An analysis of the ramifications of the NASL’s antitrust suit

You know that scene in Airplane that’s always cut from the TV broadcast? When Ted Striker says something’s going to hit the fan, the camera cuts to the airport office, and said something does indeed hit the fan?

Yeah. That’s my analysis of the ramifications of the NASL’s antitrust suit. But, because this is how we roll, we’re going to dig deeper.

The lawsuit might not be a bad thing. From the youth soccer mandates to the national team ticket prices, the U.S. soccer (lowercase) community has one major complaint against U.S. Soccer (uppercase):

The Federation has become unspeakably arrogant. 

So this is a shot across the bow of U.S. Soccer, and perhaps it’s well-deserved. Maybe this will force the Federation to take a good hard look at the state of the lower divisions, listen to the people involved and take more of an enlightened leadership role. It’s certainly an ominous sign that at least three of the four current members (and the two USSF staff liaisons) of the Professional League Standards Task Force are lawyers — one of them an attorney for the Federation from 2001 to 2009.

That said … are the people filing this suit really the people who should be leading the revolution?

The NASL (see Part 2 of my pro/rel series, which will resume this week) has always been an oddball. It revived the brand name of a dead league that still holds unofficial world records for rule changes and Bugs Bunny appearances, then posited itself as the paragon of traditional soccer. Among the many ironies at play here — the old NASL never bothered with the U.S. Open Cup, which the current NASL touts as proof of its competitiveness:

I’d like to see a breakdown of that 42%. In any case, the Open Cup semifinals (for that matter, most of the quarterfinals) tend to proceed without NASL involvement.

The last two sentences here are classic Jeffrey Kessler, the lawyer who has been wildly successful in every manner of sports litigation except soccer. (See my entry from when the NASL first floated the antitrust warning two years ago.) They may seem convincing to people who don’t know the U.S. soccer landscape. They’re easily refuted by those who do.

And those who do tend to point out inconvenient facts like this:

And here’s a final concern: Court cases have generally been very, very bad for soccer. The MLS players lawsuit (again, Kessler involved) drained a lot of resources from a developing league that could’ve been used to put the league on firmer ground, and it was hardly the first time …

Steve also made the point that league-vs.-league competition has been good in many U.S. sports. But it hasn’t been so good in U.S. soccer. Indoor soccer never recovered from the alphabet soup of the 1990s — though it’s still hanging in there (and might take off if someone added an ambitious team like, say, the Cosmos?). The “Soccer Wars” of the late 1920s threw a wrench into the progress of the American Soccer League.

All that said, U.S. Soccer surely could’ve stopped all this. Look back on the Professional League Standards helpfully published by Neil Morris, whose digging on lower-division soccer is invaluable. (Try PDF from Neil’s old site or non-PDF from Kenn Tomasch.) They’re a little overboard. It’s one thing to make sure teams don’t pop up and blow away like dandelion seeds. It’s another to say you can have multiple Division 2 leagues and then make it nearly impossible for two leagues to meet the standards.

To remain in Division 2, the NASL is supposed to have 12 teams. (Someone, probably Neil, pointed out that a Division 1 women’s league has to have at least 10 teams by year four, which means the NWSL currently has no margin for error.) They’re all supposed to have an owner (at least 35% of the club) with an individual net worth of at least $20 million. They have to be in the Eastern, Central and Pacific time zones.

Why? What’s the harm in having a second division that’s 10 teams in the East and Central? Or eight teams in the Pacific? Why one principal owner with at least $20 million to throw around?

Yes, you can get waivers. Expect Kessler to paint those waivers as purely arbitrary. And he may have a point.

In short: This whole mess really could’ve been avoided. Maybe it’s unrealistic to relaunch the NASL and the Cosmos with pretenses of glory. Maybe it’s unrealistic for the Federation to try to solve the problem with implausible standards.

Maybe everyone involved deserves to be involved.



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Beau Dure

The guy who wrote a bunch of soccer books and now runs a Gen X-themed podcast while substitute teaching and continuing to write freelance stuff.

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