange I had with Dave Clark, who runs Sounder At Heart, a most excellent independent blog on Seattle Sounders FC of Major League Soccer. The basis of this post was the divergent paths of two minor-league soccer clubs that faced each other in 2007 for the USL First Division (aka USL-1) Championship - the previous incarnation of the Sounders, and the Atlanta Silverbacks. The Sounders were given a de facto promotion to MLS shortly after that match, where they've led the league in attendance, made the playoffs every year since joining the league, and also won the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup every year since joining MLS. Meanwhile, the Silverbacks have struggled both on and off the field, even going inactive for two seasons while the USL First Division endured a rebellion by several clubs (the Silverbacks being one of them) which led to the creation of a new second-division (according to FIFA - soccer's international governing body - MLS is the First Division league for both the US and Canada, and USL-1 was merely the top flight of that organization) league that took on the mantle of North America's previous top professional soccer league, the North American Soccer League, while the USL dropped out of the second-division altogether, and took the USL-1 clubs that remained and formed the third-division USL Pro League. Here's why I thought the Silverbacks were failing while the Sounders flourished:

Blame Atlanta.

"Atlanta is widely considered the worst pro-sports market in the US in terms of fan support. Even the NFL is second- or third-fiddle to college football and NASCAR there, the Braves and Hawks don’t get noticed until the postseason no matter how well they play, and they’ve given up on the NHL twice. And Atlanta’s previous history with pro soccer is spotty at best – its greatest impact was felt in, of all places, South Africa."

AUTHOR'S NOTE: That effect was the formation of Kaizer Chiefs FC of the South African Premier Soccer League, formed by former Atlanta Chiefs (NASL) player Kaizer Motaung. Ironically enough, another former NASL player from South Africa, Jomo Sono, took inspiration from Motaung's formula, and created Jomo Cosmos FC, who also play in the South African Premier Soccer League.

After Dave responded and asked about all the other minor-league clubs that failed, I came up with this:

"I stated that Atlanta was a terrible market for pro sports of any stripe or spot. But in general, minor-league sports have always been a fly-by-night-affair in North America. Even Minor League Baseball isn't entirely immune. Look at the recent movement in the PCL, with teams moving from Tuscon to Reno, and (thanks to PTFC) Portland to.... somewhere. The San Diego Padres' AAA affiliate is a refugee at this moment, temporarily based in Tuscon while the Padres' owner is shopping the team around after failing to get a stadium built in Escondido.

What can cause a club to fail is pretty straight forward. Let's focus on ownership first. You either have owners with money but no understanding of what they've gotten into (who often spend themselves into oblivion), or they have the understanding, but not enough money to survive in the long run (who run shoestring operations that eventually peter out unless another owner can be found). And unlike major-league sports, the odds of being able to sell a club for a profit is very small.

Then there's the market that club is located in. Is there really enough interest in that area to sustain a full- or semi-professional squad? In the South there are pockets of interest large enough to support PDL, USL-PRO and NASL sides, including some with significant history (like the resurrected Tampa Bay Rowdies) and with good money (like Orlando City SC and Fort Lauderdale Strikers - the latter being owned by the American division of the Brazilian sports-media conglomerate Traffic) but is there really enough interest to sustain the sport at that specific level for the long term?

The landscape is littered with the remains of failed minor-league soccer clubs - anyone remember the Columbus/Ohio Xoggz, for example? The problem is that the game itself still needs to be sold to populaces that still don't quite get the idea of professional soccer at any level, let alone the grassroots level needed to support and develop the future generations of talent. And even now there's still some hostility towards the game - google 'soccer + socialism' if you think I'm kidding."

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