Waiting for the conference call to begin. Keep it here for almost-live coverage.
Call has begun. Sunil Gulati goes first. (I’ll be paraphrasing here throughout.)
EDIT: Call is now over, the notes as I took them while listening are after the jump.
Gulati: Thanks for participating on short notice. For us, 2010 is an extraordinary year because of the national team, ESPN’s unprecedented support, bid for 2018/2022, number of other things. Another MLS season, WPS, we think it’s a very exciting time for the sport.
We have, for the last couple of months, been trying to reach an agreement and examining proposals for DII for 2010. Eight days ago the board told them we wouldn’t sanction either of them. In the last 7 days, we’ve been able to get them to agree. Thanks to Papadakis and Cooper for getting a number of issues resolved in a short time period.
12-team league. Two divisions of six teams (see press release). USSF will take a much more active role in scheduling, officiating, some of the marketing issues, disciplinary issues. Will rely quite heavily on existing resources – the NASL has some additional resources, but the USL will take the lead on it.
Board of Directors for the league – one rep from each team. Executive Committee of five, including someone from USSF. Sort of an “office of the commissioner” without a real commissioner.
Agreement will end dispute between USL and certain member teams. That dispute is dropped.
Quite excited to get this done. Looking forward, starting today. Goal is to have a stable, professional soccer environment in the US. There’s been steady growth in terms of interest and so on.
In the next few months, we’ll be laying out standards with more specifics of what a second and third division league should be like. Everyone has agreed that that’s important. Long-term stability is most important, and what we have today is a short-term solution but we want to work with a number of people and those at the DII level to find a long-term solution.
(Oooh, he mentioned pro/rel and then said “I don’t want to light up any bloggers out there, as if that’s right around the corner or anything, but who knows down the road?”)
Questions. I may not catch all their names.
Ron Blum: Given financial difficulties, what are the financial issues about a nationwide 2nd division?
Gulati: Same as in any startup venture. This is unique, this conglomeration of teams, some of which exist, some expansion teams. Any startup is challenged in this economy. MLS is now very much on stable footing and it’s been growing. WPS did perhaps better than they thought out of the blocks. There are going to be some challenges. What our goal is that the people who are going to be investing are realistic about what it takes. They need to understand you’re not going to be in the black in the first year. Investors have to understand this is a long-term deal. These groups understand that, and we’re going to take actions to raise the bar to make sure it doesn’t happen.
Beau Dure: What were the biggest issues, and what happened with Atlanta and New York?
Gulati: Hardest part is getting an agreement on every point. 12 people plus league representatives around the country/world. Add to that the holiday season made it very hard. What this would look like was important, who would be in charge of the structure was important, and the status of certain teams who were part of arbitration/litigation were important. Those are not easy issues. In terms of Atlanta and New York, those are both cities that are looking toward the future, but in the short-term we weren’t of the opinion that they could play this year. It was pretty clear to us that Atlanta was never going to play this year, and New York it became obvious early on.
Papadakis: New York has requested we delay their participation until 2011. They were not ready.
Cooper: Atlanta had made clear from very early stages that they intended to start in 2011.
Gulati: Eight team minimum – we made it very clear to all the groups and the teams that just to get to the magic number of eight with people who weren’t ready to start up didn’t make sense. (EDITOR’S NOTE: THIS IS WHAT THE HELL I’VE BEEN SAYING.)
Going over teams in each conference now. How are you setting up the logistics? How did you get teams to buy into agreement?
Gulati: Two leagues with possible interplay or championship game. Not it. What we have is one league, under USSF auspices. All these teams will play each other, 28-34 games. How did we get people who were reluctant? Everyone was willing to compromise. Are we going to have any hiccups along the way? Sure. We have that in our leagues now. We’ll play the mediator and regulator.
Q. From USL side, what is good about this deal?
Papadakis: Most important is that we get on it and allow the Division II soccer to play in 2010. Our goal is to make sure the teams have a place to play in 2010 so that we can move forward with the USL business plan for down the road.
Q. Does this change your business plan down the road?
Gulati: We want to focus today on 2010. Beyond that next week or after this call.
Ian Walker: How did the talks go?
Gulati: We tried to be very open, and the two sides did, too. In the last 7 days, we talked every day. Everybody’s been pretty honest. They had to compromise, pretty clearly. In the process, everybody understood the regulatory role of US Soccer and put aside their short-term interests to make sure 2010 happened.
Cooper: I would describe the meetings as cordial. We were able to work through some of the issues. At the end of the day, we all had the same goal. Huge thanks to USSF. A fair resolution for USSF, for the teams, the players and most of all for the fans.
(NOTE: They don’t sound sincere.)
Q. Are you confident about Tampa Bay?
Gulati: New York and Atlanta was less about us deciding than them deciding. We weren’t forcing anybody to try to get to eight. In those cases, we didn’t say no. The person putting up the money has to be willing to put up the money and then we had to make the judgment after that. Tampa was announced some time ago, I think they’ll have a lot of things to say over the weeks to come. It’s January 7 and until today we didn’t have a league. We have a number of teams that already have players under contract, over the next few days and weeks, you’ll see a number of announcements.
(Jeff DiVeronica, Rochester): Name of league? TBA?
Gulati: For right now, we’re referring to it as “USSF D2” but if we get a corporate partner, we’d be happy to rename it. In the next few days, if we come up with something…we’re not trying to come up with a brand, what we’re looking for is an organization. A holding situation to allow us to have a league next year and get things stabilized.
Q. Do you see USSF staying active past 2010 and could this be a partner with MLS?
Gulati: No, not at this level going beyond this year. We’ve had discussions with MLS. Some of the teams have had their own independent discussions with MLS. You’ve already seen some of this integration already.
(Michelle Kaufman, Miami Herald)
Q. When will season be played? Will there be a World Cup break?
Gulati: Always a tough question. I think the season would start roughly when D2 seasons have started in the past. Late March to mid-April. Still trying to work out schedule. Championship October/November. Still Open Cup dates to be determined. At this time, I don’t see a complete break during the World Cup, but it might be lighter during the World Cup, certainly not a five-week break. Might be a lighter schedule. Not something we’ve discussed yet.
Q. You want to raise the bar early (D2 standards) are there specific things you want to be able to see from the teams?
A. Gulati:Yes. Some targets in our regulations. We intend to put in more of those, financial stability, staffing levels, and so on. Minimum standards on size of stadiums, PR directors…we need to put more meat behind those.
The most important thing is stability, growth will happen after that.
(Brian Quarstad, Inside Minnesota Soccer)
Q. Thanks Sunil and Dan Flynn for getting this done. Sunil, you said you were kind of surprised by the number of people on this conference call. This story has picked up steam. Are you surprised by the amount of attention that second division soccer has gotten lately?
Gulati: I’m less surprised about that – the overall interest – because we’ve had teams in many important markets in the US for a number of years. Many players that have played over the years for national teams. The interest is not so surprising, the fact it has continued to build is a plus. The sport is getting better. We prefer not to get the level of interest heightened by things like this. (More than 100 people on the call.)
(Mike Blake, Cary News)
Q. Sunil, what were the ramifications you saw with the whole “breakaway” thing and how they changed over time? Was it getting worse as we went along?
Gulati: There was a difference in some structural questions. At some point they decided they would like to approach things differently. There was a dispute about that. And we’re past that. Everyone wanted to have a Division II league. What we were absolutely desperate to do – and we got done – was to make sure we had a Division II in place to start this season, in a World Cup year. We’d have been crazy not to get that done. There was a lot of impetus to try to get that done. It was just a matter of how. We’ve got a solution for the year, and past that, we’ll see how it goes.
(Simon Evans, English apparently)
Q. As far as television, are we starting fresh or is anything left over from Fox Soccer Channel. And what is the purpose of a second division without promotion/relegation? Development? Just putting soccer where it isn’t, to fill in gaps?
Gulati: All of the above. There will continue to be a mix of things. Teams like Vancouver – which has had a great setup and will join MLS has also had a very viable youth program, and women’s program. It’s going to be a mix, the US is 320 million people, plus Canada. MLS is in 15 markets with two in Los Angeles and one in Toronto, so there are a lot of very big American and Canadian cities that could host a viable Division II setup. Whatever relationship with MLS is up to them. In the absence of a promotion/relegation system it’s hard to pinpoint that. Television discussions have been taking place between USL and….a potential TV partner. I think there will be some very quick discussions. It’s hard to have those discussions until you know there’s a league. All of that will be known very shortly with the exception of the schedule. I think there will be quick discussions with one – and potentially another – about a game of the week or month, but I don’t want to speculate about that.
Jim Morris, Canadian Press. (FYI – Andrea Canales is next, that should be fun.)
Q. Did teams have to pay a fee?
Gulati: Pay fee and bond to US Soccer because we’re going to be the umbrella. Also to the CSA. There is a regular setup of fees and dues, escalated from higher up the spectrum. There will also be a bond that will be paid by all teams and any unused portion of that will be returned. Some of that will be used to offset certain costs that USSF would incur that we might not normally incur.
Q. In the past MLS has had a Pro-40 team in USL, no more reserve league. Any plans to integrate some sort of reserve league element for MLS?
Gulati: In the short term no, because this is a 2010 situation. Long term you’re going to see things happen. As has happened in the past, resulting from the changing landscape. (EDITOR’S NOTE: You advanced the theory that USSF didn’t sanction the NASL to protect MLS, and then you didn’t ask him about it?) All of that is possible, it’s up to the investors. We are critically involved in player development. There will be a developmental element to this D2 structure going forward. We may have a rule that says you have to have four Under-23 players or Under-27 players. We think that’s a huge step forward.
(Transcript later on ussoccer.com, they say, go ahead and compare it to what notes I took extemporaneously.)
- They couldn’t have made it more clear that this is a stopgap situation. We may be back in a bad place in eight months (just a guess).
- Gulati did most of the talking, and the USL and NASL reps didn’t sound pleased. If there’s such a thing as verbal body language, theirs wasn’t good.
- USSF deserves credit for getting this done. You can say they deserve a rap on the knuckles for having it come to this, and that’s fair, too.
- The important thing is there will be Division II soccer in the US and Canada in 2010. So those of you who were losing your minds and going straight to the worst-case scenario can go away now. And those of you who didn’t give a rat’s ass about Division II soccer until this story came to light, you can go on about your business, too.