The United Soccer League, which runs the United States Soccer Federation-sanctioned second, third, and fourth-tier leagues, has been hard at work this past year creating a unified system. The recent broadcasting deal to have all USL League One games on ESPN+ is another step in the right direction.
The USL has run multiple leagues for several years now. Originally, it was the third division USL Pro and fourth division Premier Development League. When the United Soccer League made the jump into the second division, it began looking to create a league to fill the now-vacant third division. That league will be starting at the end of March.
With a second, third, and fourth division league under its umbrella, the USL rebranded each one as the USL Championship, USL League One, and USL League Two. That provided a connected system of professional and amateur soccer between the top tier, Major League Soccer, and the United States Amateur Soccer Association.
After spending three years airing games on YouTube, the USL agreed to a partnership with ESPN that would see select games air on the sports network’s new online viewing platform, ESPN+. Additionally, the USL Cup would be televised for the first time on ESPNU. In 2018, that agreement expanded to having all games on the online platform. While it requires a subscription, this was a big step for the league as the production quality was greatly improved with the assistance of the league production arm.
Launching the new USL League One in 2019, a common question was how the games would be viewed. On Feb. 20, the league officially announced that all games would be available on ESPN+ for the 2019 season.
While some may question the league being on a paid platform, it’s a good move. Despite the success of several USL Championship clubs, it’s still difficult to get people interested in anything below MLS. Those that support lower league teams are usually bigger fans of the sport and take pride in supporting their local club, regardless of level. ESPN+ has begun airing a variety of soccer leagues and cups worldwide, including from England, Italy, Mexico, Holland, Australia, and more. Many of those that will be supporting these teams probably already have the cheap subscription to watch these other leagues.
Additionally, having the games on the same platform that airs MLS and USL Championship games will help the league. Only three of the 10 teams (the Richmond Kickers, Toronto FC II, and Orlando City B) have played at the professional level before, though two more are joining next year in Penn FC and the Rochester Rhinos. The unfamiliarity with these new teams forces the league to use other ways to find a connection. The connective name and shared broadcasting system will help that.
Getting those that solely watch European leagues to watch MLS can be difficult and even harder to get them to pay attention to the lower leagues. Now, MLS, the USL Championship, and USL League One are all on the same platform, making it easy for people to find their way to these games. Viewership may still be minimal, but those that might have otherwise not realized this league existed, or not bothered to search for it, will have easy access.
It’s been a struggle to get professional soccer leagues off the ground in this country in the past, making lower leagues nearly impossible. While the support of local clubs is growing, the USL is giving itself a much better chance of success by attaching itself to an already popular league and airing games alongside the first and second divisions. Hopefully the result will be a successful third division.