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After years of wondering whether or not the game was latching on in the North American countries not named Mexico it seems that every weekend there is some small reminder of how far the game has come.
Whether it is the supporters of Detroit City F.C. showing up in the tens of thousands to a league match or FC Chattanooga drawing 18,000 supporters for an NPSL match there are little hints or signs that the game is growing.
But for as much as these advances are promising there almost feels like there is a glass ceiling that no matter what these teams do that there is no big payoff.
While the success of the lower division sides in terms of getting teams to the gate is promising it is a bit startling that after twenty years of having some level of definition between the different divisions that we still do not know how to classify each division of U.S. and Canadian soccer.
Part of the problem is a lack of knowledge of the local sides. Aside from the Major League Soccer sides, who have multi-million dollar staffs and firms, most teams in the lower levels of U.S. Soccer, and Canadian soccer for that matter, operate on shoe-string budgets or on all-volunteer staffs.
Teams in the NASL, USL, and in NPSL do not have the funds or the means to do much self promotion and often have to rely on word of mouth.
The fly by night nature of these leagues is also a problem. Although the teams in the United States and Canada are much more stable than they were in the past, there is still great amounts of instability within the lower divisions.
As opposed to European football sides, which date back decades, most lower level sides here in the United States are under ten years old. There just isn’t the connection with some of these sides because fans have not grown up with them. Perhaps in time that they will but that will be a long time coming.
While many would point to promotion and relegation as the solution to the problem it unfortunately provides a certain level of naivete of how deep the issue is. Yes it would help if supporters knew that their club could play with the best clubs in the country. Yes, it would likely lead to some spikes in attendance.
But those that point to promotion/relegation as the cure of all evils miss out on the economics. Just because a team can put together a competent set up does not necessarily mean that it can put together a financially successful one.
Football history is littered with stories of clubs who punch above their weight and reach unprecedented levels of success only tumble because of their inability to compete financially.
Portsmouth, Sheffield, Wimbledon, and Wigan are all examples of this. The approach of “well, it will work because we believe” may sound nice on Twitter but probably will not work in a business meeting.
So how does U.S. Soccer build local teams and move this situation from one where there are a few thousand fans to tens of thousands of fans and stronger lower divisions?
Television helps. With the NASL’s deal with CBS Sports, beINSPORTS, and One World Sports and USL’s deals with ESPN3 and YouTube local supporters now have a chance to watch more league matches and in time develop more of a rapport with their teams and leagues.
Building a better relationship with MLS will also help. Now many (including those in the NASL) may shudder at the thought of building strong partnerships with the top flight division of American and Canadian soccer given that they have openly courted markets with pre-existing teams.
It never helps a relationship when plucks teams from the lower leagues and forces them to change their names and logos then claims that promotion and relegation will never work.
Let us also not take U.S. Soccer and the Canadian Soccer Association off of the hook here. As much as MLS is considered the big bad boogeyman it takes Football Associations to allow these things to happen.
As opposed to coming up with a crystal clear policy and a formula for how to run their lower leagues both organisations have adopted a “Listen to the person who drops the biggest truck of cash at our front door” policy.
Although this has created some pretty effective clubs, it has made the league endorse products that even Krusty the Clown would have a hard time shilling.
But there are benefits to at least working with the league. Domestic football is not big in the United States to support the angry and vitriolic attitudes that are spouted from both perspectives.
While these positions might matter to a fringe some, to the greater population that loves sports but does not have three hours to run through every angry tweet about promotion/relegation these things are meaningless.
All people see is Major League Soccer and a group of individuals that are mad about something.
If both sides learn to work with one another then perhaps in time they can both achieve their own desired results. In the meantime everyone loses.
The biggest key to building long-term success at the lower levels is finding people and groups that are committed to building strong clubs, and not necessarily strong MLS clubs.
All parties that are involved in these negotiations (U.S. Soccer/CSA, the league, and possibly MLS) have to consider what the intentions are of the person or group wanting to buy a club.
MLS is not going to expand to 50 sides so finding people that are interested in the long-term success of their team and the support in their area is critical.
For local clubs in the United States to succeed the bigger issues of promoting their brand and their relationship with MLS will need to improve. Supporters will also need to be patient.
To build a successful system here in the United States it is going to take not days or weeks or a handful of tweets.
It is going to take years and a lot of luck to develop a product that is on par with the rest of the world.