A lot has changed in the USL since Orlando City left the league in 2014 to join Major League Soccer. The league has more than doubled in size, attendance is shooting up in cities across the nation, and the league is growing at an insanely fast rate.
The Mane Land was fortunate enough to get a hold of the man currently overseeing the league, President Jake Edwards, to discuss topics ranging from Orlando City B’s debut season to the future growth of the league and the potential problems of functioning with MLS2 teams.
On rekindling the Orlando City-Tampa Bay Rivalry:
Jake Edwards: “We’re very excited to have them join, and obviously with Orlando before they moved to MLS, they had a very strong rivalry with Tampa in the I-4 Derby. I think it was mostly healthy — it got a little spicy, maybe over the top, from time to time, but ultimately I think it’s a good rivalry. I know it’s a passionate rivalry between the clubs, and I’m sure that with OCB now vetting to play in Tampa, that will likely continue.”
On OCB Playing in Melbourne:
JE: “I think it did have hopes that the extension of the club’s brand into Melbourne would resonate, as they hoped it would draw supporters in from that area to watch the first team games would be equally well-followed down there, and it hasn’t worked out that way. And the crowds had been far less than we had hoped for, far less than Orlando City had hoped for. So being in the main stadium in Orlando would certainly be our preference. Being in that stadium and having games in the city center I think would draw well. I think people would want to go see more soccer. I think it’s going to be a great stadium and a great environment, and I think it’s going to be a good crowd there to watch the USL side.”
On MLS2 Branding Hindering Club Growth:
JE: “Well I think branding is important. One size doesn't fit all. LA Galaxy went for that initially with LA Galaxy 2, but they’ve created this character around it now with Los Dos around this club that has a fan base now that follows this team that doesn’t necessarily follow the first team. It’s a different price point, a different experience, a different following and it’s starting to add up. We’ve seen some of the clubs that have tried a different model — the Philadelphia Union have tried to brand a club to the market place that they’re in, which is Lehigh Valley and the Bethlehem area, and they’ve created Bethlehem Steel Football Club, so they’ve tried to in different direction from the Seattle 2, Portland 2, Orlando City B.
“It’s a time now where two or three seasons into this it’s a good time to reflect on the brand and the positioning of the brand — has it been successful as a stand-alone identity that they’ve created, and is there more value and interest in going in another direction? Or maybe not, maybe not in some cases, but maybe in some other cases that we’re looking at. I think from a perception point of view, perception can be reality, and so you have to take a close look at the brand and see if it’s reflective of the parent organization’s brand values, and are we trying to create a different character around this second so we can have not only success on the field, but off it as well. We’re looking at it from a league view.”
On MLS2 Clubs and the League’s Path Forward:
JE: “We’ve gotten unprecedented growth in the USL. We’ve got over 30 clubs now. We’ve got unbelievable interest from independent ownership groups who see huge value in building a USL club, building stadium structure, building youth development. What’s happening now in USL markets is just extraordinary and is just a real testament to the commitment of the local ownership groups that are coming into our league and the resources they’re putting into building long-standing, sustainable clubs. There are a lot of exciting things we’re embarking on now with new partnerships on the broadcast side, on the digital side, and on the stadium infrastructure side. So we’re very excited about what’s happening in the USL. It’s a very viable professional league that’s growing and will continue to grow, and I believe that the MLS clubs are adding value there.”
On MLS2 Clubs’ Attendance:
JE: “We are absolutely laser-focused on all our clubs. We want all of our clubs to succeed on and off the field, and we have a wealth of services and strategic support for them to do that — a lot of strategy and business summits, a lot of training programs. We want all of our teams to be successful and we are playing a significant role in their development and their long-term success. Now, whether it’s an independent or an MLS-owned team, if there’s real concern there to be successful we take that very seriously. We’ll step in, and we’ve done that in the past with teams in the last three or four years, because we know that they were unable to meet the standards or that the market was conducive to a real successful football club. So we’ll step in where we need to and when we have to.
“We’re trying to build this league as a collective group of clubs and we’re adding to the enterprise. You’re only as strong as your weakest link, and we’ve go to get everybody through. But we’ve got to, as a group of clubs, stay focused on where we’re going as a league, and we’ve got to try to get everybody going in the same direction, and if there are some extreme examples of that and can’t move in the right direction, then we’ll take appropriate action. We’re working as hard as we can. We’ll be as flexible as we can and as accommodating as we can. But the level of the clubs that are with us now and that keep coming into our league just keeps getting higher and higher, and ultimately that’s where we want to go to be one of the top second divisions in the world, and that’s what we want to be — delivering great value, entertaining soccer, quality stadiums, and environments that foster great success. That’s what we’re going to have to build on over the next three to five years.
“I’m very pleased with the group we have, we’re all swimming in the same direction. If there are challenges there, we’ll all have to work together to overcome them. No, we don’t want to see empty stadiums, and if there are some issues there, we’ll address them with those clubs to find solutions.”
On Older Clubs Keeping Up With Newer Franchises:
JE: “When you talk about Richmond, and Rochester, Charleston, you’re talking about clubs that have over 20 years operating, and have been doing well and doing it sustainably for all of those years. So we have those clubs that I’m very proud to say have been with the league this whole time, and continue to deliver professional soccer to those communities. It’s very important that we have long-term sustainable clubs. As new clubs come in now, it’s not always a case of having deeper pockets. Really it’s a case of raising the bar and setting expectations higher every year. So when a new team comes in, their goals are different — now its folks are coming in and they want to get dramatically different value out of a jersey sponsor, for example, or have very different expectations on crowd numbers. And with that, you have to resource the clubs properly and get a right amount of sales people and all of those things that you have to do to achieve those significant numbers. And there’s a newness in those markets, a new level of excitement in those clubs that are arriving. When you’ve been there for 20 years, there’s not really that newness there next season. It’s not as easy for those incumbent teams to come out to $250,000 from $50,000 for the same piece of inventory in the marketplace.
“Growth is slow and steady, but what is happening with some of the newer clubs coming in and trying new things, raising the bar, it shows some of the older teams perhaps in some areas what may be possible. The older clubs have a lot to teach the newer clubs, and the newer clubs are trying new things and experimenting with new things, and the older clubs are learning that as well.
“I think it’s a really interesting dynamic. Those older clubs have been doing this for a long time, they know their market very well, but it’s an incremental thing and how they can keep moving their club forward and keep growing their fanbase. We’re constantly challenging our clubs to not accept the status quo. It’s not good for a Richmond, or Rochester, and Charleston to be doing the exact same thing with the same fan base, with the same goals and aspirations that they had 20 years ago. So it’s really exciting when people like the folks in Richmond are seeing what’s happening in the league and saying, ‘yes, we see the value of the franchise going higher and higher, we see the results of the league and want to capitalize on that.’ Richmond have had a tremendous season this year with a number of sellouts. They’re really gaining momentum in the marketplace now, and so they want to capitalize on that interest and get some major stadium renovations there.
“Rochester have swapped owners, Charleston have swapped owners, and they’re coming in now with some new plans and introducing some new investment into the club in different areas, so that’s very healthy, and it’s exciting that the older clubs are continuing on with the journey in line with some of the amazing things we’ve seen happening in Cincinnati and Sacramento and Oklahoma City.”
On The League’s Cap of Number of Teams:
JE: “There’s a few more markets that we’re in discussions with that we think strategically are very important markets in terms of how we want to build the national footprint and build the national rivalries — markets that I think will do very well, and have that new excitement about a pro team coming. We’ve got some owners in those markets that are working with the city now to build stadiums. We’re now in discussions with ownership groups about 2019 and 2020 launches to give them enough time to build up to those launches and build those stadiums.
“So there’s some expansion that we’ll set to continue over the next few years, but there will be a point where it stops and it has to stop. Operationally, and running the league, we’re in good shape. We’ve got a model here, and good system, and certainly can manage more growth. We’ve been working towards a three conference model. That’s something our board of governors are very interested in, so that’s something that we may be able to achieve by 2018. So, within a three conference structure, there’s some room to grow. There’s some room to add more teams in good markets, I believe. There’s a finite number, but I would imagine somewhere in the mid-to-high 30s, maybe 40, tops.
“That’s where we’ll go, I think, and then we’ll be able to drive a bit of scarcity and vie some more incremental value, and then when, as a market, an ownership group comes together with a great stadium plan and a solid business plan, then maybe that’s something we’ll want to consider. There’s a bit more growth to come, but we’ll probably tailor off around that number, I don’t want to put a hard cap on it because there might be a market plan that comes around that we’ll have to consider.”
On Future Formatting of the League:
JE: “We have a plan in terms of we’ve got some options that we’re exploring. We have a competition committee that will explore these options as well. There are different structures within one league that we can explore. With a country of this size, you have to look at a sensible structure, and I think three conferences is something we can get behind, or maybe something with two conferences and two divisions in each. We’re looking at a whole host of options. We’ve got interest from a number of markets, maybe some smaller markets, that it might make sense for them to use a different structure with us. I think there will be a point in the very near future that we’ll arrive at a plan that makes the most sense for us, and we’re working internally now on our committee, so we’ll get to that point where we feel comfortable with what 2018, 2019 and beyond looks like, and make that announcement. There are options there, and we’re looking at all of the options. There’s nothing off the table.”
On Expanded TV Coverage Moving Forward:
JE: “We’re in discussions now with ESPN to build on the partnership and build on the work we’ve done together. They’re a great organization. We’re working on three levels now with the launch of the new USL productions company that we’ve created here. Three levels: we’re working on a national television level, we’ll have an expanded footprint on national TV with ESPN next year. We’ll also have local television and regional sports networks, and we will have a system where clubs can make deals with their local and RSN and we’re in the middle of facilitating those negotiations as we speak, and many of the teams have already secured their local TV rights for home and away games with the new system next year — the league is taking control of all broadcasts next year. We’re working with a production company on that for over 500 games, plus other content that will be distributed across the networks. It’s a major investment, a major initiative, and with the new standardization of quality we’ll be able to have a much bigger footprint on the TV side, whether it’s national, regional, or local. So we remain highly committed to the online streaming as well, we’re in discussions with the digital distribution partners.
“There will be an expanded partnership with ESPN next year, both linear and digital. That’s something we’re wrapping up at the moment, and should be able to make an announcement on in the coming weeks.”