From the MLS to the national teams to Americans abroad
“I was at a point in my life where I like to take on challenges. I like to grow and build things.”
These are the words of Bill Peterson, and they explain why he decided to take up the role of Commissioner with the North American Soccer League - effectively the second tier of football in the USA, though there's no set system of relegation and promotion between the divisions. Now entering their third year following rebirth, there’s a timid excitement around a league that has ambitious but achievable intentions.
“Thinking more 2012 than 1812” - A sound-bite and a catchy slogan, it’s also more than that. It’s what Peterson tells FourFourTwo is the mission statement of the NASL. Formerly of NFL Europe, he arrives back in the US with ten years experience selling a sport that by his own admission ‘didn’t even exist in some countries’.
Theoretically that should make him the ideal candidate for a league wanting to establish itself in the zeitgeist of North American sport: “It’s a little bit different here because soccer in this country has made it,” he says. “It has established itself on a grass roots level. There are existing fan bases in all our markets that know the game, participate in the game, and like to follow the game.”
The aim is to get these lads watching the American equivalent of Barnsley
It’s those same fan bases he’s targeting in 2013. How teams promote themselves is an important cornerstone of Peterson’s strategy moving into the new season - and takes up a large portion of our nigh forty minute dialogue. As he explains, it’s not enough to just tell people you have a game on Saturday night - you have to draw them in and offer something unique. He’s uncomfortable using the term, but as he rightly states: “We’re competing for entertainment dollars.”
Delving further into his strategy, he outlines that if the explanation and promotion are executed correctly - then the rest should follow. Part of that comes by maximizing the esoteric access on offer - but the question is how? “I think you have to be true to the process,” Peterson says, “When you’re providing access to the players personal lives, their training regiments, or their line of thinking before and after a game, you’re not trying to attach sponsorship message to it or convince people to buy tickets because we gave you this access, it just becomes who you are. If you’re a fan of one of our teams, this is what you get to enjoy - there’s no price tag attached to it.”
While good advertising and recherché content are desirable, the Commissioner wants an enthralling product on the field to be the foundation of the league - with relevance on the pitch being an intrinsic component of the new NASL. “It’s about the competition on the field and are the games relevant,” He explains, “Does it means something to the home fans to win? Does it mean something when they lose?”
The 2013 season will also see the addition of a new team - although referring to the New York Cosmos in such a way doesn’t sit quite right given how synonymous their name is with the NASL and US Soccer. It’s a history he’s keen to embrace - believing the impact of the previous iteration of the NASL can only be a positive. “The past had a lot of success and really put a spotlight on the game in this country,” He said, “Even today you can walk around and if you ask somebody with no knowledge of soccer, ‘Have you heard of the NASL?’ and they’ll say, ‘Yes’.”
The original Cosmos had a handy knack of picking up the odd 'name'
While those claims are somewhat difficult to believe - having a legacy and attachment can certainly be beneficial for a league still in its infancy wanting to expand. Further growth of teams is well considered though, with a multi-faceted view being taken that even includes the offer of help from local government - longevity of product is vital this time around.
“If you start to get ahead of yourself and focus on things that are further down the line in the business continuum, then you’ll lose sight of the fact it’s about fans and filling stadiums,” Peterson explains. “Its important philosophically that we build this with a strong foundation but also build quickly.”
A soccer fan himself, he answers hesitantly when asked which team is close to his heart, claiming several different sides across Europe by virtue of his city-hopping during his days with NFL Europe. “You’re not going to like this, but if I’m in Germany it’s Eintracht Frankfurt, Holland it’s Ajax, and England then Arsenal,” he explains.
While his time Europe provided him with the chance to see some quality soccer up close and personal, his time across the Atlantic also afforded ample opportunity to study the European way of operating - something he’s looking to now instill in the NASL. “I believe long term, an alignment with the world calender is a positive thing - and that’s what we’re working towards. We think that model works for a lot of reasons - for fans, for players, for transfers, and rest periods.”
So what next for the NASL? Continued growth is the hope, with Peterson’s one wish for the season to be a double in ticket sales. It’s hard not to be impressed by what he has to say. "We’re gonna establish this league and its going to be successful long after I’m gone and its going to benefit the overall game in this country - that’s why I’m here."
The determination in his response suggests that the league’s future is in good hands.
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