USL president speaks on pro-rel, league finances, stadium upgrades, MLS relationship and more

USL President Jake Edwards was interview by Jeff Rueter of The Athletic, on 08 August 2019.

Edwards has been the league president for five years. During this time, he has presided over a period of rapid growth and increasing stabilisation for the organisation.

Here is a short summary of the highlights of events in the USL during Edwards time as president:

Following an English nomenclature system, in 2018, the upper division of the USL re-branded as the Championship, after taking the place of the defunct North American Soccer League as the United States’ second division for the 2018 season.

In 2019, they added a third-tier division (League One) to further bolster the U.S. soccer pyramid, and re-branded the fourth-division PDL as League Two.

New markets have been ‘discovered’ in places where it was not certain soccer would do well — like Cincinnati, Nashville, Sacramento, Louisville, and Albuquerque are just some of the examples.

Around the time Edwards took over as president, the USL also entered into a partnership with MLS. It gave the lower division a more defined niche in the national soccer landscape and created a way for homegrown players and MLS SuperDraft picks to gain playing minutes via loans to affiliate USL clubs.

Over time, the relationship with MLS has become less central to the league’s identity. Independent USL clubs have usually dominated, both on the field and even more so in attendance.

From Player to Chief Executive

Edwards was a striker whose career took him to play for clubs like Telford United, Exeter City and the Charleston Battery. Last year, he oversaw a record number of seven expansion new clubs join the Championship, putting the circuit at close to 40 teams. The next step in the growth — phase two — will involve building on those gains, especially on infrastructure improvements such as stadiums. Moreover, the league has a growing youth initiative.

Under Edwards’ leadership, the USL has stepped out of MLS’s shadow and is finding its own way.

Here is Edwards’ interview with The Athletic:


Last year was a very ambitious season in terms of expansion for both the Championship and launching League One. Are there any updates on potential markets?

Nashville will be leaving for MLS after the season, and we should have news about a new community soon.

Longer term, there are a number of markets that we’re in conversations with, a few in the east and a few in the west. These are six or eight great markets we’ve got our eye on. We’re working with those groups on getting a stadium built. The reason we have not pushed forward to announce some of these markets is because there’s some work to do there on the stadium front, but we’re looking at really impressive stadiums to build.

But there are six to eight markets that will join the Championship. And then it’s closing. And the real focus, obviously, is expansion of League One. We are ambitiously targeting two conferences by 2021. So we’ve got some movement of teams (from the Championship to League One) and we want to add some expansion teams to League One over the next few years. We would like that to come up into the mid-20s or low-20s by the 2022 season.

You mentioned adding six to eight Championship clubs and then locking it down. Is that a pretty permanent vision, or is that flexible?

No, it’s permanent. It’s not flexible. You know, this is something that is certainly important to the owners and us: You can’t expand forever. You need to get to a number where it makes sense from a competitive point of view, a regional point of view, from those rivalry and derby games and travel costs. Long term, we will be somewhere in the mid- to upper-30s. 

Nashville leaves next year. Cincinnati went to MLS this year. There have been other clubs that have moved to MLS and other ownership groups that are looking at MLS. Does having owners with one eye on a potential MLS expansion affect the dynamic within the league?

We’ve come from a place where as an investor, you were making a choice between the MLS or USL, or perhaps other leagues that existed a few years ago. You are thinking, ‘What makes the most sense? What’s got the best upside long term? What can I afford?’ I am pleased with where we are now, in terms of where we’ve taken our business where we’re taking the value of our business and our league.

We’ve proved we’ve got a very valuable league. We’ve got a model that’s different than MLS, that allows clubs to do different things. We’ve proved we can build great fanbases and have great relationships within our communities between our club and our fans. The cost of entry is sensible and the quality of stadiums we need to build is reasonable in terms of cost. Therefore we can offer a very attractive business opportunity for an owner that has a huge amount of potential.

What that translates into our meetings here is that we want a group of owners that are all in … and that’s what we’ve got. So, I think we’re coming to the end of (a period) where you will see a Nashville-type situation. The onus is on us to prove that this is the better place to be for our owners. And we’ve accomplished that and the conversation internally now has changed.

You mentioned the stadium projects as being a key part of some of these upcoming USL expansion sides. There are still existing clubs that play on baseball diamonds, or that will play in suboptimal stadiums. Is there going to be a league-wide mandate to set a baseline of expectations for stadiums?

We spend some time with the owners on this topic fairly regularly. It got significant time during these meetings, and we have made great progress. We have come to the end of a 10-year strategic plan where we’ve built 16 soccer specific stadiums. We opened two this year, in Austin and Hartford, and a couple of others have broken ground on amazing stadiums.

Our ambition up to 2020 to have all teams in soccer specific stadiums was a good one, but we’ve found that our fans are coming out in greater numbers than the ambition of that project. When we have the top third of our league drawing 8,000 and above in average attendance, thinking about those 6,000-seat stadiums doesn’t work anymore. It just doesn’t work for the economics of the business either.

So we’ve shifted into a new direction now with our stadium initiative. As we look forward to the 2026 World Cup, we want to build bigger and better stadiums. The opportunity is there. The cities are engaged with us in the markets that we’re in (and) the owners are totally focused on this as a massive turning point for the health of the business. They’re prepared to invest, and the fans should demand and expect a better environment to watch the game that is authentic and right for the sport. 

When you go into a market like Louisville and play in a baseball stadium — it’s challenging for Louisville City to play in that environment and challenging for the opposing teams that go in there. It’s not the right environment. It’s suboptimal in terms of pure soccer environment, but they made the most of that. Had they not been able to play there for a few years, we wouldn’t be opening up an amazing soccer stadium next year with 12,000-plus seats in downtown Louisville, right? We hadn’t proved it yet. So you have to compromise a little bit to get these clubs, these brands off the ground and prove that there’s demand to build the right stadium. 

Some teams now are coming in with a stadium that’s already built. El Paso are in a baseball stadium — Fresno and Reno and Albuquerque, who are blowing the doors off as well with 15,000 people at a game. That’s the only stadium there that makes sense for us. Those clubs are all committed to building soccer specific stadiums, but we’ve got to give them a little bit of time. Within that 2026 timeline, we feel we can get all, or at least the vast majority, of our teams into these amazing new soccer stadiums. 

We’ve come from a place where as an investor, you were making a choice between the MLS or USL, or perhaps other leagues that existed a few years ago. You are thinking, ‘What makes the most sense? What’s got the best upside long term? What can I afford?’ I am pleased with where we are now, in terms of where we’ve taken our business where we’re taking the value of our business and our league.

We’ve proved we’ve got a very valuable league. We’ve got a model that’s different than MLS, that allows clubs to do different things. We’ve proved we can build great fanbases and have great relationships within our communities between our club and our fans. The cost of entry is sensible and the quality of stadiums we need to build is reasonable in terms of cost. Therefore we can offer a very attractive business opportunity for an owner that has a huge amount of potential.

What that translates into our meetings here is that we want a group of owners that are all in … and that’s what we’ve got. So, I think we’re coming to the end of (a period) where you will see a Nashville-type situation. The onus is on us to prove that this is the better place to be for our owners. And we’ve accomplished that and the conversation internally now has changed.

There’s still no prize money for winning the USL Championship final, right?

There is not, at this point, prize money for winning the final. So there again, another thing that we have been working on with our teams is to identify sources for that fund. What should it be? What does it look like? How is it distributed? It’s going to happen as soon as possible, maybe as soon as next season. 

When League One was launched, there was speculation that it could be a fertile place to try a promotion-and-relegation-based open system between the two leagues. I know you’ve talked about some reconfiguration of the clubs like Richmond, who moved to League One because it fit better. Is an open system something that may be entertained as you’re looking at the next five, 10-plus years?

Yeah, it is. We have the Championship, League One and League Two. We are evaluating what the landscape looks like in all of those divisions over the course of the next few seasons. But that work is happening now.

We are working on the potential of an interleague cup, and this is something which we would like to see if we can launch in 2021. We spent some time with our owners on that today, and we will have a full presentation for the owners in the winter meetings for a vote to see if that’s something that they would like to include in the competition calendar. That would give us an idea of how these clubs are going to stack up against each other and what the parity looks like. 

When I get this question about promotion and relegation, having played in that system in England for a decade, I’m well aware of the ups and downs. I’m well aware of the effect that it has on clubs, and employment and revenues and all the rest of it. But I’m also well aware of the excitement and the drama, and the reward for ambition, and the punishment for apathy.

It’s not a model that has history here, but you have a fanbase in America that is very dialed into the sport. I think USL can offer something different. Could it include promotion and relegation? Yes, it could. … We’re not there yet. You know, we don’t want to introduce something that puts too much strain on teams. 

Do you worry about an owner questioning their investment to get into the Championship if they get relegated?

We have to work with the owners on any kind of restructure if that happens. The reality of it is you don’t have enormous TV distributions of wealth at any level of soccer in America. The risk of moving down a division is not the same as it is, perhaps, in some other leagues around the world. From an economic point of view, your local revenue and your fan support should not significantly drop off. Your revenue generation opportunities shouldn’t really change that much, and then it’s up to you and your ambition to get back up. So I don’t think it has a devastating impact on the business or on the value of the franchise as you value those clubs’ revenue performance.

Where do the expansion fees go? Is that a lump sum to work with at the league office or is that distributed across the clubs?

Franchise fees typically come in to the league office in installments, and from there they get reinvested back into the league. A great example of that is our TV production through USL headquarters, which we’ve invested $10 million into now. We don’t have capital calls with our owners, so any of these projects have to be self-funded. We now have 65 full-time employees in the league office. We’re investing in major projects like our USL Academy initiative. That money is getting reinvested into the growth of the next phase, because we’re still just 10 years in now under the current ownership, but it’s still a startup. We’re still investing into all of these areas. Broadcast is expensive. We need to put a lot of resources into that, so when those funds come in, they’re getting reinvested into this organization to continue to build it up.

One of my colleagues at The Athletic reported on the potential for all MLS 2 clubs to be moved to League One. How would you describe the USL’s current relationship with MLS?

We have a very good relationship with MLS. We’ve been partners in this endeavor for the last six years or so. We’ve been working together to see how we can push the game forward in different ways. As two professional men’s soccer leagues, or two men’s soccer organizations, I should say, in the U.S., we have to work together. We worked together on VAR, we’re seeing how we can collaborate on the new head injury program that we’re working on with IFAB. We have a good working relationship. 

We are in discussions with MLS right now working on what the next phase of our relationship looks like. We’re exploring all the options, and we’re trying to identify what makes sense for our league, and our clubs, and where the Championship is now and what the Championship needs to evolve into. 

As far as MLS 2 teams, they’re members of our league that are still contributing to that vision. We’re hoping by the fall to have an agreement in place with MLS on how we might collaborate moving forward. We’ll be able to share more information once we have agreed on that. But it’s a bit of a work in progress right now.

Looking ahead to the next decade, where do you hope to see the USL when it turns 20 years old?

During my playing days, I never really looked further than the weekend. Now when we look forward, I’m looking as far as the World Cup in 2026. I think that’s a great event that’s going to come and change the game here — far more, in my opinion, than it did when it came in 1994. We’re starting at a much more sophisticated place. That’s what we’re using as a guidepost: the league that we want to be when the World Cup arrives. 

When I see the USL championship (at 20), I’m seeing a league of healthy clubs that have healthy business models. They are in 12,000- to 15,000-seat soccer stadiums that are doing extremely well at the gate and have strong fanbases. The clubs have invested in training academies and training infrastructure. We built the academy league, and we are a league that is developing and selling up and abroad quality players. I’m seeing a league that has a robust, healthy media partnership and a great set of commercial partners on board with us. I’m seeing a league that’s innovative, but is focused on the fanbase.

It’s a football-first league, but it’s also a fan-first league. They’re our most important constituency; they make this whole merry-go-round. We don’t exist today without the amazing fans we have in our community. I envision a league where a lot of the USL players are going to be playing in that World Cup in 2026. We had over 25 in the Gold Cup this summer. It’s a league that’s having a massive impact on the growth of the game. It’s a league that’s going to be different. It’s going to be very exciting to go and watch and to be part of, and to be a fan of, to be a commercial partner and an owner of.

We are seeing the beginnings of that now. You’re seeing the potential of that in some of the markets that we’re in. In seven years’ time, my vision is you’re going to be seeing that more. You’re going to have a championship club in your city, with a quality stadium and a great team on the field that you’re watching, still doing some amazingly cool things in the community with a really strong fanbase behind each one of those. Beyond that, who knows what’s possible, but the good thing about our structure: there’s no limits. There’s no restriction, so it’s really a league structure that rewards ambition.