After two days of Cascadia themed discussion, it is time to move to a different soccer business topic. On Wednesday, Major League Soccer and USL PRO, the third tier in American announced a substantial partnership aimed at significantly improving the development of players in American professional soccer. The new arrangement provides an outlet for competitive matches for players long consigned to the league’s inadequate reserve system. As part of the new arrangement, four teams, including New England and Kansas City, will establish direct affiliate relationships with a USL squad and abandon their reserve league teams. The other MLS franchises have agreed to send four players to a USL side.
The player development benefits notwithstanding, there are some clear business benefits to the new relationship. MLS teams will now have the opportunity to extend their reach into new markets. By way of example, KC’s new relationship with Orlando will allow the team and league penetrate the elusive Florida market, while DC’s alignment with Richmond will allow DC to shore up its base deeper into the important Virginia market.
Fans identify with players they can follow as they make the leap from lower leagues to the top (minor league baseball being the classic example). Now fans in non-MLS cities will have a reason to follow the league on television as players they first saw plying their trade in the lower leagues advance. Because the lower divisions are exceptionally fan friendly, these players will have extra opportunities to connect with the local fan base, further cementing ties.
From the USL perspective, the new relationship adds legitimacy by way of the new affiliations. A minor league team will be more appealing because of its affiliation with a major league franchise. From the official release:
“USL PRO has for the past several years been the most sophisticated and competitive professional soccer league under MLS,” USL CEO Alec Papadakis said. “This new partnership with MLS will elevate and strengthen the level of competition for domestic professional soccer while simultaneously creating a more sustainable financial model for team owners. As a result, we expect this partnership will forge a seamless system for the development of players and coaches, and promote the expansion of professional soccer into new North American markets.”