President Obama: Help Open U.S. Club Soccer. Then Watch It Grow.

Ted Westervelt@@soccerreformContributor IJune 5, 2009

Dear President Obama:

I am writing you today in praise of your efforts to land the 2018 World Cup, and to offer some free, albeit unsolicited advice, on a surefire way to enhance your bid, grow American club soccer, and open the future of the sport in the United States:  Publicly endorse the opening of our leagues. 

Please speak out against the global isolation that has been imposed on our club soccer.   Help free investors to form clubs with unlimited futures, inspire communities all over the country to reach for glory and an opportunity to boost their local economies.  

Americans Understand Free and Open Competition

Remember that time during your 2008 campaign when you publicly suggested reform in NCAA College Football by advancing a playoff system to determine a national champion?  Sure it riled up those BCS guys, but I am certain it was a vote getter.  What could be more commonsensical than a performance based system to determine the national champions via a kind of “Champions League” of college football?  

I was mildly upset that you didn’t turn your guns on NCAA College Soccer in an effort to bring them more into line with the global model, but that’s for another letter ;)

The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, running a similar model to the one you supported for football, has become a seminal moment on our sports calendar.  Tens of millions of Americans tune in—many of whom did not watch a minute of college basketball during the regular season.  Television networks are happy to plunk down tens of millions of dollars on the event in multi-year contracts—despite having virtually no idea if the top media markets will be represented in any given tournament. 

I think this is direct evidence that Americans appreciate the drama of performance-based promotion to this series of games.  Often, the most memorable moments are made by a scrappy group of underdogs, on their first trip to the show in a decade or two, bucking the odds to beat a national powerhouse.  Had you heard of Gonzaga 15 years ago?   Don’t worry, few of us out of the Mount St. Helens blast zone had. 

Americans can and do embrace the cutthroat, sink or swim, performance-based model for sports, just like they do for all those reality TV shows.   Whether it’s getting kicked off the island, having your talents dismissed by Simon Cowell, or being eliminated from the tournament by a buzzer beating hurl from way beyond the arc, they appreciate the drama, the reality.   It’s true to life. 

And they don’t need to know two months beforehand who will even play in the 64 team tournament.

Free Our Clubs to Decide Their Own Future

Point here is to bring U.S. club soccer into the global fold by embracing one of the core tenants of the universal success of the beautiful game: the open league model.   Sixty teams in three national divisions, all competing for promotion, fighting against relegation, and striving for international glory.   I have to assume that, with all of your international experience, you understand it’s basic tenants:  Participation in every level of a multi-tiered system is based on team performance.  Period.  

Unlike the franchise system universal to all pro sports on this side of the pond, participation in the top league isn’t decided by a small group of league executives/team owners armed with piles of self interest and reams of media market analysis—only after a prospective league entrant comes to the table with tens of millions of dollars in a metal briefcase (OK, maybe not always in a briefcase).  Instead, in the open system, every club from Manhattan island to Manhattan Kansas is offered a chance at glory. 

If a club finishes at the top of one league one season, it moves up a league the next.   Simple, elegant, fair and like the rules that most Americans operate under in their daily lives.

Most importantly to us believers in an open league for U.S. club soccer, the model  integrates us with the soccer world and opens the future of our clubs.   We don’t want integration because we want to take tea and crumpets every day at 10 a.m. guzzle beer for a few days in October in our lederhosen, don’t put ice in our Coca Cola, or are constantly aggravated by the fact that Luca Toni plays in Germany. 

Far from Europhiles, we believe that Major League Soccer, through their attempts at achieving parity within the closed franchise system, combined with a deep belief in an untapped market niche between gigaplex goers and mini-golf pros, have artificially defined quality of play, and put an artificial ceiling on our top clubs.

Although intriguing, I’m not arguing this model be adopted by every pro sport in the United States.   As the undisputed top leagues in their respective sports the world with an overwhelmingly domestic schedule of competition, the NFL, and to lesser degrees MLB, NBA and NHL have room to manage the affairs of their clubs in a way that governs quality of play.  

Our club soccer does not enjoy these luxuries.  The closed league franchise model depends on intensive league management to raise the level of underperforming teams, and limit the level of play of top performing teams.  This management manifests itself in player drafts, salary caps, and minimum player salaries all justified in order to enforce relative parity. 

In our other pro sport leagues, their global predominance established and shielded from international competition, the effects of this management are negligible.  By imposing parity on our top league thru traditional local methods MLS, handicaps clubs on a very fundamental level.  Judging by the recent results in the CONCACAF Champions League, MLS now sits as far down the list of leagues in the world as it has ever been—and the franchise model is the lead culprit. 

By artificially managing quality of play through traditional American measures to insure relative parity, MLS has put an artificial ceiling on the development of every club in the top league.  As a result, U.S. clubs in these competitions have suffered many recent defeats.

As long as we are on the topic, calling the MLS a franchise system is a bit of a misnomer.  Technically, it’s more of a corporation—or hyperfranchise.    In one revealing way, MLS treats it’s players more like Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey treat their performers than the NFL treats it’s players:  The league writes their paychecks, not their club.   I had a boss who used to ask me, when I protested too much,  “who signs your paychecks?”   Point always taken.  

Free American Soccer and Watch it Grow

Perhaps most importantly to this open league supporter:  The MLS hyperfranchise model inhibits development of American soccer.  Unlike the vast majority of the soccer world, the second and third divisions of our club soccer pyramid, USL 1 and 2, are severed from the first division (MLS).  In most of the industrialized world, at least two vibrant divisions exist under the first division, their clubs striving to reach the top of the pyramid through promotion, or to avoid going down a level through relegation. 

These clubs, their futures unlimited by the open league model, have supporter bases rivaling some top division clubs.   Despite the fact that some great soccer is played in our lower divisions, arguably better than MLS at times, this disconnection puts a permanent damper on investors seeking to bring a club into our lower divisions, and thereby governs the growth of our lower leagues. 

Opening our leagues will grow American soccer exponentially.  Freed from the exorbitant MLS entry fee and franchise entry qualifications and with club futures newly unlimited, investors will leap at the chance to form new clubs.  The scramble to fill USL 1 and 2 will show the leading edge, but to challenge for spots in each.   

Supporters, empowered by their clubs unlimited future, would increase in passion and numbers.   Local communities would draw together to support clubs and clubs would provide a real measure of growth to local communities.   

As the number of active clubs rises and rosters expand, the demand for players will rise.   Many high school athletes and youth soccer players from all over the nation will be exposed to soccer in their local communities for the first time.   We will finally be able to build that bridge between soccer moms, soccer kids, and club soccer.  

And that’s a bridge to somewhere: Tens of new clubs, tens of thousands of new supporters, tens of millions of dollars in new investments, and ten times the excitement.

Most Sincerely

Ted Westervelt


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