Not A Sane League

Dave Martinez of Empire of Soccer has done an incredible job this past week showing that NASL commissioner Bill Peterson is completely crazy.  There have been three parts posted so far, and each one contains something heart-stoppingly bizarre. This was from part three:

MLS has their eyes set on Florida, while St. Louis continues to draw intrigue from both sides. It would be natural to assume, with both leagues expanding, that competition to secure cities under either umbrella could get a bit messy and competitive.

Not in Peterson’s eyes.

“This area of North America is large enough to support hundreds of first division teams ultimately,” he tells EOS. “There is not an arms race, a race to lock up cities, none of that exists in my mind.

“We want them to be successful. We have no ill will towards them whatsoever, but its true – we don’t make any decisions on our business based on what they do. We play golf. We worry about our ball.

We'll get to the idea that NASL is somehow competing on the same stage as MLS, and that they wouldn't think twice about challenging an existing or potential MLS team in the same market.  The Hempstead Cosmos are the only one that vaguely answers this description, and I think that's going to end up as Long Island's least-loved revival since Woodstock 2.  My main issue is how an adult American, let alone one in charge of a league of professional sports franchises, could conclude that there are multiple hundreds of acceptable top-tier markets in the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean.  (You know what, throw in Mexico.  Putting an NASL team in Mexico City wouldn't be the dumbest idea the league has come up with - hell, it might not make the medal stand.)

Here are the 91st through 100th biggest media markets in the United States, according to the first site on Google that I found:

91. Colorado Springs/Pueblo 92. Tri-Cities, TN/NC/VA, and even after clicking the link I still don't know where the hell this is - apologies to anyone who might live there in real life, but I think this is actually where Phineas and Ferb live 93.  Burlington/Plattsburgh, and I think this is upstate New York and Vermont 94.  Waco/Temple/Bryan 95.  Baton Rouge 96.  Savannah 97.  Davenport/Rock Island/Moline, and what the hell happened to Bettendorf?  Why isn't this the Quad Cities?  Maybe I should have spent more than two seconds sourcing this, oh well 98.  El Paso - I'm guessing Juarez doesn't factor in here 99.  Charleston, SC - ooh, so much for the Battery getting promoted anytime soon 100.  Ft. Smith/Fayetteville/Springdale/Rogers

Picture Thierry Henry announcing he is joining a team in freaking Waco.  Now remind yourself that this is only the bottom of 1-100.  We're in the sweet spot of Peterson's wish list.  Yeah, he'd be willing to settle for Twin Falls, Ottumwa, or Jonesboro, but he's got big plans for Springdale, and if anyone thinks MLS is going to stop him, well, he doesn't even worry about that.

And this was the keystone paragraph of part two:

“I still believe that if you understand all the analysis we did, all the models we looked at and all the discussions, you then start to see it wasn’t just something’s we dreamed up last Friday; it was something we put a lot of time and effort into. One of the principles really with our owners is consistency. Don’t go change our structure every year. Be consistent. We are this and then we are that – no. Come up with a plan and be consistent.”

Hm?  Oh, that was about the NASL's plan to have their spring season last ten games.  A lot of league officials would have heeded the unanimous chorus of boos and catcalls and decided that maybe it was worth looking at a couple of more models and running a couple more analyses, but not the NASL.  In the words of Joseph Hazlewood, damn the torpedoes - full steam ahead.

Either part two or part three would and should have been deeply troubling for fans in NASL cities to read, but it was dwarfed by the sheer bat countriness of part one.

In fairness, Peterson let us know what we were in for early:

“What have fans said since we started MLS? Stop playing during World Cup. We don’t like playoffs. We want single table. We want transfer windows. Fans have all said that right?” he begins. “If there is frustration in the league, it’s usually those things.

“We structure our league to address all those issues.”

There are a couple of questionable premises here.  Well, probably more questionable premises than there are suitable first division markets in North America.  Perhaps not every fan is unhappy with playoffs and conferences.  Perhaps some of the things fans don't like (say, playing during a World Cup) is a lesser evil than the alternatives (sitting idle for a month; having one-third of the schedule count as a full season; and so forth).  Perhaps a second division league has other things to worry about than lining up transfer windows or aligning its playing weekends with the international calendar.  Perhaps MLS doesn't do what it does simply to annoy its fans.  Perhaps MLS has employed its own analysts at some point over the past twenty freaking years to see whether these ideas are useful and profitable.  Most of all, perhaps organizing an international for-profit athletic enterprise on message board posts isn't sound policy.

It gets worse.

“You can sit back and talk about what are the options?” he begins. “It’s not something that is unclear. It’s a basic end game right? If we are successful, can there one day be a merger? Sure, could be. Can there one day be an alignment between promotion and relegation? I hope so. Could there be a situation where we jump ahead of (MLS) in some form or fashion? Yeah, of course that can happen. Can we not be successful? Sure, that can happen. I guess you can align besides (MLS) and have two division ones. I am not sure that makes sense.

“Those are sort of the options, right?” he explains. “There’s not a middle ground.”

Seemingly the dumbest part of this - the part about two division ones - is probably the best grounded in American sports.  The American League and the AFL were recognized as equal partners by the existing major league, and the ABA and WHA managed to get a few of its franchises into the NBA and NHL.  So, sure, I guess it could happen.  It would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to get MLS to even consider such a thing, of course.  And FIFA would have to cease to exist, but I'm not going to sit here and say that would be a bad thing.  And the bidding wars for talent - the usual way underdog leagues have forced the rivals' hands - would probably get the NASL teams competing not merely with MLS but with actual factual first division teams in Europe.

Of course, MLS might take the unprecedented move of taking the existing NASL team and offering it "promotion" without taking slightest heed of the lower league's feelings, but that would never happen.

Yes, if I were a fan in an NASL city, I would be extremely tempted by a plan to bring my team - my beloved team, which might have a history comparable to any MLS team - into the big time.  But I would be more concerned that Bill Peterson has announced that his long-term goal (copyright Beau Dure) for NASL is a kamikaze mission against some of the most powerful sports billionaires in the country.

I'm sure that's quite romantic for some.  The case that MLS owners are so depraved and despicable that the sport has no future in its hands falls on ready ears.  And there are plenty of self-described soccer fans who would enjoy watching leagues compete than teams.

But the reason Peterson can even think about gambling with the teams under his charge is because many of those teams, or their fanbases, have built a vibrant culture within the lower-division framework.  If you ask me whether the Twin Cities or San Antonio should be in MLS, I'd say yes...and that would only leave me $100 million short of a valid opinion.  The Sounders/Timbers/Impact route has proven success, but the best way to do that is to keep playing.  Which is something they can't do without a league, and they won't have one if Peterson is serious about going nuclear.

For a league so heavily based on nostalgia, it's amazing that their commissioner seems to know so little about American sports history.  Donald Trump's USFL might be a good place to start - there's a good Thirty for 30 film on the topic.

It's possible, of course, that Peterson is not merely a fully functioning adult, but an actual successful sports executive to boot, and he's simply trying to appeal to a melange of those disaffected by MLS.  In this case, decent citizens need only fear his rhetoric.  However, I believe even that is bad for NASL.  There is a fundamental difference between those disaffected by ideological grounds and those simply underserved by it.  The sort of fan who would rather cheer for a league structure than a team has been a noisily poisonous leech for many years now, and I'm pretty sure Peterson will rue the day he invited in promotion and relegation zealots, the Scientologists of American soccer.