We continue our two-part coverage of the NASL media conference call with Commisso’s answers to questions from the Q&A half of the call.
When asked if winning the permanent injunction could lead to instituting promotion and relegation in the United States, Commisso replied, “this lawsuit is not about promotion and relegation. Obviously that system does not exist in the United States. What this lawsuit is seeking is to end the professional league standards, which are very anti-competitive and blocks competition. Is it possible that in the future some group – the USSF or others – could propose that there be a promotion and relegation system in the United States after the professional league standards are struck down? That will be decided in the future by those participating in the industry and marketplace. This lawsuit will neither require that nor preclude it.”
When asked how important was the preliminary injunction to the NASL continuing, Rocco Commisso answered: “The answer is, it is extraordinarily important to that. We need this preliminary injunction relief or else, without a division two certification, it is not likely the NASL will be able to continue on a going forward basis. Which is one of the reasons why we believe the court looking at this will see that, and hopefully grant the relief that we are requesting.”
When asked what options might exist if a favorable hearing does not happen – specifically questioning whether the NASL might consider operating without sanction – Commisso answered with a flat ‘no’ to any possible consideration for the league operating without sanction. He listed the difficulties that would ensue if attempting to operate without a FIFA sanction. They included access to a larger player pool and lack of access to tournaments.
When asked a similar question about options, Rocco Commisso, with some irritation, indicated that the question had already been answered. When a third similar question was asked, Commisso reiterated his original reply – that the NASL has cast high hopes and expectations that it will win the preliminary injunction ruling. “But if it does not, however,” Commisso said, “the NASL has no plan, option or pathway to be able to continue in its current format as the NASL.” A pause appeared, and he added, “It doesn’t mean, though, that the lawsuit stops. Right? That’s a different issue, but the league may not be able to continue.”
When asked why the NASL, aware of the USSF’s anticompetitive requirements, was unable to meet them, Commisso answered with a rhetorical analogy using an example of a patently impossible requirement; expressed that no professional league could meet USSF Division One requirements. He then points out that Major League Soccer (MLS) could not meet them either, and has required waivers for most of its time in existence. Commisso then questioned how the MLS can meet Division One requirements relating to ownership seeing as MLS is a single-entity franchise and has historically had periods of time where “three or four owners” ran all the teams in the league. Rocco Commisso then outlined his understanding of the financial dependencies and conflicts of interest between USSF and MLS as a means of explaining the USSF’s motivation in shielding the MLS from risk of competition. He then, at turns, entreated and cajoled the soccer media community to ‘do their jobs’ and shine more light onto this relationship in US soccer, and how the USSF promised to cooperate with the NASL to improve their role in US soccer but failed to do so.
When asked about Ricardo Silva’s campaign for promotion and relegation in the Court of Athletic Sport (CAS), and its impact in the USSF’s decision to de-sanction the NASL, Rocco Commisso answered: “I don’t have a good answer to that…I’ve been focused on other policies in the US, which are more important right now…I would just add that it’s very clear that the USSF has applied the rules against the NASL for many years to prevent it from competing with the MLS, and that would precede that recent CAS case that was filed that you’re referring to. This anti-competitive application predates that. Whether that application has any further impact on USSF action, you might ask them.”
When asked about the spin/perception comparing the NASL and USL; how the USL has seemed successful in expanding past team requirements; whether the NASL has encountered different challenges in expanding, and why has USL been able to expand so significantly in the past 12 months, Jeffrey Kessler added “The USL has a completely different situation. It is economically linked to MLS. It serves as a feeder league for many of their teams in terms of developing players. It actually receives assistance in many cases from MLS. It has outright affiliations. And it has publicly declared that it views its role as a developmental league for MLS. It has no aspirations to compete at the Division One level. They have publicly stated that. They want to be the minor league connected to, affiliated with, MLS. In that position, they are able to add teams, as you said, under that model, which is a very different model, the one that’s not at all threatening to MLS. They therefore receive favor and support from USSF as demonstrated by fact that – you’re correct – they satisfy the team requirement but certainly do not satisfy stadium requirement…yet the USSF did not reject their Division Two application outright. Instead, they said, ‘Ok come back, and give us a plan for eventually getting there’, and I believe they may have at least eight, maybe more, teams that do not meet the stadium requirements for Division Two. So we think they have been favored. We think their model is very different; and that’s why they’ve been able to add teams for a very different purpose and competitive objective.”
What to make of all this?[Reminder: In case this was not immediately obvious, First Team Podcast contributors are not lawyers. Yet.]
It sounds like the NASL’s lawyers believe it’s very beneficial a consistent message is made as to the existential consequences of a non-favorable ruling on the preliminary injunction. There must be no confusion around the ability of the NASL to operate as a Division Three league. This makes sense, as the loss of the D2 sanction will likely trigger a number of current and soon-to-be onboard teams need to seek alternative accommodations. It’s important to the NASL that the judge and the public have no reason to believe it can continue to operate as a Division Three league, or that there are alternatives with which it might avail itself in the time remaining after the preliminary injunction relief ruling. This is not a position that serves Cosmos fans, of course. We might intellectually understand this might be a necessary legal position to evince, but it is incredibly frustrating and dissatisfying. Much of Cosmos Country would likely agree with the statement that we love our club, whether D2 or D3. In as much as the Cosmos’ fortunes are tied to that of the NASL’s, I don’t fool myself that the NASL pursues this case primarily out of service to American soccer.
It’s increasingly difficult to see anything innocent or ultimately pro-competitive in the financial and governance connections between USSF, MLS and Soccer United Marketing (SUM). USL has been positioned as a favored inside-track to artificially scarce D1 markets MLS creates using considerations not limited to size and interest and the wealth of interested ownership groups.
Looking at the USL attendance charts, the main factor uplifting average league attendance are those teams known to have ‘the attention of the league’ (as communicated by the amount of soccer press attention their applications possess). Which came first – the club following, or the signal that a particular club has a ‘viable’ bid? That the only NASL clubs voting against, or to abstain from, the lawsuit are ones with D1 bid packages of some viability actually seems to highlight the insidiousness and effectiveness of the collusion between MLS and USSF. Without those MLS 2 teams, average attendance the idea that USL is actually doing as well as some might suggest. The health of the USL will be tested once all the slots are filled. The speed at which it moves to also fill the D3 tier is also suspect, as it gathered steam alongside Peter Wilt’s efforts to stand up NISA, an independent D3 league carrying an intention to operate within a pro/rel relationship with D2 and D4 leagues. Whether the USL’s greater role in its relationship with MLS is intended as competition or spoiler and, once dispersed, would fade back to a lower development role.
The USSF and MLS has a lot more to lose here than the NASL. That alone should make the USSF more cautious than it seems to be at first blush. With FIFA coming down hard on Australia’s closed-league federation, and its allergy to sunlight and lawsuits, this is not a low-risk situation for the federation. The (slow) increase in lawsuit coverage by larger media outlets suggests that even those with money and relationships at stake are beginning to find it worthwhile to say things that the USSF and MLS would really rather not get airtime.
Rocco Commisso’s desire to stay on message and circulate his narrative of USSF/MLS anti-competitive collusion may have stepped on its own feet a few times in leaning hard on the work ethic of a mostly voluntary press community, but in listening to the call a couple of times and seeing some of the threads circulating on social media, he didn’t compromise his intent. More people seem to be talking about the NASL. Even as it brings out the disparagers with oversimplified, overly narrow critiques, the USSF and its relationships have undergone growing scrutiny. This is borne out in louder pro/rel conversations, the explosion in candidates interested in Sunil Gulati’s job, and talk of USSF corruption. The attacks on the NASL’s character and stability, performed outside of context or relevance, are not matched by earnest defense of the USSF’s integrity and execution of its purpose to serve all areas of American soccer.
We look on to October 31st with a mixture of feelings. If this is to be the end, perhaps some good will come out of this. I think pro/rel, consistent support by the federation for all levels of US soccer, and the relevance of clubs over leagues is the future American soccer should live in. I don’t know if we’ll get any closer to it with the larger lawsuit, but if it mitigates the ability of the USSF to hold back that future it will be progress of a sort. Some pro/rel advocates see the NASL as doing the USSF a favor if they’re able to destroy its responsibility for divisional sanctions. I don’t intuitively see that as the case; too much of the USSF’s history is tied to their support. There are better ways to get rid of accountabilities found to be burdensome, I think. All I know is that I just want to see my club take the field year after year, and face competitive, honest opposition. For that reason, the preliminary injunction – for now – is all.