Frequent contributor Jon Marthaler has written about virtually every sport in the Twin Cities, and fills in on Saturdays for the RandBall blog on StarTribune.com. He'll cover the professional soccer scene in the Twin Cities, whether at the Metrodome or at the National Sports Center.
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NASL commissioner Bill Peterson is, in some ways, paid to be an optimist. In an increasingly crowded market for soccer, Peterson has to try to highlight the good and gloss over the bad about his league, and sometimes, this means that he sounds more like a marketing executive than a commissioner.
That said, he was straightforward and forthright about the league when I caught up with him at halftime of the Minnesota-Indy game - if not exactly verging on cynical about the future of the league.
That lack of pessimism was especially evident on the expansion front, where a bit of gloom might have been expected. Though the NASL added teams in Indy and Ottawa for 2014, and Jacksonville has hit the ground running and is on course for 2015, the presumptive franchises in Oklahoma City and Virginia have have run into problems. The former’s ownership group half-disappeared overnight, for one, and the latter was scheduled to begin play this season, but pulled out so late in the off-season that the league had to sheepishly change its already-announced schedule.
Peterson, though, was bullish about all three. Regarding Jacksonville Armada, the commissioner bordered on enthusiastic. “It’s amazing how much attention they’re getting and how much work they’re doing,” he said. “They’ll do very well with the crowd and the fans and the stadiums and stuff for sure. I think the clubs that have time to get organized and get the staffs on board before they have to play, have a little bit of an advantage.“
He also sounded confident that Virginia, so recently pushed back, would see the field as well. “We’ll have some announcements pretty soon,” he said. “I was there last week, and we’ve reorganized the ownership group; they’re just finalizing some things there. We expect when we get to the [league-wide] June board meeting to be back on board and moving full speed ahead. There’s actually a lot of exciting things happening there that will come out over time when they get finalized.”
The big surprise was that the commissioner seemed positive about Oklahoma City. Both the NASL and third-division USL Pro announced Oklahoma City franchises at virtually the same time, but while the presumptive NASL team has gone dormant, the USL Pro franchise - named OKC Energy FC - began play in April. In late March, Tim McLaughlin, who was scheduled to be joint owner of the NASL franchise, announced that he had effectively switched sides, partnering with the OKC Energy owners instead.
It was all very confusing, even for the commissioner. “We had an owner who decided he didn’t want to be an owner any more, before they’ve ever played their first game,” he said. “I’ve been around professional sports for 25 years; I’ve never heard or seen anything like that. I think it caught all of us off guard.”
That said, the other half of the NASL franchise ownership group remains in place, and Peterson was still optimistic about the future of the franchise. “We have a group there that was part of the original ownership group, that is very committed, “ he said. “It’s just a matter of them getting reorganized and really sorting out where they’re going to play. It’s a very strong group, they’ve got a lot of sports experience, and when they hit the ground running in the next couple of weeks they’ll go quickly.”
The surprise is that, despite the problems with Virginia and Oklahoma City, the commissioner seemed confident that both would be on the field next season. “Both Virginia and Oklahoma City we’re still looking at 2015, “ he said. “I feel pretty good about Oklahoma City. Virginia, if they get a couple of things done in the next few weeks, they’ll also be there. They’re all committed, they all get it. We want to make sure when the teams launch now, that they’re prepared, and that they have had a fair chance to put a roster together, and get connected with the areas that they’re in too.“
Peterson also spoke about the league’s broadcast problems. The NASL announced a pay-for-subscription service for 2014, but had to back off and offer the spring season for free, after transmission problems blacked out two games in one single week.
As you can imagine, this led to some frustration for Peterson. “Anytime something doesn’t work perfectly, you’ll find me disappointed,” he said. “Last week we had some unfortunate glitches, one of which is still unexplained. So that’s very disappointing. We make a commitment to our fans, and we spent a lot of time in the offseason upgrading these broadcasts and broadcast teams and spending a lot of time working on these streams, so when it doesn’t work and nobody can explain why, you’ll find me frustrated. I spent about every waking moment on it this week.”
Peterson reported that, in an attempt to combat the problems, the league had hired an outside expert in every market to try to manage the transmission problems, rather than depend on the teams themselves and the streaming partner to troubleshoot issues. Said the commissioner, “If there is a problem, we have somebody on board that’s our person. We didn’t have that before. We were relying on people locally, and people with the streaming partner, and we weren’t happy with it last week so we’ve changed it.”
Peterson also spoke about several other topics.
* On the second year of Minnesota United, and especially the ownership: “They’re obviously doing a great job. They’ve gotten themselves organized on the field; that’s a good-looking team. The most important part is to get that piece sorted out. They’ve very committed, they’re working very hard, they’re putting a lot of pieces in. If you look at this club, where they were a year ago on and off the field and where they are today, it’s a world of difference. We’re very happy with our progress, and very happy with their efforts. There’s a lot of work to do, but we’ll just keep going.”
* On the fact that the New York Cosmos get more outside media attention that all of the rest of the league’s teams put together: “It’s just a fact, isn’t it. The Cosmos, they bring that legacy with them. But now they have the challenge of continuing to go forward, and they take that very seriously… but you see what is happening around the league. This is not a one-team league. It’s going to be very competitive, and they realize that, and teams like this realize that they can go out there and beat them. It’s great, that there is this Cosmos legacy, and we embrace that and enjoy it. At the same time, they have to go out and build their club like every other team. It’s a challenge in New York City. It’s a big place. There’s a lot going on, not dissimilar to here [the Twin Cities].”
* On how the league can fight the perception that it’s a one-team league: “Just look at the standings [laughs]. We’ve seen a lot of progress on the field and off the field. The clubs did amazing job of upgrading their rosters in the offseason. We’re only in week four, but you see the table, you see a new team on top now. It’s really too early to predict what the results are going to be in any given week. I think all of the clubs made a lot of progress building their fan bases and building their sponsorship bases. There’s still work to be done there, but that’s all you can do. You’ve got to put one foot in front of the other, you’ve got to work seven days a week and become ingrained in your community. There’s a lot of success stories. Tampa Bay’s done an incredible job, Atlanta’s done an great job, they’ve done a great job here. Just keep working at it, but it’s coming. We’re excited.”
* On the future of the NASL video service: “We want to start focusing on how we provide more entertainment for the fans. We’re starting to look at archive stuff from the first go-round of NASL, we’re trying to create some other content, some shows, goals of the week and stuff, so it becomes a vibrant place for the fans. That’s ultimately the goal.”
* On why the league moved its offices to New York: “It’s just more efficient for us, to get more work done. When you’re in this business, whether it’s broadcasters, or sponsors, or agencies that represent both, or just other people in the sports industry, you find them a lot more frequently in New York. We’ve got a small group there, we’re growing and we’re doing a lot of work, and a lot of that work was happening in New York. It just made sense to become a little more efficient to be based there.”
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