BigShot Q&A: NASL Commissioner – David DownsColumnist Herb Scribner interviews NASL commissioner David Downs, who recently received a contract extension
by Herb Scribner | Wednesday, February 29, 2012
David Downs is currently the commissioner of the North American Soccer League, which is the second tier of the American soccer pyramid and named after the famous NASL that existed from 1968 – 1984. Downs served as the Executive Director of the USA Bid Committee, which sought to make the U.S. host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Downs previously worked in broadcasting with both ABC and Univision.
Since you took over the NASL, have there been any big surprises, positive or negative, on the job? Is the league where you expected it to be at this point?
DOWNS: There were very few surprises either way in our first year, and certainly none that I would consider “big.” I would say that I was quite pleasantly surprised by the quality of play across the board in the NASL – it is fast, physical soccer with high technical skill level.
Though the NASL is technically the second division of American soccer, some consider the United Soccer Leagues’ USL Pro almost on par with it. Would you agree with that? What about the NASL, in your opinion, makes it the second division of American soccer?
DOWNS: The NASL is the only league recognized by the USSF as second division for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that we have met, or exceeded, very rigorous standards established by the USSF for quality of our owner groups and capacity of our stadiums. Last year’s attendance figures (we averaged 3,799 per game) were significantly higher than the average USL Pro announced attendance and I also believe that the quality of play in the NASL was demonstrably better than that of the lower divisions. That’s not to say that there aren’t a couple of strong USL Pro teams that might make the case to move up to Division 2, but I feel that the NASL has achieved a consistent standard both on and off the field for all of its teams.
One of the strongest NASL clubs, the Montreal Impact, is joining MLS this year. Does that hurt or help the NASL in the short and long-term? Did you feel like it was time for them to take that next step up into MLS?
DOWNS: We will miss their contribution to the league as well as the leadership of their owner, Joey Saputo, but are extremely proud that yet another D-2 team is making a step up to MLS. They have earned that privilege, and we’d feel the same about any other NASL team making a similar move. We also feel that the San Antonio Scorpions, who begin play in the NASL this April, are going to be a fantastic replacement for Montreal and prove to be a very successful addition to the league.
Can you describe the relationship between the MLS and NASL? What would you like to see improved or changed between the two leagues in the future?
DOWNS: We have an extremely cordial and cooperative (yet unofficial) relationship with MLS, with counterparts from the two league’s staffs in frequent communication. We also interact at the team level, especially involving player movement. Ideally, we’d like to see greater participation from MLS, on an official basis, in the building of an even better second division that would enable even more top North American players to strengthen their game.
Would you be OK if a top NASL club every season or more joined the MLS if both parties were ready for such a move? Are most of your NASL owners content with staying in the NASL or is their long-term hope to move up to the MLS?
DOWNS: As a fan of the game, I’d love to see a system of promotion and relegation between the leagues. But as a realist, I have to concede that there are some business issues that would make this impractical. I think it will better serve teams like Montreal to have had a year or more to get their team, their staff, their stadium, and even their fan base prepared for the move up.
Do you ever see there being a relegation system in American soccer, where MLS is the top league, NASL right below it, and so on down the line? What do you feel is the biggest thing standing in the way of such a move? Would you even want it to happen?
DOWNS: Someday it may happen, and if the conditions [were] right, I would love to see it happen. I think the biggest issue is that we have a vast country with less than one pro soccer team in each of our top 25 markets so that not being guaranteed to stay in MLS despite having made massive investments to develop the fan base in a particular market is a risk most current MLS owners would not want to undertake.
In the long-term, what would be the maximum number of clubs in the NASL?
DOWNS: We intend to remain a true North American league rather than a group of regional leagues, so we feel that our goal of 20 teams by the year 2020 is appropriate.
With the success of North American clubs that are embracing fan culture the most like Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, Sporting Kansas City, and Philadelphia Union, do you actively encourage your owners to try to grow their supporters groups with resources, more lenient rules, cheaper tickets, and a voice at the table?
DOWNS: Our teams all have supporters groups, and our owners encourage them. Remarkably, our newest club, San Antonio, [had] three separate supporters groups before even playing a regular season game! We love the atmosphere that they provide at the stadiums, and because of the intimacy of our game-day experience there is plenty of opportunity for these groups to interact with team management.
How did you go about choosing the NASL name? Was it just a simple choice because of the history of the league and the instant recognition that would bring?
DOWNS: The team owners who formed the NASL in 2009 made that decision before I came on board, but I applaud their foresight. Without a doubt the name carries with it many positive memories for our fans, especially in cities like Fort Lauderdale and Tampa where the old NASL’s legend continues to thrive.
The name of the league carries much historical weight. In fact, the name makes more geographic and continuity sense for a top North American soccer league than MLS does. Is there any added pressure that comes with the NASL name? The original NASL was quite popular for a time; does that make it feel like this NASL needs to reach that level?
DOWNS: We certainly respect the heritage of the old NASL and it inspires us to achieve high standards, but of course the state of the sport and our particular circumstances almost 30 years later are vastly different.
Would there ever be a chance the NASL and MLS could merge?
DOWNS: I wouldn’t rule out a business partnership between the two leagues – that’s quite logical, but if this question envisions having a 40-team first division league in North America with NASL and MLS teams playing side by side I’m not certain that would be ideal.
Do you think the current American soccer pyramid, with multiple leagues that have various ownership, numerous youth bodies, and more is confusing to fans?
DOWNS: Casual fans may still have some difficulty sorting out the differences between the leagues and sanctioning organizations, but the establishment of a clear distinction by USSF between the first, second, and third men’s professional divisions, as well as the installation of the Development Academy program at the elite youth level have been hugely positive steps to clearing up any confusion.
Would American soccer be better served if MLS, NASL, USL, and the NPSL were one entity with multiple tiers instead of distinct leagues that in some cases can be seen as rivals?
DOWNS: Possibly, but this is not a likely option in the immediate future.
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?
DOWNS: As long as there are professional soccer players seeking to follow their dream by playing for our teams, and as long as there are soccer fans across the country who are eager to support home town teams in their stadiums, we think there is ample room for the current teams and leagues. If anything, the sport continues to grow dramatically, and we believe that there will be more pro teams ten years from now rather than fewer.
Would MLS exist today if the original NASL didn’t exist and get popular before it?
DOWNS: MLS was formed as a condition of the U.S. hosting the FIFA World Cup™ in 1994, so I have to believe that the answer is a qualified “no.” It’s possible the successes of the old NASL may have helped convince the original MLS owners that their league would succeed as well.
How would American soccer look today if the NASL never went away? If the original NASL remained operational, would it have eventually rivaled the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL?
DOWNS: I think that the NASL shutting down in 1984 led to a pretty dark period in the development of the sport here, but accomplishments of the past two decades in U.S. soccer have been very impressive, and it’s just impossible to say what might have happened had we seen the original NASL entering its 45th season this spring. I suppose you’d have multiple generations of fans of certain teams – that kind of tradition is priceless.
Will an American soccer league ever rival those leagues? Would it have to be the best soccer league in the world to do so?
DOWNS: Certainly many of the world’s best athletes in baseball, basketball and hockey are earning their living in MLB, the NBA, and the NHL. That benefits those leagues in the eyes of their fans and that is not yet fully the case in soccer here. It may be a few years before the best soccer leagues in Europe stop attracting the majority of the world’s best players, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the enormous growth of [the] soccer fan base here won’t propel an American soccer league past one or more of the “big four” in many metrics. In average attendance per game, for example, MLS has recently surpassed both the NBA and the NHL.
Does MLS, NASL, and American soccer leagues’ success rely in the maximization of television revenue?
DOWNS: Broadcast revenue is just one component of league and team success; maximizing ticket revenue, sponsorship revenue and merchandising revenue are equally important.
The new San Antonio Scorpions are breaking ground on their own soccer specific stadium (SSS). Do you feel all NASL clubs should have SSS? At some point, will it be a requirement for NASL expansion clubs – to have a SSS or a plan to build one in place before admission?
DOWNS: Owning and or operating your own stadium is a clear advantage for a club in our league, and I’m really excited about San Antonio’s facility, but it may be a few years before that is a league requirement.
The NASL will be getting a team in Ottawa soon. Do you feel it’s going to help the Canadian fan base? What kinds of things do you look for when you determining where to bring a team?
DOWNS: The history of Canadian market teams at the D-1 and D-2 levels has been quite impressive and we are eager for Ottawa to begin play in the renovated Lansdowne Park complex. The CSA has been a wonderful partner for both us and MLS in encouraging us to include their best teams in their biggest cities.
What markets is NASL looking to for expansion?
DOWNS: The list is currently too long to print here, but in general terms we are looking for large to mid-sized cities that do not currently have pro soccer teams at the D-1, D-2 or D-3 level.
Can there be a club in Fort Lauderdale and Miami in the NASL? Is Orlando the type of market that would work in the NASL or MLS? Do you think Orlando City SC is doing a good job in growing themselves and soccer in Central Florida?
DOWNS: In-state rivalries are good for the teams and their fans, so we are thrilled to have both the Rowdies in Tampa Bay and the Strikers in Fort Lauderdale. The Strikers also serve the Miami area so adding a 3rd NASL team in Florida in downtown Miami might not make the most sense. Orlando had a very solid year last year and should be proud of what they accomplished in USL Pro.
How important are intra-city or regional derbies (like Rowdies-Strikers, Toronto-Montreal, LA Galaxy-Chivas, etc.) to American soccer?
DOWNS: They are important, but not to the exclusion of other goals of a league. For example, we’d like more NASL teams west of the Mississippi before adding a second team in one of our established cities.
Would key TV markets that do very well for soccer broadcasts like San Diego, Austin, or Baltimore, but that are under-represented with MLS or any professional soccer, be targets for NASL expansion?
DOWNS: Yes, of course.
What about historical NASL markets like Calgary or Tulsa? Does the NASL try to get back in to either cities that are under or non-existent for soccer but still have plenty of players and fans as well?
DOWNS: Both of those cities are under consideration for the exact reasons you cite.
Does the NASL do better in former NASL markets of the 1960-80s?
DOWNS: Both Tampa Bay and Fort Lauderdale have benefitted from the strong legacy left by their original NASL clubs, but it’s not a requirement for success in our league.
Almost every club that rebranded back to NASL nicknames like Sounders, Timbers, Whitecaps, Earthquakes, Rowdies, Strikers, Lancers (indoor), etc have done well since in terms of local recognition, branding, merchandising and possibly bridging a gap to past fans. Do you want to see more MLS, NASL, and other clubs resurrect old NASL club names? Like the Boomers in Calgary, Roughnecks in Tulsa, or the Chiefs in Atlanta?
DOWNS: Where the history and the legal status of the marks of the old NASL clubs permit, it seems to make sense. But in Atlanta, for example, the team has a long association with the name Silverbacks, so suddenly changing to the name Chiefs may or may not have the desired result.
Is the New York Cosmos possibly the strongest brand that came out of the original NASL? Do you foresee the brand coming back to the top tier of American soccer?
DOWNS: Quite possibly, and we would welcome their participation in our league as they prepare for success in MLS.
If the ownership group doesn’t steer the NY Cosmos into MLS, would the NASL try and get them instead?
DOWNS: It would make perfect sense for the two brands to be reunited again.
Will we see NASL clubs all have academy or developmental pyramids of their own one day?
DOWNS: Each NASL team is handling their youth relationship differently based on its own individual circumstances. Some do have academy programs, while others have chosen to work with multiple youth clubs serving their regions. But all have an obligation to work with the developmental pyramid.
Do you like the new changes to the US Open Cup? What further changes need to happen? What does the full potential of the USOC look like?
DOWNS: Yes, the format works really well this year and our teams are excited to be back in the US Open Cup. The tournament will increase in stature with these changes and over time should continue to grow.
Which foreign league plays the best soccer: English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, or another?
DOWNS: That’s a tough call. I enjoy watching EPL games and Arsenal are my favorite team, but right now the English teams are struggling in European competition. I think it is fair to say that there is more consistency among the challengers in the EPL, and there are more Americans playing there, so even if the technical quality isn’t as high as that exhibited by Real Madrid and Barcelona it’s what I choose to watch more often.
Is playing the game “beautifully” important for soccer to become more popular in North America?
DOWNS: There are many differing opinions on exactly what makes “beautiful” soccer but most fans agree that putting the ball in the back of the net and winning transcend all other qualities of a team or a league. I think the key to the growth of the sport for spectators here is that everyone now has access to the sport in multiple ways after their youth soccer days are over – you can play in an adult league, you can attend pro matches, you constantly have soccer on TV, you can follow teams and players all over the world through the Internet, you can even play ultra-realistic video games. That wasn’t the case for my generation of youth player but today’s youth will be able to maintain their passion for the sport throughout adulthood.
Do you encourage your clubs, coaches, and owners to play a more technical style in order to entertain more or to play a more traditionally physical and athletic “American style” of play?
DOWNS: We don’t meddle with the styles of the teams in the NASL – the coaches are far more knowledgeable and experienced in that regard than those of us at NASL headquarters! Plus we have coaches from the U.S., Europe and Latin America so naturally you will see all sorts of styles of play in our league. But we are pleased that so many of our teams are trying to play a fluid, passing, attacking style rather than a more defensive one.
Are there enough Hispanic Americans involved in professional soccer? If not, how can this change?
DOWNS: I think there is room for improvement in this area. My tenure at Univision made me aware that there is a higher passion for fútbol among U.S. Hispanics (the TV ratings are indisputable) compared to non-Hispanics, so you’d think that their representation at all levels in the pro game would dramatically exceed the percentage of the overall population that’s Hispanic. Making the youth system more accessible and less costly is helping in this regard.
There are already millions of players in North American soccer, but what things need to be changed with soccer in North American for soccer to take its next several steps in terms of mass-popularity for supporting the professional games?
DOWNS: All the pro leagues and their teams need to continue to ensure that the game-day experience is high quality and eventually, with patience and stability, the fan base will increase.
Do you feel the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) has been doing a good job? What changes would you like to see in its governance of American soccer?
DOWNS: The USSF over the past 20 or so years has accomplished quite a bit at every level from the youth players to the Men’s and Women’s National Teams. I’m not sure the U.S. needs a new or modified system of governance for the sport, but I do feel that we continue to need the backing of FIFA and CONCACAF for us to achieve our goals over the next 25 years.
How long does U.S. Soccer have until it becomes a favorite in the World Cup? When does the USA win the World Cup? Is that the ultimate game-changer or does soccer have to become huge in the USA first, before that happens?
DOWNS: The U.S. has all the necessary ingredients to win a FIFA World Cup title one day and doing so would no doubt give a significant boost to the sport. But make no mistake; the sport is already “huge” here in that over 115 million different Americans watched the last World Cup from South Africa in 2010.
Do your clubs and ownership feel that they have a duty to help grow the US & Canadian Men’s National Teams?
DOWNS: We take our role in developing young professionals quite seriously and are proud to say that quite a few of them go on to even greater achievements than playing in the NASL.
What does a successful season for the NASL look like in 2012? What does it look like in 2022?
DOWNS: On the field, we want to top 2011 in everything from attendance to the quality of play and refereeing. Off the field we’d like to see better revenues for our individual teams and add a few more teams to the league for 2013. By 2022 we foresee a 20-team league with stable, profitable, independently owned teams playing before packed houses.