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USL celebrates 10th season, aspiring to be a global top-10 league

(Credit: USL)

  • Second-tier USL Championship prepares to kick off its 10th season this weekend 
  • Executives believe 2026 World Cup will help take league to a completely new level
  • USL can be ‘a top-10 league in the world regardless of division’, says Court Jeske

Ahead of its 10th season kicking off this weekend, the United Soccer League has taken numerous steps to bolster its commercial structure to help prepare for another decade of growth.

With the 2026 Fifa World Cup co-hosted by the United States, Mexico and Canada on the horizon, the Tampa-based organization is looking to put itself in prime position to capitalize on an expected spike in interest in soccer, particularly in the US.

Last August, the USL announced a new broadcast deal with ESPN, which features the second-tier USL Championship and third-tier League One on ESPN linear networks and streaming service ESPN+ through the 2022 season. The new agreement will see a three-fold rise in the number of games televised annually on ESPN’s networks, including the addition of Spanish-language telecasts on ESPN Deportes.

Under the new agreement, 20 regular-season games from the USL Championship will air on ESPN2, ESPNEWS, ESPNU, or ESPN Deportes annually, in addition to the USL Championship Final. All other matches will be streamed live on ESPN+.

The league has also begun efforts to grow its brand overseas by partnering with global sports marketing agency Lagardère Sports to distribute international broadcasting rights for the USL Championship and USL League One for the 2020-22 seasons. The USL has aired its games internationally on YouTube.

Meanwhile, the USL has entered into a long-term agreement with leading sponsorship sales and consulting firm Premier Partnerships to aid the commercial efforts of USL Championship and USL League One and their respective clubs.

Premier Partnerships was founded by former United States Soccer Federation president Alan Rothenberg and former Major League Soccer chief marketing officer Randy Bernstein. Its president is John Kristick, who helped the US, Canada, and Mexico win the right to host the 2026 men’s World Cup while serving as executive director of the United Bid Committee.

Notably, the USL is also dipping its toes in the women’s game by appointing former United States women’s national team player Angela Hucles as a senior consultant to lead the league’s efforts in the sport. The move follows reports last year that the USL was planning to establish a division one women’s professional soccer league in the US as early as 2021, which would directly rival the established National Women’s Soccer League.

USL executive vice president Court Jeske (Credit: Getty/Soccerex)

The league, meanwhile, is in discussions to formalize its first Collective Bargaining Agreement with the newly-formed USL Players Association, which is expected to include minimum salaries among other basic employment standards.

Amid all the business-level changes, the USL Championship will have a slightly different feel in 2020. In October, Fresno FC ceased operations due to stadium issues while Canadian side Ottawa Fury followed suit soon after after being unable to gain sanctioning to play in the US-based league.

Meanwhile, Nashville SC moved up to Major League Soccer after being awarded an expansion place in that league.

In their place, Ottawa Fury was directly replaced by Miami FC, which acquired its USL franchise rights, while San Diego Loyal – which has former US men’s national team star Landon Donovan as manager and an investor – joins as an expansion team.

Two expansion teams have already been confirmed for 2021 – the New York-based Queensboro FC and the San Francisco Bay Area-based USL East Bay. A Rhode Island-based team is set to begin play in 2022, while there is a preliminary agreement to bring a USL Championship team to Buffalo, New York, in 2023.

The USL has also begun to gain its first soccer-specific stadiums, most notably with Louisville City FC, which will move into the $65m, 11,600-seater Lynn Family Stadium in April. There are proposals for similar permanent team venues in Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, Raleigh, Albuquerque and Colorado Springs.

Fans are, in turn, responding to the league’s growth: the USL Championship boasted a record 61 sell-outs in 2019 compared to the 38 achieved in 2018.

Court Jeske, USL’s executive vice president, spoke to SportBusiness about the league’s commercial efforts and plans for the coming decade.

As the USL prepares for its 10th season, has it been a time to look back on how far the league has come or are you constantly looking ahead to what is next?
For us, it’s both. If you think back 10 years ago to where the league was it is unrecognizable to where it is today. It’s very exciting for us to think about the opportunity over the next 10 years, whether that opportunity is with media, commercial platforms, [or] our fans and clubs, we have a real chance to grow the size and scale of this league.

The USL is about to negotiate its first Collective Bargaining Agreement with the USL Players Association. How are conversations going and how will a CBA change how clubs operate?
This has been one of the most positive developments for our league over the past year and a half. Leagues that go through negotiations with players are mature leagues and leagues that are on the rise. We know that as we put these elements in place that we’ll be able to secure better players because we operate in a global ecosystem.

Every season, multiple teams join the USL Championship or leave it for different reasons, how challenging is it having this constantly changing franchise landscape?
The movement that we face annually will ultimately calm down. Our expansion process is nearing its final stages and as we have stronger ownership groups in place we are seeing less turnover in this space. We have a very solid and stable league, with 26 independent owners and nine MLS partnerships as we enter the 2020 season.

Queensboro FC is joining the USL Championship in 2021. What is the thinking behind this expansion move considering how crowded a market place New York already is?
The key for our expansion with Queensboro is that this opportunity is about Queens. It’s a very exciting borough for us. David Villa and owner Jonathan Krane have a vision as to what this community-based club can mean for the people of Queens. No doubt New York is an incredible opportunity, but also has challenges for professional sports teams. It is a very crowded marketplace. Where we know Queens can be successful, or any club can be successful, is by being hyper-local and putting the focus on the community that there are born in. This what we are encouraging.

How much interest is there from ownership groups in joining the USL in both the Championship and League One?
Expansion over the next three or four years is going to be focused on League One. The Championship is reaching a stage of maturity, there are still some major markets that need professional soccer that we’re going to be focused on. But the majority of the 15 to 20 clubs that will join this league prior to the 2026 World Cup will be at the League One level. Our goal is to ensure that we cover the US map with professional soccer for the communities that have an appetite for it.

USL headquarters in Tampa, Florida (USL)

Last year, the USL renewed its partnership with ESPN in a three-year deal. How important is having this relatively long-term commitment from a major US broadcaster?
When we engaged the marketplace, there were almost a dozen suitors. We ultimately arrived at the decision that ESPN was the best partner for us and our clubs. They are tripling the amount of games we have on linear television, they are putting more weight behind ESPN+ every day. For a league of our size that has 750 matches a year, it’s important that we have a platform that super-serves our fans. That is what ESPN and ESPN+ allowed us to do.

The USL has partnered the Lagardère Sports agency to distribute international broadcasting rights for the next two seasons. How much global interest is there in the league exactly?
Soccer is a global sport. What Lagardère has been charged by the league to do is to make sure our fans globally – we have 81 different countries represented in our league – have the ability to see us. Lagardère is educating media partners about the league and over the next couple of years we’ll see international interest increase.

How has the USL benefited so far from its relationship with Premier Partnerships?
We brought Premier on board as they were able to help us jumpstart our commercial platform. The first 10 years of the league were focused on expansion. Now we’re at an inflection point where we, along with Premier, need to commercialize the expansion that has taken place. They have relationships in the sport sponsorship space to take that USL message to decision makers that are the ideal partners for us.

How has the league been looking to capitalize on the new sports betting landscape in the US?
We have a partnership with Sportradar, which ensures the integrity of the league. Like many leagues, we are proceeding cautiously in this space. But we know there is an opportunity. One of the things we did was opened up the front of our jerseys to sponsorship by gaming companies. We’re trying to be thoughtful about it, but also aggressive and nimble as this space evolves very rapidly.

San Diego Loyal manager Landon Donovan (San Diego Loyal/USL)

The USL is dipping its toes in women’s soccer with the appointment of Angela Hucles as a senior consultant to lead the league’s efforts in the women’s game. What are the aims here? Is it to create a professional women’s league one day?
Angela has been a tremendous asset to help us guide a process internally. A large number of our owners have expressed interest in doing something in the women’s game. What we decided at the Board of Governors meeting in December [was] that we would do the work to determine what kind of engagement that would be. Right now, we are going through the process with Angela’s guidance and that of all the other stakeholders in North America. Our approach is that the USL is keenly positioned to deliver on an opportunity in the women’s game but we need to do the work with our ownership groups to make sure it is a sustainable and viable opportunity as well.

Finally, how do you think the USL will look in 10 years’ time?
We have set a new goal with our owners that the USL Championship will be a top-10 league in the world. For a long time, we have spent time comparing ourselves to other second divisions around the world. But with the size of our cities and markets, we know there is an opportunity with the 2026 World Cup in the background to ascend to that level and truly be a top-10 league in the world, regardless of division. On a League One level, we want to make sure we are covering the map with professional soccer in the US. Those two parallel objectives land us in a very good spot if we can deliver on that opportunity.

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