The United Soccer League (USL) can attest that even the best-laid plans are not immune to the coronavirus. After completing several months of regular season and playoff action against the backdrop of the pandemic, the US soccer organisation found itself agonisingly close to the finish line when Covid-19 did what Covid-19 does.
First, on 29th October, the USL had to cancel the third-tier League One final between Greenville Triumph and Union Omaha when multiple individuals from the latter tested positive for the virus. Then, two days later, the second-tier Championship title game, scheduled for 1st November, was called off after the Tampa Bay Rowdies reported a number of positive cases, meaning their showdown against Phoenix Rising couldn’t be played.
“It was a difficult few days,” Jake Edwards, the USL president, tells SportsPro. “As we’ve been focused all season on the health and safety of the players and those involved, that was the ultimate driving force of the decision to not play the finals.
“We first and foremost absolutely feel for both of the clubs, for Tampa and Phoenix, who have made it through a long and tough year and deservedly got to the finals. But it was the right decision, and it doesn’t take away from the success of playing and completing a season in what has been the most challenging year in the history of our league.”
Some might have been wondering why the USL decided to cancel the final outright rather than postpone until a later date. Edwards points out that after a 14-day quarantine period the two teams would have required another week to prepare. With cases rising across the US as the country moves into the winter months, the 44-year-old Briton says there was “no guarantee” that the league would not find itself in the same position after a three-week wait.
In any case, Edwards insists that the failure to crown a champion does not detract from the achievement of being able to play at all this year. Suspended on 12th March due to the initial Covid-19 outbreak, the 35-team USL Championship returned on 11th July with a regionalised format which saw the league split into small groups of four or five teams, with the top two qualifying for the postseason.
Unlike franchises in Major League Soccer (MLS) and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), which restarted in bubble environments, USL teams were even allowed to play in front of a limited number of supporters where local guidelines permitted, making it the first league to return to home stadiums during regular season action.
It was the right decision, and it doesn’t take away from the success of playing and completing a season in what has been the most challenging year in the history of our league.
Edwards says it was “a challenge” to navigate the league with teams operating under so many different jurisdictions, but the USL’s own health and wellness protocols, which included social distancing measures, weekly testing and training and education, resulted in a positive test rate of only 0.41 per cent.
Simply returning to play meant that USL clubs were able to salvage 80 per cent of their corporate sales revenue for 2020, while those that were able to welcome fans into their stadium – as many as 5,000 supporters could attend fixtures at the new 15,000-seater home of Louisville City FC - will have been able to bring in some valuable ticketing income. Despite that, though, Edwards acknowledges that the league and its teams are feeling the pinch of the pandemic.
“It’s been difficult for the clubs and the league, so there have been significant financial challenges,” he admits. “It’s a matchday revenue focused sport, the teams need fans in the building, so they’ve taken a hit there.
Close to 5,000 fans attended Louisville City FC's game in their new 15,000-seater stadium
“As we forecast next year, again, I think we’re going to see those states that have had no attendance allowed, they’re going to start seeing some increase as we get through and start the season.
“We are more than likely going to start the season a little bit later than usual next year to allow our clubs the best possible chance to get to that point, where fans are starting to be allowed into the building, and then once we get through the midpoint of the season we’ll continue to see those attendance numbers rise.
“We believe next year will be tough, and the teams know it’s going to be tough again, but we’re confident that as the season goes on, we will see more matchday revenue coming into the clubs.”
Fans, for the most part, might have been denied the opportunity to attend games in person, but the evidence suggests they were still tuning in. Figures provided exclusively to SportsPro show that USL viewership on sports streaming subscription service ESPN+ was up 500 per cent this year compared to 2019, while five of the league’s top ten most watched matches of all time came in 2020. On social media, the USL saw a 39 per cent growth in followers across its main channels – including a 24 per cent gain on Instagram – while earned media coverage was up 58 per cent during the season, capping growth of 200 per cent since 2018.
Empty stadiums haven’t necessarily translated to better viewing figures for every US sports league this year, particularly given the backlog of events that has led to high-profile scheduling clashes, but Edwards (right) believes the growth the USL saw on ESPN+ is down to “the popularity of the sport” and the “continued rise of the supporter culture” in the US.
“I always say the sport here continues to be, even in a Covid year, on an incredible trajectory moving forward,” he asserts. “We talk about the [Fifa] World Cup coming here in five years’ time and all the amazing things that’s going to do post-World Cup, but it still fosters this huge amount of investment and media interest prior to that happening – and we’re seeing that.”
Edwards is also keen to credit ESPN, the USL’s domestic broadcast partner, who he says “have really gone out of their way” to work with the league in 2020. The USL now provides more content for the Disney-owned network than any other soccer league in the world, and is starting to see the benefits of being on ESPN+ in addition to national television.
“Our world on the OTT platform with ESPN has significantly increased,” Edwards begins. “When we first went on the platform they’d just passed one million subscribers, which shortly went to two million, and now has gone past nine million. So it has put our games in front of a significant portion of cord cutters that wouldn’t maybe be watching the national TV games on cable, and can pick and choose their teams as they want to.
Edwards says the USL's growth on ESPN+ is down to the “continued rise of the supporter culture” in the US
“It also puts the USL Championship and USL League One – in terms of looking at the interface here – right next to MLS, NHL, EFL, UFC, NBA, a whole host of other top sports properties, so it’s great visibility for our league brand and our club brands. Fans of those other sports leagues that may not have ordinarily got to see a USL game can see it by virtue of being next to each other and might want to click on that, and certainly watch that for a while.
“So I think overall it’s been tremendously beneficial for us to be on that platform, and get the balance between the vast majority of our games in the OTT world, with some of them on both national television and local television, which we know are driving fans back to the OTT platform.”
Prior to the scheduled game between the Rowdies and the Rising, the USL also announced that it reached its widest ever global audience this season through a partnership with LiveNow, the streaming platform recently launched by Andrea Radrizzani’s Aser Ventures, which televised matches in 48 countries outside of North and South America. The USL has always had more of a local flavour, but on the back of a deal signed in February with international rights agency Sportfive – and with a World Cup in the US on the horizon – the league is starting to explore how it can grow its fanbase overseas.
“We are learning about that and what that means, and how that can help drive engagement and interest in our clubs,” Edwards says. “When the World Cup arrives here - and it’s an expanded World Cup - there are going to be a fair number of USL players playing in that, so we know there’s interest overseas initially from players that want to play here, from investors that want to be in this market, and now more and more from fans.
The experience of playing through this year has brought the USL closer together, according to Edwards
“That goes beyond when Joe Cole was here or Didier Drogba was playing here. We know there’s some interest in the superstars that we have in the league from time to time, but really it’s about starting to build some affinity with those clubs, and we’re starting to see little pockets of interest around the world.
“We are at early days of this. For us at the moment our strategy is to get our brand out there, get our football out there, let people see it, and then we will go from there in terms of understanding or having a better understanding of the business opportunity, business implications to get into other markets.”
I always say the sport here continues to be, even in a Covid year, on an incredible trajectory moving forward.
Back on the home front, Edwards assures that the USL’s timeline for expansion won’t be held back by the pandemic. A franchise in Oakland will be added to the USL Championship next season before Queensboro FC, who belong to retired World Cup winner David Villa, join the second tier in 2022.
Edwards says there will be “some additional expansion” in the Championship before that league is capped “somewhere in the early, maybe mid-30s”. He also expects to make another two to four expansion announcements before the 2021 campaign for League One, which will soon welcome Fort Wayne FC, part-owned by former US national team star DaMarcus Beasley.
“We haven’t seen any slowing of expansion at all from Covid,” Edwards notes. “These tend to be longer projects given the requirement to have a suitable stadium project in place, so those clubs coming in remain on the same timeline as they were prior to Covid, and that’s in large part due to making sure that we get the stadiums on track.”
What’s clear is that Edwards sees plenty of reason to be buoyant about the future despite the disappointing end to a challenging season. That the USL has grown its audience at a time when creating engagement has been far from straightforward is cause for optimism, and Edwards believes the experience of playing through this year will be beneficial as the league prepares for what’s to come in 2021.
“We’ve had to have some very hard conversations with our owners and our players and our staff to get through this,” he states. “The fact of the matter is we got through it, we learned how to get through it, we had to come together in a way that we have brought the league closer than ever before.
“This year was about getting back on the field and executing a season; next season is about starting a season from the beginning, knowing what you’re walking into over a much longer period of time.
“It’s a challenge ahead, we recognise that, but the experience of this year has proved that we can do it. We’ve come through this a much tighter knit group than we were going into it, so I think that really puts us in a good spot going into another tough year.”