Now entering its fourth season, the North American Soccer League (NASL) kicks off 2014 competition this Saturday with two new expansion teams, Ottawa Fury FC and Minnesota United FC, and new subscription options for live online game broadcasts.
"Our clubs have significantly improved the standard of their broadcast capabilities during the offseason to enable us to bring a quality product to our online viewers," said NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson.
NASL now stands at 10 teams with three other expansion teams preparing for launch. The League is also negotiating with more potential owners, with a focus on the Midwest and West Coast, to bring the League to the desired total of 18 teams.
This year, the NASL Spring Season will run for nine weeks before competition breaks for the entire FIFA World Cup and resumes with the Fall Season in July. Also new this season, four teams – instead of only the winners of the Spring Season and the Fall Season - will battle for the League Championship in the Soccer Bowl. The New York Cosmos won the 2013 NASL Championship in their inaugural season in the revamped league.
Tuesday, Peterson spoke to the press about the League’s progress.
LE: What do you anticipate the playoff format will look like after NASL reaches its anticipated 18 teams?
Peterson: We had decided that once the competition got to 16 or 18 clubs with a single format and Spring and Fall Season we’d need to put more people in a short playoff. The conversation was, if we’re going to do it at 16 or 18, why not establish it now and move forwards, so we agreed to do that.
The consensus around the room was this was going to remain a four-team playoff for a number of reasons. We want to maintain the importance of playing a Spring and Fall Season, so they’ll be the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. We recognized that there were clubs with a high degree of consistency and success, meaning they had the best overall or next-best overall records over the two seasons, so we agreed that the next two best overall records will be the third and the fourth seeds. But that adds something our competition. If we or anyone else starts to add too many teams to the playoffs, it takes away from the importance of the regular season and that’s the most important thing to us. We think we’ve struck the right balance of four teams in the Semifinals and it enhances the competition.
LE: What are NASL's strategies for increasing live broadcast this season?
Peterson: The subscription is $4.99 a month and you can subscribe on a monthly basis or a season basis. Currently, all of the matches will be broadcast live on that platform and we’re working to provide other matches, not only from this iteration of the NASL but the past NASL, plus some pieces that teams will be creating each week specifically for that subscription platform.
Our next focus is to secure a weekly highlights show on one of the major sports platforms. After that step, we’ll focus on getting a Game of the Week on a national type of platform, be it cable or broadcast.
[Fans can subscribe to NASL Live for either $4.99 by the month or a season pass for all 135 matches during the Spring and Fall seasons for $29.99. To promote the new media offering, NASL is offering a free 10-day trial subscription to NASL Live.com with full access to all league games.]
LE: While the quality of MLS broadcasts has greatly improved over the past few years, broadcast viewership of American soccer remains low. How do you make American soccer accessible and compelling to increase ratings?
Peterson: You do see ratings for soccer going up. NBC’s ratings, even for the short amount of time they’ve been broadcasting, they continue to grow. So I think the audience for professional soccer continues to grow and a lot of them are watching international broadcasts and watching some of the best matches in the world. The upside of that is, they become very savvy about the international game and they understand the international game.
The challenge for us then, is to convert those people over to fans of our local teams first and then those who aren’t in an area where we have a local team, hopefully they can adopt an NASL team. But this is all going to be based on competition - competition has to be compelling. Arguably, the EPL is very compelling, like Bundesliga and many other leagues around the world. We have to create a competition that’s also very compelling and the people who are professional soccer fans will want to watch both in person and on television. That’s really the basis of why we’ve created this Spring Season and the Fall Season and the break to allow teams to heal or upgrade their rosters and that’s why we've kept the playoffs very small. We’re trying to create competition that you won’t want to miss. I believe that what we have right now is very entertaining, so our next thing is allowing more people to see that and watch it. We think that when they do watch it, they’ll continue to be fans.
LE: Does NASL have incentives for clubs to develop youth players or is the League leaving clubs to their individual policies?
Peterson: We’re a very decentralized league so each club is responsible for their success, whether it's rosters or marketing or youth development. All of them are exploring what the best model is. Some of them are further along than others, but there’s advantages, of course, if they can find and develop young players that can help their roster. If they have the chance to run a player or sell a player that makes the most sense for the club, they’re free to do that, the league doesn’t have any say.
We’re expecting that with this short season we have, the competition will really be off the charts. What this will do is put a lot of pressure on the players and coaches to win every week and that’s going to create some exciting soccer for the fans and ultimately that’s what this is all about.
Click here for the 2014 NASL schedule.