By Cesar Trelles – 10/21/14
Recently I had the pleasure of meeting with the commissioner of the North American Soccer League (NASL) Mr Bill Peterson. With lots of recent chatter surrounding soccer in the United States, I thought that the time was right to profile the man who is hard at work leading a league that has been making waves in the soccer community as opposed to a commissioner who has been busy throwing tirades and threatening influential people who strive to make soccer great in this country.
With their new offices in midtown Manhattan, I sat down for a lively and light hearted chat with the head of the NASL. No cameras, no crowds, no pre-screened questions. Just two guys that like soccer. Prior to the New York Cosmos coming back to the NASL, I’ll be honest, I knew nothing about Bill Peterson so I kicked off our chat by getting to know a bit of his background before coming to the NASL.
Coming to the NASL – “Bringing Sexy Back”
Mr Peterson began his trip back in time by recounting a humorous story of when he was working for NFL Europe, about how he came across soccer. While in Spain with the NFL, he happened to be in Barcelona at the same time that FC Barcelona was about to have a major match. As fate would have it him and his colleagues would sneak into the Camp Nou, not even knowing who the home team that day was. Once inside, who was home team or even who was playing didn’t matter to him. The spectacle that he witnessed was enough to open his eyes. 60,000 strong waving flags, singing, shooting flares and exhibiting a passion that he had never witnessed before, sold him to the beautiful game. For 10 years after that he would attend UEFA Champions League finals, and even the World Cup. From there he established connections in soccer throughout Europe that would prove to be pivotal later in his career. After his time with the NFL he moved to AEG, a sports marketing company, and for 6 years worked on several projects in conjunction with Major League Soccer (MLS). Some of those projects included helping to bring four teams into the league including DC United. He also worked to build The Home Depot Center for the LA Galaxy and secure the rights to bring the Mexican National team into the United States. Finally, after his time with AEG he moved on to do work for the United Football Leauge (UFL). While at the UFL, he received a call from a former colleague asking him if he had any interest in becoming the commissioner of the North American Soccer League. Mr Peterson described a humorous conversation with his wife as one of the reasons he took the job with the NASL. He mentioned to his wife that he was considering taking the role of Commissioner of the North American Soccer League. Her reply kind of surprised Mr Peterson when she asked him,
“Soccer? NASL? Rowdies?”
To which he replied, “Yes, the NASL, where the Rowdies play”.
His wife’s response was, “Oh the Rowdies were sexy back in the day!”.
After weighing various other factors, Mr Peterson accepted the role of NASL Commissioner on November 27, 2012 and started his stint as commissioner with the 2013 spring season. Since becoming the commissioner Mr. Peterson has embraced his position and speaks of his role with enthusiasm as he describes how his vision of the NASL is to be similar to other leagues around the world.
“We don’t care if other people like other teams around the world. Go ahead and sit around and watch other teams around the world, that’s great!”, said Peterson with enthusiasm. “Because we’re trying to be like them. We’re not trying to be different like the other guys (MLS) and it should be pretty familiar with fans. We think its great that fans have other favorite teams in other countries. But then at night, change your scarf, and come out and have a beer with your friends and watch soccer in your backyard.”
The Unwanted Label of 2nd Division
Recently there has been lots of buzz in the media surrounding comments that US Mens National Team head Coach Jurgen Klinsman made about how he selects players for the US Mens National Teams.
“”It’s not up to me now saying that MLS is higher level than NASL because I’m not every weekend around either of those stadiums,” said Jurgen Klinsmann. “What we’re doing more is we look at the players individually, so we’re looking at their path, how they come from their system and where they end up and how they impress then in their respective clubs.”
On the heels of those comments, Peterson insisted that he does not consider the NASL 2nd division. In fact, he argues pretty vehemently against that title and points to the fact that no one has been able to give him a credible rationale for why NASL should be considered second division. He has made his plea on this notion to US Soccer and has vowed to continue this until something changes. He explained the label as second division as absurd in business terms.
“I don’t believe that you pigeon hole a business by saying that you are second division.” insisted Peterson. “Imagine if the US Government told Motorola, ‘sorry, we already have a first division phone company so you’re the second division phone company and you have to make a crappy phone’. Its ludicrous!”,
Mr Peterson further suggests that it really makes no sense to have a first division or second division in US Soccer since there is no promotion or relegation. As a result of that, he feels that the NASL has held up quite well if their success had to be debated.
“We put two teams into the quarterfinals of the Open Cup. We’ve matched up against other teams in the world albeit during friendlies. You’ve watched the other league’s matches and you’ve watched our leagues matches and you tell me the difference.”
Recently the NASL gained another feather in their cap when they had Miguel Ibarra of Minnesota United FC get his first call up and appearance on the US Mens National Team. Ibarra’s appearance, while brief against Honduras, went to further show that the NASL is not the only league in the United States that can produce International team players. Hanson Boakai of FC Edmonton was also chosen to the Canadian National Team as was Andres Flores of the New York Cosmos to play with El Salvador.
Development & Retention of NASL PLayers
With the recent success that has been experienced by players around the NASL, one might wonder if the MLS could potentially start to pick off those players and sway them away from the NASL. Mr Peterson points at the league’s structure as a great way for the league to retain their players and keep them away from MLS. As opposed to the MLS, owners are completely in charge of their respective teams in the NASL. That helps to determine what they might want to do with players once their contracts are up. He admits that owners may want to sell players that have had success in the NASL to help with their team’s finances similar to the way things are done in leagues in Europe. However he points to the fact that players may not be too quick to accept a pay day from MLS when they realize the freedoms and options that they have here in the NASL.
“World soccer is a free market system and we’re going to be part of it”, stated Peterson with a smile on his face. “So you’re going to see everything that you would see from a club internationally, here in the NASL”.
Of course we have seen players such as Miguel Ibarra, Danny Szetela and other find success in the NASL. But in looking towards the future, commissioner Peterson understands that soccer in the United States is not on par salary wise with other sports in the United States. He admits that in the short term, while they may be trying to emulate leagues around the world, the NASL is in no way spending like those leagues do. However he points to the fact that they are finding great young talent and not having to pay high salaries to have those young players compete in the NASL. In looking at the future of youth sports in the United States, Peterson is seeing younger athletes starting to turn away from the more popular sports such as football and baseball and looking more at soccer because of the increased presence at the youth levels and also because of the increasing salaries around the world. He is excited at the increased opportunities that young kids now have to play in academy programs in the United States and encourages his teams to provide those as well.
Over the long run, he expects his owners to put more money into their players since his league is a free market system and he wants his clubs to not only compete on the field but off the field financially as well. He admits that his owners have to find that balance between pouring money into their players and continuing to be financially stable as a club. But before his clubs are spending lavishly on players, he wants his teams to build compelling competition that millions of people will want to watch not only nationally but all over the world, with the ultimate hope that companies will want to pay for the rights to show that competition. He admits that his road plan is ambitious and it might take the next generation to see that potential fulfilled but he is steadfast in his convictions.
In the second part of my chat with the commissioner, he speaks openly about the following topics:
-Future Expansion Of The NASL
-Promotion/Relegation In The United States
-Knocking On CONCACAF’s Door
-International Exposure & Football Calendar
-New Postseason Format
-The future of the NASL
Be on the lookout for this part later this week!