When it comes to association football in the United States, Major League Soccer is the 600-pound gorilla.
What was formed as part of the deal to bring the World Cup to the U.S. in 1994 has flourished into a stable, thriving organization, and has cornered the market on top tier soccer in North America.
As a soccer fan, I’m glad there’s a big league to follow in the United States and Canada.
As a soccer purist, though, I wish we’d take a cue from the rest of the soccer-playing world.
I’d love to see a season that aligns with a European schedule, meaning league matches start in August and end in May.
I’d prefer the United States Soccer Federation be a little less beholden to MLS and Soccer United Marketing.
While the USSF is a non-profit, it has a big money rights deal with SUM through 2022, and SUM is owned by MLS.
And the white whale for many of us is a promotion/relegation system in American soccer. It’s a topic MLS commissioner Don Garber has zero interest in, and one the league owners have no desire to explore.
So why am I excited about a fledgling, independent Division III league that won’t even field teams until 2019?
Because the people running it have a real vision for how professional soccer can – and should – work here.
The National Independent Soccer Association wants to introduce pro/rel as well as create teams with real ties to the community, which is the model that has made soccer the world’s most popular sport.
Last week, NISA co-founder Peter Wilt announced an initiative that will allow fans to have an ownership stake in clubs throughout the country.
Wilt is working with Cutting Edge Capital, a crowd funding firm, to make it happen.
“This is a historic direction for an American professional sports league,” Wilt said during a town hall meeting for USSF presidential candidate Eric Wynalda. “It serves two important purposes. First, it creates the platform for new clubs to raise the seed capital needed to launch a new pro soccer club for their market. Second, and more importantly, this initiative will connect these clubs with the fabric of their community, build a foundation of support and ensure they never leave for a different city.”
As is the case with leagues in Europe, there are different ownership approaches, depending on the franchise.
NISA co-founder and general counsel Jack Cummins said at the same meeting fan ownership is simply an option.
“This isn’t for all clubs,” he said. “Some will still want to control 100 percent of their ownership. However, for others, having fan ownership (ranging from 10 percent on up) will strengthen the connections to their communities. This is another important step to develop a league that conforms to what has worked time and again in the global game.”
According to the league website, it will serve as a Division III league in the U.S. pyramid.
MLS represents the first division, while the United Soccer League (and possibly the North American Soccer League, if it wins its appeal to retain second tier status) are second division.
The NISA plans to start with eight to 10 teams and reach up to 24 by its fourth season.
The plan, then, is to create a promotion/relegation system in which its top teams can move up to a second division. The hope is that there will then be room for a fourth division to send teams up to the third division of NISA.
Currently there are various amateur leagues that could fill that void.
“Eliminating entry fees and territorial restrictions, having fan ownership in teams, and promotion and relegation are NISA’s keys to revolutionizing soccer in the United States,” Cummins said.
Of course, that pro/rel thing is the tricky part.
With MLS wanting no part of it and USL having a cozy relationship with the top league, you have to wonder how this new circuit will pull it off.
Will the USSF even allow NISA to join the party?
And if so, can the independent organization get big enough (and bold enough) to become a major player in domestic soccer?
This is how things are explained on the league’s website:
Promotion and relegation is not complete if it does not include a first division. NISA’s vision for pro/rel is not limited to lower division leagues, but we recognize that pro/rel needs to start somewhere. It will likely take 3 to 4 years to fully populate NISA with 24 teams. At that point NISA can begin promoting teams to a second division league. Once that second division league is fully populated, it can begin relegating teams to NISA. There may be a few years that require NISA to bring on expansion teams to replace promoted teams until the second division is fully populated. Pro/Rel with a fourth division league will not happen until a fourth division league plays a full schedule. Connecting to an existing (MLS) or new first division league with pro/rel is something that requires a bit of faith and vision right now, but we believe NISA’s creation is an important piece of that vision.
The words that jumped out to me were “or new first division league,” which tells me the movers and shakers in NISA are prepared to play the long game.
And both Wilt and Cummins are hardly soccer novices.
Wilt has overseen the launch of seven pro teams, and was the founding GM and president of Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire.
Cummins is a former owner (with Wilt) and general counsel for the Chicago Red Stars in Women’s Professional Soccer as well as the past chairman of the expansion and ownership committee for Women’s Professional Soccer.
Obviously any new league is a longshot, especially since MLS and USL seem to have taken command of the top two divisions in North America.
But the NISA is a great idea, and any push for pro/rel is a push I’ll enthusiastically support.
For more info on the league, go to www.nisaofficial.com.