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United Soccer League ready to lay down “bold” marker with local market strategy

(Credit: Em Dash Photography via USL)

  • USL Championship to become first team-based league in US to play in home venues amid Covid-19
  • Second-tier league making this move to “differentiate ourselves from other leagues”
  • Team owners eager to be active in local communities despite potential risks and hurdles 

The United Soccer League is aiming to set a “bold and aggressive” precedent by becoming the first team-based sports organization in the United States to return to action in local markets in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

After being suspended in March after just one round of action, the second-tier USL Championship is scheduled to make its comeback on July 11, with the league’s 35 teams playing in their home venues and, where permitted, in front of spectators by local authorities.

In total, teams are in line to play 263 games over 13 weeks to decide which 16 teams will advance to the playoffs, which will take place in October. Meanwhile, the third-tier USL League One is set to return on July 18, also in local markets.

For various logistical and health and safety reasons, the vast majority of team-based leagues in the US have opted to stage quarantined, single- or two-city site competitions this summer due to the coronavirus crisis. These include the National Hockey League, National Basketball Association, Major League Soccer, Women’s National Basketball Association, National Women’s Soccer League, Major League Lacrosse and World TeamTennis.

With Major League Baseball poised to make its return on July 23 – with teams playing in their ballparks – many eyes will be on the USL in the coming weeks as sports organizations examine how games in home venues will look and feel amid the ongoing health crisis and, in turn, try to adopt best practices.

Already some USL Championship teams have announced plans to have limited spectators, including El Paso Locomotive, Louisville City, OKC Energy, Real Monarchs, Saint Louis FC, and Indy Eleven, among others.

Despite the risks and potential pitfalls involved – not least that numerous states with rising coronavirus cases could ban all public gatherings in the coming weeks and months – the USL has decided to set this precedent for two principal reasons. Firstly, the league wants to make a mark and differentiate itself from other organizations. Secondly, USL teams are hugely dependent on matchday incomes as a revenue source, which is mainly why a quarantined event has not been held.

The USL Championship, which is entering its 10th season, will have a new micro-regionalized format, which is designed to capitalize on local rivalries and avoid long-distance travel. Eight regionalized groups have been created, five of which will have four teams while three groups will have five teams. Group A, for example, will comprise Portland Timbers 2, Reno 1868 FC, Sacramento Republic FC and Tacoma Defiance.

(Credit: USL)

In a 16-game regular-season schedule, each team will play 12 games in their groups, with the remaining four games against teams from similar geographic regions. All games played before the mid-March suspension will count towards the regular-season standings, meaning teams will play between 14 and 16 regular-season games from the restart. In total, teams are set to play eight games at home and eight on the road.

Games will be broadcast domestically across ESPN networks, including ESPN2, ESPNews, the Spanish-language ESPN Deportes and direct-to-consumer platform ESPN+. It has already been announced that eight games will be aired on ESPN2 in the month of July. Unlike in other professional soccer leagues, there will be no artificial crowd noise on domestic broadcasts.

Thanks to a partnership with global sports marketing agency Sportfive (formerly known as Lagardère Sports), games will also be distributed internationally, including in the Concacaf region and Europe. In the absence of many soccer leagues during part of the summer, it is hoped that USL games will be gambled on in foreign markets. It is largely for this reason that sports-betting partnerships with Stats Perform and Sportradar were recently agreed.

SportBusiness spoke to USL executive vice-president Court Jeske about the opportunities and challenges of the USL Championship’s return in local markets.

To what extent has the USL been affected financially by the Covid-19 crisis?

USL, no different from any other sport or entertainment property, has been affected in every way. Certainly, the league office and our clubs have been affected financially to the negative. But while we’re encouraged by how things may look in the short term, we also must be very conscious of the long-term economic ramifications that are going to be reaped.

Are you able to put an approximate dollar figure on the financial hit?

Tens of millions of dollars for USL and our clubs will be forfeited just in the short-term. The long-term is yet to be seen.

The USL looked to fill the gap with two esports competitions. How well did these events go and will USL continue to embrace esports going forward?

Esports are here to stay and the USL will be involved in esports in one way, shape or form. What we utilized the platform for, first with Rocket League and then with the Fifa tournament, was to fill content and give an outlet during some very dark days. What it also helped with was a chance to engage both Pro Evolution Soccer and EA on the potential of including USL in future editions of the games. So it’s certainly a situation to potentially lead to some new opportunities for our enterprise.

Why exactly is the league resuming competition in home markets rather than in a quarantined tournament? What was the thought process in this decision?

Like every other sports [organization], we went through a decision tree. Ultimately, what our owners determined was for them to be active in their communities, which was the most important thing in a year like this. There are certainly risks and key learnings that we have every day but our ownership felt a way that we could differentiate ourselves from other leagues was to be first and be back in our communities, serving them and playing in front of fans where appropriate.

The other thing the USL could do is take advantage of our geographic footprint. With 35 clubs in the Championship and 12 in League One, many of our trips can be focused on bus travel, which can be delivered in a very safe and efficient manner. So a combination of those factors led our ownership to make a very bold and aggressive move as it relates to return of play.

The USL will be the first major team-based sports organization in the US to resume play in home markets, ahead of Major League Baseball. With no precedent to fall back on, what are the main challenges?

The main challenges are in a country the size of the United States, with the number of jurisdictions we have, there is not one singular feeling about the Covid pandemic at any one time. We have certain teams in markets that have been relatively unaffected and then we have other markets that were dramatically affected out of the gate but now have seen a better situation. Managing all those different attitudes and perceptions in the room with our owners is something that has been very challenging.

A number of teams have announced plans to play in front of limited fans. What does it mean for these teams, in that they will be able to secure some matchday revenues this year?

We put a simple question to our owners at the Championship and League One level and that was: do we want to shut the season down and focus on getting stronger in 2021 or do we want to take a bold step and try to figure out the safest, most prudent way to return to play in 2020? The owners, in almost unanimous fashion, supported a return to play even though that would certainly require more investment from them than simply canceling the season.

So whether match days are profitable or not in the short-term is not really the focus of our owners. That being said, we have left it up to the local municipalities and the clubs to determine what is appropriate in their market because we do have such a big country. If the local government and team feel like a 25 per cent or 50 per cent occupancy is safe when we return to play, then that’s what we’ll follow. If they recommend closed doors, then that’s what we’ll follow.

What are the contingency plans if states decide in the coming weeks that sporting events cannot be staged even without fans?

We already have that contingency plan in place. The owners and the clubs have all agreed to a methodology for shutting down the season if that becomes a requirement and certain thresholds by which the on-the-field championships would be awarded, be it a points-per-game method, a minimum number of games that have to be played etc. We’ll do what is ultimately the best for a health and safety requirement even if that means shutting down. At this point, any kind of pod or bubble tournament is on hold. We are focused on returning to our communities and approaching it that way.

How much Covid-19 testing will you do – and how expensive will that be?

Testing will be done through a national provider, frequently, and our owners have said they will pick up the costs of that because it goes back to being able to put our athletes in a safe environment.

Have you been able to secure many games on linear television?

This is a real advantage to being one of the first leagues back. Domestically, we will have a minimum of 20 matches between ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes in the month of July. That is incredible exposure for our league and our clubs. We will be working with ESPN to continue to provide more matches on a rolling basis as the schedule plays out through October.

Are you implementing any additional fan-engagement or revenue-generating initiatives to mitigate income shortfalls?

We are focused on commercializing the matches we have domestically, through broadcasters and our sponsors, but then internationally with Sportfive. Soccer is a global game and someone is always looking for a game either through betting purposes or watching purposes. With our kick-off times, there will be a window when USL will likely be the only soccer being played around the world at that time. There’s where we’re looking for new opportunities in Latin America and Europe and beyond because Sportfive is able to have conversations with these people about showing top-class soccer from North America. We’re very optimistic about increased distribution in the Concacaf region as well as Europe.

Do you expect other organizations who are looking to play games in home markets will get in touch with you to learn best practices?

Absolutely. We feel that when it comes to key learnings about the health and safety of players and fans, there is nothing that is secretive about that. We are happy to share with the NFL, with college football, with any of the other properties in North America and beyond who would like to understand our experience and the learnings we will have in bringing teams back into communities and fans back into stadiums first.

To what extent have your wider business plans been affected by the coronavirus crisis, such as expansion?

They haven’t. We have nearly 50 active conversations both with Championship and League One going on and while some of the plans might have altered their timeline, the bullishness of these potential cities and ownership groups has not wavered.

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