Multiple NPSL owners favor full-season play
Back in May, an exclusive interview with NPSL director Joe Barone revealed that the NPSL was looking to imminently institute full-season play. Since that time, a lot has changed in the American soccer stratosphere, including the possibility of two Division 3 leagues, litigation surrounding the instituting of promotion-relegation, etc.
Soc Takes was interested in identifying NPSL owners who believed in the idea of full-season play. Via phone calls and emails, we realized that an overwhelming majority — but not all — owners we spoke to were interested in the idea. However, all of them, for now, remain unsure of the details of the plan.
Nipun Chopra: Why is full-season play a good idea for your team?
Dennis Crowley (Kingston Stockade FC owner): If you look at larger conversation about D4 and possibly promotion. Is there a growth strategy for rest of the pyramid? This puts us on the same calendar as rest of the pyramid. Solving this issue at the D4 level is the key to connecting different pieces of pyramid. Think it’s a great idea. It’s something league needs to pull off. It’s just a complicated problem. There’s a solution. We would love to do this in 2018, but as of today haven’t figured out a way to do that yet.
Nick Mendola (FC Buffalo co-owner): This is a good idea, provided that we are allowed to have an extended roster that allows us access to players for at least part of the season. It is difficult for a team to exist and build up a fan base to become a prime player in their community with just a 3-month season. I think at some level, you need more games. We have an incredible fan base and I consider them even more amazing for their commitment to us, given short number of games.
We are aggressively pursuing every opportunity we have to play games in the fall/winter whenever. You’re able to ask for money from sponsorship. I was in a band that played shows. What we did was, we saved money and used our vacation days for as many shows as possible. I’ve always found that connection between DIY band life and non-MLS soccer. You want to be in a league that is exploring new ideas.
Jonathan Wardlow (Little Rock Rangers president): Our fan base want a longer season, and we also have some players that would like to play an extended season. I wonder if the quality of play will drop off once it is just local players left. We are in a unique situation since we have a really big stadium at our disposal where we are largely the only tenant. The state is really wanting us to be the anchor, so they would like us to have a longer season so we can support the stadium.
Sonny Dalesandro (Tulsa Athletics chairman): From the money side of it, it’s difficult to be successful because some teams only play six times all season. Have to look at alternatives. It needs to happen for entertainment and revenue. The fans deserve more than a crammed 10-week season.
Douglas Heizer (Boca Raton FC owner): This is not a good idea for our team.
Aaron Sarwar (Hartford City FC owner): Firstly, I hate the title “amateur.” Our fans view us as professional and we consider the team to be professionally run. The plan is to go pro in the near future. We had a phenomenal season- the team made the playoffs and we had full stands with two matches being standing room only. I can, without a doubt say that if the season was longer our numbers would have continued to grow. When you invest so much into your brand and team, it is difficult to keep the momentum when you only have six regular season home matches. We averaged about 900 for attendance and you have to take into consideration that we had two matches with uncooperative weather. So we truly had only four good home matches — that’s tough.
Phoday Dolleh (Atlanta Silverbacks co-owner): For us, we consider the club as a professional club. We have around six players who have played in the NASL. We want to keep that professionality around, and keep the club at that standards. So, it’s important for our fan that are used to a full-season. Playing just 3 months isn’t the best situation for fans or our players. We want to have mix of young player – develop them and move them on. I was the guy who helped develop Poku, and i want to do that again. We want to keep that standard.
David Satterwhite (Dayton Dynamo FC owner): The extended season is a must move. For several reasons. 1) it’s near impossible to stay relevant in your market when you play less than 3 months out of the year. 2) It’s a massive commitment to ask of fans or potential fans to commit to 10 home games in 2 months. 3) near impossible to market for us, especially since we have a very difficult market as the Crew & FC Cincy is only an hour apart from Dayton Both are MLS level fan experiences both are fighting for market share in Dayton.
Bilal Saeed (AFC Ann Arbor FC co-owner): At this level, in a league with so many teams, you’ll find different clubs have different goals and different ways of measuring success. But the common thing we all share is our pure love for the game and passion for our respective clubs so I think we’d all enjoy playing more games, having a longer season and just spending more time doing what we love. And there’s a lot of good things that could come from that but currently, I think the cons still outweigh the pros.
Tim Sas (Duluth FC owner): The terribly short season currently employed by NPSL is limiting on a number of levels: player health, player development, scheduling, fan relations, and it certainly isn’t helpful for business relations.
Dan Hoedeman (Minneapolis City SC co-founder): We are trying to grow–and that will be helped by more home games and time in-season to attract fans. We finished our season on a Wednesday with our biggest crowd ever and it felt too early to be finished. Fall season will help with that.
Renato Valentim (Boston City FC owner): A full season more in line with the traditional soccer calendar here in the US brings legitimacy to the league and its teams. We want to offer our fans a full calendar of matches at a time when they want and expect to watch soccer. A longer season will of course create more home matches and therefore more opportunities for us to build on our relationship with the local community, our supporters and our partners. It also opens the door to more potential partners.
Chopra: What sort of financial burden/difficulties will this place on the team?
Crowley: Short season works for lot of teams because we can use college players. By moving to a longer season, you’re asking guys to train a lot more. A lot of them would expect a lot of compensation; that’s an expense. The NPSL works so well because there are so many teams. The moment you start saying there are only ½ or 1/3rd as many teams, it increases driving distances, overnight stays. Then it becomes hard to predict those costs.
Mendola: Presumably there will be a lower number of teams competing. I don’t think all of the teams within driving distance from us will have the appetite for it. So, I’m assuming that we’ll have to drive eight-hour distances for away games; that triples your cost. Hopefully, you make up for that with extended revenue. There is no industry in soccer/entertainment that has teams in businesses under their thumb than bus companies.
Wardlow: As I mentioned, the quality of players is far behind; that’s the reason I started the team was to improve local soccer. If this league idea doesn’t pan out, we’re going to try to pick up friendlies. We have pretty good crowds, so I don’t think we’ll lose any money. We bought our own bus, so we’ll only play for gas, so travel shouldn’t be a big issue. We should be able to break even on a Fall season.
Dalesandro: What needs to happen is a conversation with NCAA. The way things stand, we are heavily reliant on college players. You get to the playoffs, and you start losing college athletes to ‘captain’s practice’. We need to know what the rules are from NCAA. Having very real conversations with NCAA about how long we can keep our players; and adapt our business model to that.
From market to market, a longer season represents the inability to plug in college players. For Tulsa, we have a very rich soccer history, we’re not going to have access to former pros who are two months of fitness away from being hig-level players. So we would have to up our scouting. Player pool for a market our size wouldn’t be able to compete with NY or SoCal.
Sarwar: It definitely will be asking more from the players but at the end of the day they love to play. The beauty of the NPSL is that they play with heart and it shows. In terms of the financial burden, teams that are looking to grow and truly spread roots in the communities they represent shouldn’t (we don’t) see the extended season as a burden but as the key to meeting these goals. We were fortunate to have Henkel Corp, Budweiser, Armstrong Rockwell Jewelry, Specialty Transportation, 1SoccerStore.com and others graciously support the team and with the extended season I am sure that the support will only grow.
So for us the extended season is a welcome and necessary change to keep the momentum going through the year representing the great city of Hartford on a national level. We are only in our inaugural year but I am so grateful of the NPSL. The beauty of the NPSL is the respect given to all of the teams. Those who want to sit out of the extended season will be able to do so. It truly is a special league in which we all sit down and work things out. With that and knowing the amount of interest – there is no doubt that we will have a much longer season next year.
Dolleh: When players cannot get paid, it’s difficult to motivate them for that long. There’s no prize to shoot for.
Satterwhite: Financial burden not really as we would reduce the amount of games we play in the summer if we can get a total of 15 home games. The difficulties are another story. Finding players is one. College players are the best talent that are not pro. These players could not participate in the fall. So you either have a completely different team in 2nd half of the season or you move away from college players in full.
Saeed: The financial burden is really unknown without clear expectations of travel costs and other major variables such as attendance, venue availability and so on. With so many unknowns, the risk is higher and the model that so many teams have adopted has to be remixed or redone. Teams that primarily use college players, like ours, would be an even riskier position because they could potentially have to explore paying players and forfeiting amateur status. For AFCAA, rethinking our entire model at this point doesn’t make sense.
Sas: Surely there would be increased costs with an increase in the number of matches and increased travel, but we feel it would be easier to mitigate then the highly compressed schedule we have now.
Hoedeman: Given our location here in the far north, we may be looking at a scenario where we will need to find a significantly more expensive indoor location for some games. Also, we are unsure exactly what the geographic footprint would be so we could be looking at increased. travel costs. That said, we’ve been able to align our costs and revenues for home-and-home sets, so I expect that we will be able to be financially successful with the extended season like we were this summer.
Valentim: We would expect the income from increased partnerships to offset some costs, but naturally playing more matches and traveling more often, and probably further afield, brings financial challenges. The bottom line is that a club increasing its profile by being active for more months of the year should also increase its revenues. Our players are all frustrated when the season ends and there is such a long gap until we resume. At some point, you have to make a move forward.
Chopra: Will your team continue to operate as an amateur team?
Crowley: It can still be amateur. The spring team will be a lot stronger than the fall team.
Mendola: It depends. We would look to NPSL for guidance here. In theory, we would like to stay amateur. I can say that when I speak to Joe Barone, he’s always asking questions and thinking of new solutions. I do love that players working with us are committed to improving themselves for their college fall season. There’s a romanticism to it that I like.
Wardlow: Yes, we wouldn’t pay any of the current guys. I can see per diem for travel, but not salaries.
Dalesandro: For our club, we definitely recognize the importance of the NPSL in a bigger picture. I don’t see a scenario where NPSL component to our club where we develop players.
Sarwar: Answered in first answer. Please don’t call us amateur.
Dolleh: It depends. We have a great ambition and want to keep playing at the higher level in this community.
Satterwhite: That is the million dollar question. I am under the belief that it must be some sort of pro. We have done the amateur player route in Cincy and it was not successful from play on the field or off-field success in selling tickets, sponsorship etc.
Sas: Yes, for the foreseeable future. Duluth is a fairly small metro area which isn’t likely to support a full professional side.
Hoedeman: That is our plan, at least in the short term.
Valentim: We operate professionally with staff who devote many hours to making Boston City a success. In terms of our players, we already train every day in addition to match days, so that would be increased over a longer period. They are professional in their conduct and commitment and that is what it takes to be a part of this club.
Chopra: How many teams in your would division be involved?
Crowley: Maybe Boston? I would like to do, it’s on my wishlist. Teams in CT have seen lots of success. Every time we have a home game, we are generating revenue, more games is good for us.
Mendola: I’d love to be in a league, but I don’t know how many. I’d like to play at least another ten games. People will be grateful to have more games; I know there will probably be growing pains.
Wardlow: No, I know of other teams have reserved squads. I think we can pick up 4-5 opponents, even if there is no formal league structure.
Dalesandro: There are teams that run very good clubs. I would hate to single anyone out. I’d like to take the position that any team that has their shit together can have options.
Sarwar: In the Atlantic alone there is strong interest from several teams. If the NPSL with 96+ teams, the largest league in the nation has a fraction of the teams join we would still be larger than most other leagues. Interestingly, with teams signed on we almost had a fall season materialize for this year. I am confident we will have a great long season next year.
Dolleh: Yeah, we have our owner’s meeting in Florida in December. We discussed this before and there was a lot of interest. Not from everybody, but many teams. There are clubs out there that have 90% college players, so it isn’t for them.
Satterwhite: I actually have no idea how many teams in our conference are participating if any.
Saeed: I’m really not sure. I couldn’t name one club that is at this point but I also haven’t spoken to many about it.
Sas: All eight of the clubs in the NPSL North Conference prefer a longer season but some are still dependent on college players. NCAA rules limit their participation severely.
Hoedeman: I am not sure. Best to ask Tim Sas, the conference liaison, who has a tendency to work behind the scenes on things like this.
Valentim: We have not discussed this with other clubs, but you only have to look at the success and ambition of clubs in the Northeast Atlantic Conference to expect they would want to continue to be among the top clubs in the NPSL.
Chopra: What would happen to non-involved teams?
Crowley: The logistics aren’t clear here.
Sarwar: You can be certain that with an extended season the momentum behind the NPSL will only continue to grow.
Dolleh: I think it remains mostly the same for them. In their case, you don’t have to play the full season.
Chopra: Any other comments?
Wardlow: I think it’s in the league’s best interest to do it. The problem is that the teams are so reliant on college players right now though, that it’s difficult. It might take a couple of years to get this going, but it is for the good of the sport, the league and various communities.
Dalesandro: We’re interested in doing what’s best for our market, including looking at NISA, but we want to make sure it makes sense. As long as it is economically viable, I’d like to think we are one of the aggressive teams in the league.
Dolleh: I’m a soccer guy, I love the game, I’m very very impressed with how the game is growing in this country. I was born and raised in Liberia and played second division and third division. I would love to see something like that. As big as GA is, we only have 2 NPSL and a couple of PDL teams. All the counties are capable of having a pro team. I love to see the game growing and community involvement.
Satterwhite: There is a need to get away from using college players for our clubs. It limits our clubs ability to operate from a marketing perspective, level of play perspective, inflated rosters to handle the rigorous summer schedule & many more.
Saeed: Like I said, organizations at this level tend to measure success differently so I’m thrilled for the teams that can adjust their model to make this work. For Ann Arbor, we have a pretty clear vision for our club which at the moment doesn’t include an extended season.
Sas: My personal opinion is that an extended season needs to be evolving along with an increased level of professionalism in club operations. This may require further discussion that may be best at another time.
Hoedeman: Also, we are not going to play fall season this year but we are enthusiastic supporters of it if the NPSL can get the geographic footprint to work for us. To take the NPSL–and clubs like ours, with a fan base and run like a business–to the next level, an extended season is critical. The trick is building out the conferences in a way that makes sense geographically, at least for a club like ours in a surprisingly isolated-from-other-major-cities city like Minneapolis.
Valentim: There is a disparity in the NPSL between clubs, which is not to criticize those who do not aspire to progress, but means that there is a need for a division for ambitious clubs. We would like to join that top group in helping to raise the profile of the NPSL and improve its standing on the soccer landscape.
You can follow Nipun on Twitter: @NipunChopra7.
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