The Biggest Leagues have Little History
Dive into the depths of American soccer history and you find thousands of clubs that came and went. Ask an MLS fan about the league’s history and you get 25 years of relative success, slowly building to the current state of affairs, which is certainly the most successful soccer league in the United States. But 25 years isn’t very far back down the timeline, particularly if you consider the history of soccer in other countries. Before the founding of MLS in 1993, there were plenty of failed attempts at professional soccer leagues. The most famous, of course, was the NASL, which featured the high flying NY Cosmos of the mid 1970’s. That league existed for 16 years before folding in 1984 (the current NASL was named after the original league, but otherwise has no connection). And below the professional and semi-professional leagues there are thousands of local leagues and clubs that toil in the fringes of the national soccer conversation.
The current soccer pyramid is spread across this country like a patchwork quilt, featuring clubs of all levels pinned on the map. While MLS and USL seem to be reaching a level of stasis not seen in previous professional American leagues, the substrata of the pyramid is more malleable and precarious. Clubs announce formation, exist for as long as they can break even, then fold and disappear into a dead wikipedia page. In this environment, the most important question facing these lower tier or non-league clubs is this:
“How do we define success?”
In preparation for this article that question was asked of multiple representatives of lower tier clubs. The best response came from Jeremy Sharpe, co-founder of Bearfight FC, when he defined success as “surviving for another day”. Before hitting any other metric of success, a club must first face the necessary question of existence.
A club’s continued existence rests at the bottom of the ledger sheet each year. In the lower tiers, clubs have to hunt for revenue streams that are readily available to MLS clubs. The primary form of funding for professional clubs in the United States is TV contracts, of course (I’m sure some MLS haters may want to say expansion fees, which is a fair point), but for most lower tier clubs, there is no TV revenue. Even the second-tier league, the USL, has little visibility on national or even regional television (ESPN+ has just started streaming games which is a step in the right direction). But if you’re an amateur club, playing in a lower league, broadcasting contracts aren’t really an option. Certainly not a profitable option anyway.
So without the big TV contracts, lower tier clubs must look for other revenue streams. Kit sponsorship is a potential revenue stream, but that involves finding a local business willing to toss money to be on your shirt.
One team I spoke with while researching this article said that how much you get for a kit sponsorship depends on who you're asking. They tailor their bid to their target sponsor. “If you really think about it, you’re not gonna ask for $5,000 from Joe’s Chicken Shack knowing that they are a small operation. But you may go to KFC and say the package is $5,000.”
“Lower league soccer is a lot like craft beer. MLS is the Budweiser.”
Jon Langlois, Boston Siege
Another club managed to secure a sponsorship deal with an ex-professional player, but those types of deals are like unicorns and leprechauns (you’ve heard of them, but never seen one in real life).
Aside from kit sponsorships, the primary revenue stream for lower tier clubs is the gate. Prices for tickets vary across the country, depending on the local economy and customer expectation. At FC Grande in Las Cruces, NM, the cost of attendance is $5. On the other side of the country, in Boston, MA, the Boston Siege charge $10 to get in. But attracting a live audience in a crowded media market can be difficult. Most clubs are averaging 50-150 a match and even that revenue is split with the visiting club. Even worse for some clubs, local ordinances won’t allow clubs to charge a gate if they are using publicly owned facilities.
Lowcountry United, based out of Charleston, SC, has been placed in a difficult financial position because of this. “Unfortunately it’s becoming a situation where our revenue isn’t sufficient to sustain our growth so we personally are losing the battle.” This is a club that is currently undefeated in their division of the UPSL and unable to charge attendance to their matches.
For most of these clubs, breaking even is the best they can hope for. That’s because, while revenue streams are limited and fluctuate, the cost of operating a club is reliably expensive. One club interviewed for this article mentioned that last year their revenue streams only equaled half their total operating costs. Travel, referee fees, league dues, venue cost, and coaches all add up to a loss for the vast majority of local clubs.
The gaps are usually filled by owners and supporters of the club, willing to take a loss for the continued existence of their beloved football club. But that’s not a sustainable model and certainly no recipe for success in American soccer.
Success in the lower tiers right now is defined as survival. It’s finding the revenue to support operating costs. While stagnant MLS clubs enjoy small profits season to season, mere survival in the lower level leagues is no guarantee. The only way for these local teams to have long-term success is for fans of the game to begin investing in them. Buy a shirt, order a scarf, show up for a match. If the American soccer fan doesn’t begin caring about the club down the street, this rise in soccer popularity may fizzle and fade.
The teams on the ground are trying to make local soccer a reality. Jon Langlois from the Boston Siege put it this way, “Lower league soccer is a lot like craft beer. MLS is the Budweiser.” To follow that analogy to its conclusion, lower league soccer is waiting for the craft revolution to hit. Without that revolution, tomorrow’s existence isn’t guaranteed.
Author: Dan Vaughn