NASL Commish Peterson: NASL Not a Minor League – BigShot Q&A

NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson says NASL is growing its own global identity and isn’t anything less than a major American soccer league
by Herb Scribner   |   Friday, August 16, 2013

Bill Peterson - Commissioner of NASL

Bill Peterson is currently the commissioner of the North American Soccer League, which is the second tier of the American soccer pyramid and name after the famous NASL that existed from 1968-1984. Peterson has previously worked with MLS and the NFL, serving as the president of NFL Europe. He also served in management roles at the Home Depot Center.

Key points:

- Peterson said the NASL is looking to build its own global idenity and forge its own path away from MLS and other soccer leagues.

- The NASL is focused on westward expansion and doesn't plan on anymore eastern teams until finished in the West.

- NASL adopted fall and spring seasons because it would identify with soccer's global connection.

How do you look at minor league soccer as a whole in America? Between the NASL, USL , etc., there’s a bunch of different leagues in the soccer pyramid. Are there too many leagues? Do you wish it could be more concise?

BP: Did you say minor league soccer? I wouldn’t consider [the NASL] as minor league soccer. We’re not involved in any of that and we’re not interested in being involved with other teams. We look at ourselves as a competitive league that represents professional soccer in the communities within it and we’re going to continue to grow this league as big as we can.

We worry about growing the league; we worry about improving our rosters and getting as good as we can possibly be. We’re not worried about any of the other leagues. It’s a big country. We go about our own business and make decisions that are best for NASL.

The USL and NASL are quite “competitive” with each other, to put it mildly. The issues between the 2 leagues can’t be good for soccer. What can be done to improve the relations between the leagues and ultimately the greater good of North American soccer?

BP: Where we’re going as a league is completely different from where they’re going. We’ve got ownership groups that are really focused on building a solid league. We’re clearly separated and different not only in stature, but also in direction.

MLS now puts its players and reserve teams in USL PRO (the 3rd division below NASL). Do you feel playing reserve teams may erode the appeal by fans of independent clubs like Rochester, Charleston and Orlando? Or do fans not care?

BP: It’s apples and oranges. I’d say there’d be some minor league soccer teams that’ll do fine [with that model]. That’s for each individual owner to decide and if that’s the model they’re looking for or not, I don’t really comment on it. I know our guys – that’s not of interest of them. They’re more interested in growing a competitive professional soccer league.

Is the goal to compete with MLS or is it to work alongside it? Do you speak with Don Garber (Commissioner of MLS) and Tim Holt (President of USL), regularly?

BP: Don’t take this the wrong way – we don’t have goals that include Major League Soccer in it in any form. We only focus on business and growing our business and doing things we need to do to improve ourselves and play at the highest levels.

Would you like to see MLS, NASL and USL implement promotion and relegation between the leagues one day? If so, how long would that be from now?

BP: There is no discussion about the future as it relates to those leagues doing anything together. I’ve gone on record before that when the time’s right and there’s something to talk about, then Don and I are smart enough to go and do that. For now, they’re focused on their business and we’re focused on ours.

Is the NASL making any moves at integrating with the NPSL to form an umbrella/pyramid structure of its own similar to how the USL has USL PRO with the PDL and younger/amateur leagues below it? If not, why not?

BP: I don’t want to say never. We’re focused now on some other things that are priorities. At some point, if it seems to make sense to talk to other leagues about the relationship that would somehow benefit what we’re trying to accomplish, then we’ll surely have those conversations and see where to go. It’s not something a part of our strategy that we’re focused on.

You’re celebrating the return of the New York Cosmos this year. What does this club mean to your league and American soccer overall? Will they push the NASL to a new level of notoriety, competition and legitimacy?

BP: It definitely helps. The Cosmos in the NASL have a great legacy [and] we wrap our arms around that legacy. We’re very proud to carry that legacy. We want to revive those memories of those who were fans of the 70s and 80s. And at the same time, we’re not trying to replicate what happened then, we’re looking to build our own legacy. It’s a little bit of a balancing act, but it’s fun. There’s nothing negative about what happened in the past. It’s a real honor.

The Cosmos have done a great job of bringing that team back. The Cosmos really are a club. They really have the full club feel to it. It’s just fun to watch because it’s going to be very successful, it’s going to be very exciting and they’re making all the right moves there, and it’s fun.

Expansion has been a hot topic as of late. What areas and specific – across North America – are you looking expand to? Do you place extra emphasis on former NASL markets like Calgary-St. Louis-San Diego-etc not currently in MLS? How do you plan to expand NASL westward?

BP: We’re definitely focused on westward expansion. We’re a little bit East Coast heavy. I wouldn’t replace any of the teams we have, but we really don’t need to put any more teams in the East before we expand westward.

Those cities that were a part of NASL in the past are strong soccer markets. We don’t have a firm timeline or expansion count we have to hit in a certain number of years. Whenever we find the right owners, and we find the right cities, and everything aligns, we look at bringing those teams onboard. When the time is right, and we feel really good about it, we’ll continue to expand.

Both the NASL and USL PRO have teams in Tampa, the Rowdies obviously much more successful. There were recently announcements by USL PRO and later NASL that both leagues would have expansion teams in Oklahoma City. How do you think that will play out – don’t you think this will confuse and ultimately hurt the chances for any pro soccer as both are likely not to thrive, certainly not thrive? Are we at the point where US Soccer needs to write a roadmap for North American pro soccer expansion – so all 3 top leagues don’t step on each other’s toes through expansion as we’ve seen in Tampa, OKC & other cities?

BP: There’s enough of a difference between the two leagues that the fans will be able to figure that out and they’ll support who they want to support. We have 100% confidence they’re going to be successful there. We’re not worried what other people are doing, what other leagues are doing. I’m not worried about our team there one bit. I’m very confident they’ll be very successful.

I don’t think US Soccer needs to step in, I don’t think there’s a problem really, and I think this will all work out in time.

MLS just publicly said they want to get to 24 teams by 2020. About a year ago, NASL was looking to reach 20 teams by 2020. Is that still the goal today or has that changed?

BP: We don’t have a hard number. There were people who talked about 18 by 2018 and 20 by 2020, but we don’t have a hard number we need to get to. We don’t see any warning signs that are troubling right now. We know there are plenty of other cities capable of holding a professional soccer team. If at some point in time we think there’s a reason to reevaluate that plan, then we would.

My own personal opinion is: Let’s get 16 teams and reevaluate what we’re doing and not expand too quickly. I see no troubling signs or no reason to think the right number isn’t 18 or 20 or 24. I think it’s hard to predict what the right number is. We will expand when we have the right owners and the right cities and we’ll go from there.

Will NASL expansion eventually have a mandatory stipulation in place that potential owners need a soccer specific stadium (SSS) completed, deal or plan in place to receive a franchise?

BP: We don’t make that a requirement for ownership. But obviously when you look around our league with San Antonio and Virginia and Ottawa already in process with New York looking at a stadium, and at least 1 or 2 other teams looking at stadiums of their own, I think the owners coming into the league that knows the fans deserve their own facility. I think they’re committed to getting that done and it’s better for the league and that’s more of a reason to get it done.

I can tell you everyone we’re talking to has it in their plans for the first few years.

You interact with fans a lot on Twitter, unlike many other sports commissioners. What things have you learned about your fans/clubs/culture from doing such?

BP: Fans are very passionate. It’s been a great relationship and that’s what this is about. Everything we do is focused on improving the fan experience. They’re our greatest asset. Sometimes it’s just being funny and other times it’s serious. The whole social media movement is about having a two-way conversation. I try to have a two-way conversation with the people who participate. We learn things from our fans every day.

They’ve already had a significant impact in this league. If you look at some of the things we’ve implemented, that was driven by the people on the ground, by the fans. Spring/fall seasons, not playing in the World Cup, not having playoffs, participating in a single table. That’s things that fans from this part of the world have asked for. We’re committed to having two-way conversations and getting their opinions.

For me it’s fun to hear from them, even when it’s negative. It’s neat to interact with them.

Do you think more work needs to be done by the NASL and its clubs to further back their Supporter Groups? If so, what would that be?

BP: Our teams know there’s still a lot of work to be done … in developing their own relationship with their fans. At a club, you always want to have a special relationship with the supporters. As the club or owner, you want to manage those sizes or levels of fandom, and our guys know there’s work to be done. They’re starting to do work with it, there’s always work done. You should never stop thinking about your fans and what you can do improve their experience and make sure they’re enjoying themselves.

How important are regional rivalries or derbies to the growth of NASL?

BP: I love rivalries, I think it’s great for teams and leagues. But at the same time, I don’t think you can manufacture them. I don’t think you should try to create a rivalry that has a weak link and then all of a sudden that’s more of a problem than the rivalry is a bonus. You can’t manipulate things, you can’t manufacture, it has to happen. It’s a little bit more difficult here in North America. As much as we’d love to see people rivaling each other, it’s tough to do that.

The NASL is back in gear with its fall season, having just finished its spring season. The two winners will meet in the Soccer Bowl. This Latin American style format has received criticism, as many worry that a top team from one season could bottom-out in the second season and create an odd final. Why will this format work in North America? If it seems to not work, would you consider changing it back to a more traditional format?

BP: It starts with recognizing the sport is a global game and we want to align with the global game as close as we can. I think a professional soccer fan wants a league that resembles some of the leagues they follow on television. And for us, if we’re going to participate globally and grow the way we want to grow … then the spring and fall season makes complete sense.

It’s very hard to go out and win and reach the top of the table when there’s not any playoffs.

The risk of a team winning in the spring and falling off in the fall is the same odds as any other team in any other system running into some injuries in a bad month. Once you’ve won the spring, your next goal is to win the championship. And in order to do that, you have to stay on the edge. And if you’re not the winner in the fall, that means another team … is on top of their game. Everything you accomplish earlier in the year is done for naught. I don’t think you’ll see that happen. It’s important to get to the championship game on the top of your game. I don’t worry about that. I’ve been around enough coaches and athletes and they don’t think like that.

We talk to our coaches and players and they’ll tell you the same thing. We love the system, we’re making the most out of it with the weather windows we have and I don’t see us ever changing it. We’re not interested in being a typical American sports league.

Fans in this country are pretty sophisticated and passionate and recognize how the game is organized in the rest of the world. And we agreed. It’s a global game and we want to be a part of the global game.

NASL recently announced its break will accommodate for the 2014 World Cup. What was the reasoning that went into this?

BP: Our promises to our fans were that we were going to have a spring and fall season, we would have a transfer window, we would respect the FIFA World Cup and we would be consistent. So when we started looking at 2014 and how to honor those pillars, you’re put in a unique situation for one year only when you’re forced to have a short spring season and you come back and have a longer fall season. It’s going to be interesting, but the fans need to understand that we built the schedule around the pillars we know were important to them. What we came up with was the best for 2014.

Can TV ratings for soccer leagues in North America realistically rise to the place they need to be to raise the game, before the teams sell-out their stadiums consistently? How can we pack these stadiums, SSS or otherwise?

BP: Filling your stadium is about, in our case, promoting exciting matches and the high quality of play that we have. TV relates to that point where we’re hoping by 2014 all of our away games will be broadcasted back to home markets.

I think, personally, it’s more important to have relevant competition and to have exciting matches week-in and week-out and have a production level that’s exciting and pleasing to watch. I think those things are more important for ratings than the actual stadiums and being full. I think if you have players playing hard and scoring goals and fighting for 90 minutes every week, then I think people who are going to watch on television are going to come when they realize each game matters. That covers your reputation growth and when you have the right broadcast partnerships, which is what we’re evaluating right now.

It’s really going to be important to have a partner versus just being on TV. That doesn’t accomplish anything really. We’ve got to find people who believe in the sport and are going to showcase it in exciting ways.

What does a successful season for the NASL look like in 2013? What does it look like in 2023?

BP: This year is sort of a benchmark year for me personally. Beginning back in April, we set some marks for a finishing point and we’d like to see all the metrics we’re measuring all move in the positive manner.

You look out past 2020, we want a league that is financially successful, that is competitive with any other league in the world. We want a league that has a global following, we want to be a part of the global soccer economy in 2020. We have a lot work to do, but we’ll just have to work towards those goals and see where we end up.

Each and every morning we get up and keep working at this. We believe in this sport. And we believe in the professional soccer fans in this country and we try to deliver them something they’ll be excited about and proud to be associated with. And when we do that, things will happen.

We’re trying to keep things simple and we’re trying to work really hard, trying to keep fans at the forefront of this. We believe in the professional soccer fan in this part of the world. It means we still have work to do, and we’re not afraid of work, and we’ll see how it all pans out.


UMass Amherst
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SN managing editor and award-winning journalist, Herb has always been known as "The Soccer Guy" wherever he goes. He's a leftback in most outdoor and indoor leagues. He also writes for Deseret News National.