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With season over, fate of USL at stake

Kartik Krishnaiyer reports today that the breakaway threat involving several United Soccer Leagues owners — including the Atlanta Silverbacks in something called The Ownership Association — is looking more likely.

Among the developments: Even some Professional Development League owners are unhappy with USL management, and further fractures in the developmental system of North American soccer could result.

Also, the new Atlanta-based owners of the USL system, whose purchase from Nike led to the breakaway threat after years of disenchantment, don’t appear to have satisfied the essential complaints about the organization:

NuRock Soccer Holdings, it is confirmed to us by multiple sources has a management plan for USL which does have some new wrinkles to the old operating procedures of the league. However, these changes we are told do not address the numerous, articulated concerns of the TOA.

Silverbacks president Boris Jerkunica told Atlanta Soccer News recently that serious machinations are continuing, but he wouldn’t elaborate.

Whether there will be organized men’s soccer of any kind in Atlanta — either with the Silverbacks or a PDL franchise run by NuRock last season — is among the unanswered questions apparently being sorted out.

October 19, 2009   1 Comment

Some advice for USL brass, new and old

Fresh off their intervention with the U.S. Soccer Federation’s Sunil Gulati, longtime United Soccer League boss Francisco Marcos and Alec Papadakis, one of his designated successors with the Atlanta-based NuRock Soccer Holdings, are rubbing elbows with some of the leading suits in the global game.

Don’t laugh too hard. It makes sense for North American solons to be there, and certainly their presence couldn’t be any more audacious than Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber’s admonition to the big spenders of Europe to follow the single-entity model.

I can hear ringing peals of laughter for that one.

What remarks, if any, the USL brass might have for their fellow soccer executives in Londontown aren’t known right now, but here’s some very practical advice they might be wise to bring back to these continental shores:

“Let us hope Marcos and Papadakis are doing a lot of the learning part, as back in the US, the league they run is falling apart as if it were American soccer in the twentieth century. This is a shame, because much of what USL has achieved over the past two decades has been pretty impressive: a structure containing, in 2009, well over 100 professional and amateur clubs critical for the development of American soccer.”

And this:

“Forgotten in the byzantine details is one simple fact: USL-1 remains the only league in the world where the team owners do not control the league. This is why when the league seems unable to even properly schedule and market its USL-1 Championship final — Away from the Numbers reports that “the date and time of the Championship final second leg remains something of a mystery” — it becomes clearer why some owners believe an overhaul is needed to professionalize and market its elite division.”

October 8, 2009   1 Comment

Where do Silverbacks stand in USL fiasco?

That the United Soccer Leagues is in a state of flux these last few weeks is to apply very polite phrasing to what’s becoming a full-fledged disaster.

Ever since the Atlanta-based NuRock Soccer Holdings Inc. was named the shock new owner of the USL system earlier this fall, franchises in USL-1, where the Atlanta Silverbacks played until the past season, have been threatening to break away.

Just to serve up a little more background before I update this story:

The Silverbacks reportedly have been involved in these breakaway efforts, although club president Boris Jerkunica has not had any official comment. silverbacks

According to an official USL release, NuRock was to take over franchise rights for a USL-1 franchise from the Silverbacks, who did not field a team in 2009 because of Jerkunica’s differences with USL management on a number of issues.

This summer NuRock operated Atlanta’s entry in the Professional Development League, an amateur entity in the USL system, after moving the team from Augusta.

The Silverbacks continued to field a team in the USL-run W-League, a women’s amateur league, ostensibly to keep a competitive toehold in USL. The Silverbacks women reached the W-League playoffs, in fact.

Now, on to the latest twists in an already melodramatic narrative:

Over the weekend, USL president Tim Holt told players in Miami, Carolina and Minnesota that they were being released from their contracts because those teams had not renewed franchise rights for the 2010 season.

Those three teams, along with the Silverbacks, formed an entity called The Owners Association (TOA) when the breakaway effort began. Also reportedly involved in TOA are Vancouver and Montreal, which have reached the upcoming USL-1 finals and which have been admitted to Major League Soccer or have MLS aspirations, respectively.

Today the excellent Inside Minnesota Soccer site picked up on a North Carolina report that USL and TOA representatives were meeting in New York with U.S. Soccer Federation head Sunil Gulati.

I contacted Jerkunica again today to find out where the Silverbacks figure in this situation and I got the following reply. It’s not much, but it reflects the general chaos and uncertainty about the fate of minor league soccer in North America:

“There is a lot of stuff going on. I can’t divulge much right now. The only thing I can tell you is that this battle has been going on for over two years and is one of the reasons the Silverbacks pulled out of the 2009 season. Hopefully, it will be cleared up soon.”

That all parties involved in this have been together with Gulati ought to be an encouraging sign that perhaps some accommodation can be made in an increasingly bitter dispute. Says Carolina owner Brian Wellman, who’s had some loose lips from time to time during it all:

“It seemed like at least a lot of the tension has stabilized because everyone finally got to meet face-to-face and everyone knows what everyone’s goals are.”

Then again, there’s this: Tom Dunmore over at Pitch Invasion came across this link describing how the USL has botched the scheduling for the USL-1 finals.

“No wonder many USL-1 teams want to break away from the league office,” Dunmore wrote on Twitter.

Some previous posts I’ve written about all this can be found here, here and here.

October 7, 2009   5 Comments

Rhinos owner denounces USL breakaway threat

Reports are surfacing out of Miami that possibly eight United Soccer League owners, upset with the sale of the system from Nike to Atlanta-based NuRock Soccer Holdings Inc. last month, are indeed organizing a breakaway circuit.

We’re checking on this, but apparently the Atlanta Silverbacks are among these teams. This is not a surprise, of course, given the Silverbacks’ departure from the USL First Division last season over league-wide managerial disputes that have now resulted into full-blown mutiny.

One USL mainstay who is resolute in staying put is Rob Clark of the Rochester Rhinos, perhaps the most stable franchise in the league, one without Major League Soccer aspirations and which has become a pillar of its local sports community.

Clark is very hot and bothered by the breakaway threats issued after the NuRock sale. But TOA representatives are just as adamant that the USL system is removed from third-party control. Any notions of a compromise appear to be far-fetched for the moment.

A few snippets from Clark’s rejoinder that illustrate sharp philosophical and operational differences that may be irreconcilable:

“I disagree that spending in millions in marketing, a national branding of our league, is the way to go. More marketing and promotion needs to be done on a local level by each club.”

“The problem is we have core differences within a TOA (Team Owners Association). There was a loose TOA all of last year and I was with it, sharing thoughts and ideas, but then they basically kept getting more and more extreme and I said I’m not interested in leaving this league, I’m interested in reforms.”

“I met with the new ownership group (Alec Papadakis and Rob Hoskins) about two months ago to hear some of their preliminary viewpoints. I’m excited to have a new ownership group because Nike, quite frankly, didn’t even know they owned this league until a year after they bought it. These gentlemen are soccer savvy and are working full-time on the USL.”

“I’m also not convinced that anyone in the USL offices knew that NuRock had bought the USL prior to an hour of the offiicial announcement. This was NIKE selling the USL, so the USL front office had only whatever information Nike made available.”

“I feel the TOA is a negative distraction and hindrance to growing our respective franchise basis. Myself and the other teams I have listed are focused on growing and improving our current league and we want to meet and hear the ideas of NuRock, our new owner, before we make any rash decisions.”

“We control the league as individual owners. There are some owners that are obsessed with controlling the whole league. I don’t think we need that in order to thrive.”

Full background here.

September 9, 2009   3 Comments

How the USL became a league of its own

The United Soccer Leagues is generating, through the bizarre ownership controversy of the past week, the kind of headlines and mainstream media attention it could never have gotten for anything its teams accomplished on the field.

Reuters has taken note of the threat by USL First Division owners to break away because of because of this little novelty that those of us accustomed to the disjointed state of minor league soccer in America may not find all that striking:

“We are clearly at odds with USL, we have been at odds with them for two years over the fact that we are the only league in the world that doesn’t have (team) owners controlling it.”

Atlanta’s presence in this league has always been troubled. Ironically, two local entities — the Atlanta Silverbacks and the new owners of the USL system, Alpharetta-based NuRock Soccer Holdings — are at the heart of this potential rupture:

“This drama came months after Boris Jerkunica had withdrawn the Atlanta Silverbacks from the 2009 season. The Silverbacks had long advocated a more aggressive marketing posture from the league and had in fact built their own soccer specific stadium. Representing a top 10 national media market, Atlanta could have been the focal point of USL growth.

“Instead, Jerkunica’s repeated efforts to implement more owner control over the direction of USL were defeated. But Atlanta maintained an interest in USL by fielding a W-League side and making it known that they intended to return to USL-1 and PDL play in the future.”

Here’s a vote for the threatening owners to start their own league, and how the continuing turmoil could be bad for Major League Soccer as well:

“However odd and small MLS may be on the global soccer stage, it dwarfs and hugely outclasses the USL. USL’s biggest contribution to the world really isn’t its top division, USL-1.  The real hook is the sprawling and pleasantly productive Player Development League, which is doing a vastly better job of finding talent, developing it, and selling it on down the line – quite often to Europe.

“So … we have MLS teams that are not able – or allowed – to compete for players with real soccer set-ups.  And we have a battered, divided USL-1, continually losing top teams to MLS, where a lot of the owners are disgusted, and apparently want out.

“I would love – LOVE! – to see them start a new league, free of all financial restriction, and show MLS how it could be done. But I see no chance – NONE! – that meaningful competition can actually happen. Not now, and not like this.”

Is a team owner-run league all but inevitable? The continued stonewalling from NuRock owners isn’t helping. A blogger who follows the USL-1’s Puerto Rico Islanders hears from a team owners’ spokesman that NuRock has had no contact with any of them, and that an unnamed NuRock official was a college roommate of USL founder Francisco Marcos. (via Pitch Invasion)

NuRock also has not returned repeated calls from Atlanta Soccer News, which also is trying to reach Silverbacks officials.

Montreal Impact owner Joey Saputo, who could hardly be called media shy, is ready for a breakaway while he waits to elbow his franchise into consideration for a Major League Soccer franchise:

“It’s very disappointing that Nike decided to sell to a group that was unheard of instead of selling to the group of owners. During the due diligence process, there were other bidders out there, and they saw the importance of having the USL Division I and having the current teams in Division I. And we got calls from them to explain what they were willing to do, and if they would buy the league are we still interested in working with them and moving forward with them.

“But we heard nothing about NuRock. We heard about them in the 11th hour, 11:59 to be exact. “

September 2, 2009   2 Comments

New USL owners stay mum as confusion reigns

While the new Atlanta-based owners of the United Soccer Leagues remain behind closed doors, a soccer group in Ottawa quietly filed an application on Tuesday to join a league that some team owners are threatening to leave.

This has added to the heavy fog created late last week when when Rob Hoskins and Alec Papadakis of NuRock Soccer Holdings were given the keys to the USL universe by founder Francisco Marcos. The NuRock officials, who have been named the USL’s chairman and CEO, respectively, have not returned messages from Atlanta Soccer News seeking comment.

Several owners in the USL’s First Division, including the Atlanta Silverbacks, have threatened to leave the USL and form their own league because they want a greater say in how the league is operated. They were shocked and angered by the USL’s decision to sell to an entity that does not own a team in USL-1, as the First Division also is called.

Although the Silverbacks did not operate a USL-1 franchise this season (those rights are now held by NuRock), they remain a part of a consortium called the Team Owners Association, which has been haggling with Marcos for a number of years. The Silverbacks still operate a women’s amateur team in the USL-owned W-League.

Silverbacks chairman Boris Jerkunica was out of the country on Tuesday and unavailable for comment, and vice chairman John Latham also could not be reached. General Manager Michael Oki said the Silverbacks were “shocked” by the USL’s sale to NuRock, and that the organization was trying to figure out its options:

“We’re just trying to assess where we are and how we might move forward from here. At this point we can’t say what’s going to happen because we don’t know what they [a NuRock-run USL] are going to do.”

NuRock and USL issued this initial statement on Friday to announce the sale but neither Hoskins nor Papadakis have made any comment since. They own the Atlanta Blackhawks of the USL’s Premier Development League, an amateur circuit two tiers below USL-1.

Here’s an analysis of what happened after Nike gained a nearly-total ownership stake in USL last year, and which proved to be a tipping point for the Silverbacks:

“The financial structure of the league was also in question by the team owners. They claimed the league did not share in the losses and held no accountability to the teams. The USL is structured in a way that teams pay a one time franchise fee and then have yearly renewal fees. If a team was having financial trouble and would drop its franchise, the league would just repopulate and claim another franchise fee. Some owners were frustrated by this as many USL teams lose hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. The annual operating expense for an average USL-1 team is between $1.5 million to $2 million. The long distances between USL-1 cities does not help with the cost of airfare and it’s said that most teams will spend more on travel expenses for one game than they will make in revenue in a home game. The average break even point for most teams is a home attendance of about 5,000.”

Here’s another semi-sympathetic take from the owners’ perspective that expresses the general mystification with what has taken place, and what still hasn’t been fully explained:

“I don’t know much about this NuRock Soccer outfit, beyond what we all can read in the usual cookie cutter corporate-speak press release. Maybe they’re great guys.

“Personally I agree with the TOA: it’s time USL became a real league, owned and operated by and for the teams themselves which is, by the way, exactly how FIFA says it should be done.

“As long as the interests of a third party are involved – be it an individual, a public corporation or a private partnership – then stuff like long term development and the good of the game are going to take a back seat to the bottom line. USL1 isn’t a chain of muffler shops or fast food joints and it can’t be run as if it was.”

September 1, 2009   3 Comments

USL owners issue threats after league purchase

The wording and phrasing of this release could stand to be a whole lot better, but United Soccer Leagues team owners upset at the surprise sale of the USL system last week to Atlanta-based NuRock Soccer Holdings are not any happier now.

In fact, they’ve essentially threatened to leave the USL and form a breakaway league. Even the Atlanta Silverbacks — on hiatus from fielding a USL First Division team in 2009 — have been included in an official statement released Monday afternoon by some USL-1 owners. Read for yourself and see how you would interpret this language:

“Following extensive negotiations with USISL, Inc., the parent company of the United Soccer Leagues (USL), to restructure the USL First Division (USL-1) into a league owned and controlled by its teams, the Team Owners Association (TOA) today announced that it has accelerated its pursuit of all league options for the 2010 season and beyond. The TOA, led by the Atlanta Silverbacks, Carolina RailHawks, Miami FC, Minnesota Thunder, Montreal Impact, St. Louis Soccer United, Tampa Bay Rowdies and Vancouver Whitecaps, reached this decision following the announcement by Nike, Inc., the parent company of USISL, Inc., that it had concluded the sale of USL to a third-party (NuRock Soccer Holdings) which does not own a team in USL-1.”

NuRock, as was reported on Friday, holds the rights to a USL First Division franchise in Atlanta (the level at which the Silverbacks played), as well as Birmingham. I’ve been told that a team in the Alabama city is more likely to come online for a franchise before Atlanta. NuRock has not indicated when it or if it might field a USL-1 team in Atlanta.

I’ve been trying to reach NuRock officials for comment but they have not yet responded. A number of hearty bloggers who have covered USL innerworkings very deeply have quite a bit of coverage as it relates to the structure of minor league soccer in North America.

NuRock is the owner of the Atlanta Blackhawks, which played in the USL’s Professional Developmental League (essentially the third division of North American Soccer) this past season. Leading NuRock are former Atlanta Chiefs defender Alec Papadakis and CEO Rob Hoskins. Both were were appointed to positions as top executives in USL on Monday, with founder Francisco Marcos moving into an emeritus role.

After Major League Soccer passed on an offer to purchase USL, the leading bidder was thought to be Traffic Sports, a soccer events management firm that owns USL-1 team Miami FC. Traffic immediately threatened to shut down the franchise after it lost out to NuRock, a move that caught many in the league and North American soccer circles by surprise.

While the shock of the USL sale to NuRock is fresh, this is just the latest twist in a lengthy period of turmoil between Marcos and some USL owners, including those who formerly ran the Silverbacks organization. These disputes have been threatening to boil over for quite a while, and they could lead to the disenchanted owners attempting to form a league of their own:

“It’s about the professionalizing of USL-1. There’s been discussion for a year-and-a-half now with regards to the team owners having more of a stake – and say – in how the league is run.”

August 31, 2009   4 Comments

Atlanta firm buys United Soccer Leagues

Just days after Major League Soccer said it would not purchase the embattled United Soccer Leagues, an Atlanta-based venture, NuRock Soccer Holdings, was unveiled Thursday as the new owner of the consortium of men’s and women’s developmental leagues.

One of the partners in NuRock is former Atlanta Chiefs defenseman Alec Papadakis, who along with real estate developer Rob Hoskins for an undisclosed price. Nike, which paid nearly $600 million last year for Umbro, which had been the main USL sponsor, will continue as a major sponsor.

NuRock, which is the investor of the Atlanta Blackhawks of the USL’s Premier Development League, has the rights to start USL-1 franchises in both Atlanta and Birmingham.

The Atlanta Silverbacks did not field a USL-1 team last year, citing economic reasons, but its Silverbacks women’s team in the USL’s amateur W-League reached the playoffs.

According to the Miami Herald, Miami FC of USL-1 might fold up its tent and go away because of the NuRock sale. The south Florida team’s ownership, Traffic Sports, also bid to purchase USL.

Here’s more on the internecine machinations that have been transpiring in USL for quite some time, and how NuRock’s deal might create even more chaos.

August 27, 2009   2 Comments