USL1 is Revolting

There's a wonderful song, made popular (if that's the word) by Dr. Demento, done by a guy named Dana Lyons called Cows With Guns

It's about how cattle being led to the slaughter rose up and fought "for bovine freedom":

He was a scrawny calf, who looked rather woozy
No one suspected he was packing an Uzi

This could have been - but undoubtedly was not - the inspiration for the USL Team Owners Association (TOA) when they announced yesterday that 1) there is something called the USL Team Owners Association (consisting of the owners from Atlanta, Carolina, Miami, Minnesota, Montreal, St. Louis, Tampa and Vancouver) and 2) they are seriously considering trying to turn USL1 into an actual soccer league.

And they sound like they're serious:

The TOA has been and remains committed to a restructuring of USL-1 into a truly professional soccer league which complies with the international rules established by FIFA, the governing body of international soccer.

These rules include the requirement that the league be owned and controlled by its teams. Despite this rule, USL has historically been owned by a single corporate entity responsible for, among other things, league governance.

The TOA believes that this ownership structure has stunted the growth and recognition of both the league and its teams during USL’s nearly 25-year existence.

Consequently, over the past several years, the TOA has engaged in discussions with the owners of USL to restructure USL and is therefore extremely disappointed with Nike’s decision to sell USL to a non-USL-1 team owner.

Accordingly, the TOA now reconfirms its commitment to achieving a team-owner controlled league and will pursue all avenues to do so.

You've no doubt been reading about how Nike was trying to peddle USL after finding themselves accidentally owning over 90% of the thing when they purchased Umbro, although there is no truth to the rumor that when they opened the box and saw USL inside they tried to give it back.

I'll mention in passing that there have been numerous references lately to Umbro having "founded" USL. They most certainly did not. Well known soccer gadabout Francisco Marcos, a man who one former USISL team owner once described to me as someone who "sells absurd dreams to guys with money who should have known better" started back in the mid-80's.

(USL has always promoted the ludicrous "soccer pyramid" concept, pretending that each level of their organization was the stepping stone to the next, culminating in MLS. The fact that this is, and has always been, utter hogwash has never seemed to prevent otherwise intelligent people from repeating it. The fact that it's nothing more than a sales pitch designed get soccer parents to shell out big money for Super Y and PDL never seems to occur to anyone.)

In the '90's he tried to sell the league to anyone with a checking account but couldn't get a bite so he instead went public and started peddling chunks of the thing to whatever sucker - excuse me, I mean "corporate investor" - was willing to pony up a little cash.

UMBRO had been a league sponsor for years and became an investor but they didn't actually own a majority of the league until 1999, and then, incredibly, kept on buying up the chunks owned by outfits like Signal Apparel (never heard of them? Me neither) until, incredibly, they owned all but the tiny slice which Marcos still held.

(If you were wondering what happened to Umbro, well, decisions like pouring money into USL is a good example of why they're now owned by someone else.)

The main problem the owners have always had with this arrangement was not who had the keys to the office but rather that the league was "owned" at all.

Scratch my head though I might, I am having a difficult time thinking of another sports league anywhere in the world that is 100% owned and operated by a third party corporate entity. It's just not how it works.

The reason is obvious: it's the individual team owners whose asses are on the line here financially, and the leagues they play in are basically partnerships where the stakeholders have the final say, in a more or less democratic way, about how things are run, from who the commissioner should be down to what color the referees wear.

USL is the exception. It has always been Francisco ("Frank" to his friends) Marcos' personal fiefdom. You want a team, you pay Marcos a fee (recently as much as $750,000), which he - and his company - simply pocket. None of this "spread the expansion money around" nonsense for them.

So what exactly do you get for your money? Well, that's always been the question that countless legions of team owners, most of whom have long since sailed into the sunset on a sea of red ink - since 1986 have been asking themselves. The league makes up a schedule, and then they...um, well, they make one up next year too.

I saw an article yesterday that claimed UMBRO was unhappy with league revenues, which the writer estimated at $5 million a year. Leaving aside the fact that that's simply a ludicrous number, and ignoring the inescapable conclusion that any profit the league did make would have been due mostly to the money UMBRO, as the main and, mostly, only significant sponsor, was pumping into it.

Thus, as the owner of over 94% of the league, UMBRO could have increased their sponsorship to, say, $300 million a year which, not coincidentally, would be the leagues yearly "profit", declared the whole thing an enormous success and then put the money back in their pocket. The whole scenario starts to butt up into the realm of pure farce after a while.

However that might be, in any other league - even MLS - any overall profitability accrues to the benefit of the people who own it, ie. the teams. USL however is someone elses property. You pay, you play, you shut up, you lose a fortune and you go out of business. Period.

Until now. The heretofore unknown TOA, which represents roughly half of the team owners, was never really happy with the previous arrangement and is even less happy now that their league has been sold (can you imagine someone "buying" the EPL? The NBA?) to something called NuRock Soccer.

This leaves aside exactly WHY NuRock wanted it in the first place although the answer most likely lies in the concurrent announcement that Nike is now the official sponsor of USL. One suspects that they had to offer NuRock Soccer a large financial incentive to take this dog off their hands.

So Nike gets to offload a sports league it never wanted in the first place (they're in the shoes and shirts business and, anyway, USL is pretty small potatoes to them), NuRock gets a nice corporate sponsorship deal and the teams - well, they are allowed to keep playing, as long as they shut up and do what they're told.

Or maybe not.

For lo these many years people have been saying that the US needed a minor soccer league, and have been blaming MLS for the lack thereof.

Early on, of course, it looked like that was what was going to happen.

In 1996 MLS had a blanket agreement with both the A League and USISL (which of course "merged" in 1997 to become USL) and MLS teams had individual agreements with teams in their regions, allowing for set transfer fees for A League players bought by MLS clubs and formalizing loan arrangements for MLS players sent out to A League teams.

When the deal expired and was not renewed, MLS took all of the blame. Some of that was justified, but in reality the biggest problem was that there was no money in it for Frank Marcos and his privately owned league. The individual teams selling players or bringing in players on loan didn't make USL a dime, so there was not much incentive for USL to push for a new deal.

I don't know much about this NuRock Soccer outfit, beyond what we all can read in the usual cookie cutter corporate-speak press release. Maybe they're great guys.

Personally I agree with the TOA: it's time USL became a real league, owned and operated by and for the teams themselves which is, by the way, exactly how FIFA says it should be done.

As long as the interests of a third party are involved - be it an individual, a public corporation or a private partnership - then stuff like long term development and the good of the game are going to take a back seat to the bottom line. USL1 isn't a chain of muffler shops or fast food joints and it can't be run as if it was.

Maybe USSF - the sanctioning body - and MLS can weigh in somehow and help the owners take what is rightfully theirs. It's called progress.