The newly appointed second tier United Soccer League is growing at an unprecedented rate. Their aggressive aggressive, yet strategic, expansion plan that has seen a total 20 new teams come to the league in the last three years. A strategic and aggressive expansion plan buoyed by a partnership with MLS and a pathway to top level soccer has created new opportunities for growth. This has led to new soccer specific stadiums and broadcast opportunities that are just two of the many positive signs for the development of lower league soccer in the United States.
USL President Jake Edwards: Strategic Expansion Leads to New Opportunities
USL President Jake Edwards was able to join us for this weekend’s Last Word SC podcast to talk about how his league is growing with plans for soccer specific stadiums and new broadcast opportunities.
Division II Status and Strategic Expansion
The most important step in the development of the league was the granting of Division II status by U.S. Soccer. Edwards said that it was a distinction that has been a long time coming for the league and it’s clubs, calling it “a validation of all the hard work that the clubs have put into their infrastructures, to their communities, to building the fan bases, to the investments made in the first team all the way down to the youth level.”
Edwards spoke of his strategic plan for adding expansion teams to the league. Three new clubs have entered the league this year. Newly founded Reno 1868 is joined by Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ottawa Fury from the NASL for the 2017 season. While national exposure is one of their goals, Edwards makes sure not to ignore the game on the local level. “We’ve expanded strategically but aggressively over the last three or four years and we’ve done so with an eye on building a national footprint for our league, but focusing on a regional rivalry model so we can build those local derby games and we’ve done a pretty good job of that over the last few seasons.”
Several USL clubs are attached to MLS expansion bids and Edwards fully supports their quest for promotion. The league is proud of the clubs that move on and will continue to show pride in any that move up in the future. He says the development of a fan base at the USL level has led to several clubs becoming the most successful teams in MLS. He uses clubs like Sacramento Republic, FC Cincinnati, and others aiming for MLS to challenge the rest of the league to operate at a high level.
USL’s Vision for Soccer Specific Stadiums
Soccer specific stadiums are another key item on his agenda. He is challenging every team in the league to build their own stadium with a seating capacity of eight to ten thousand. According to Edwards, the main driving force for that initiative is improving the fan experience. “It makes such a difference for the match day experience. As you know when you’re a fan and you’re in a building that has stands and has a roof on it. It keeps the sound in there, the shape of the building showcases the sport in the right way, creates a great professional environment for the players and you can attract players to play in those kind of stadiums.”
He says new stadiums can be a game changer for the league in much the same way it has been for MLS, which just saw former USL champions Orlando City open a gorgeous new facility. The league has 12 soccer stadiums built right now and Edwards says there are six more on the way. There are a couple joining the league in 2017, including a 10,000 seat project for Rio Grande Valley FC, which Edwards had plenty of praise for.
New Broadcasting and Streaming Opportunities
The USL was once only available to watch on YouTube. Last year, they started streaming select matches, including the championship game, on ESPN3, the streaming platform for the cable sports giant. That relationship has been beneficial to the league and Edwards hopes to grow it in the future. He says there are a lot of great people at ESPN with a lot of love for the game of soccer. SiriusXM also broadcasts their games on national satellite radio.
Their investments in broadcast infrastructure are going to be a huge platform for the growth of the league. They are moving on from individual teams producing games to a league run broadcasting system. New technology will allow them to produce a high quality broadcast experience at a very low cost through the development of a USL video network. That new network will link the teams together in order to quickly distribute highlights and give the fans a better viewing experience for each of their 500+ matches on the season. All broadcasts will be produced at an off site command center that will help to keep production costs down and production quality high.
Edwards was very positive about the growth of the league on all fronts. More teams are coming into the league with beautiful and expertly designed soccer stadiums and fans will be able to access the league in exciting new ways, as well. He had a lot more to say about the present and future of the USL. You can hear the full interview on this week’s edition of the Last Word SC Podcast with myself and Matt Pollard to be published Friday morning. Make sure you check it out.