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Will there ever be a “USL Premiership”?

Would the USL ever create a first-division league to rival Major League Soccer? Let’s talk about that.

2 min read

Full question submitted by Alan O: “Do you think there will ever be a “USL Premiership”? I’m talking about a tier above the USL Championship where there is an additional commitment by new investors to have teams built with more cap space to potentially compete against MLS and Liga MX teams.”

Thanks for the question, Alan! I think this is the sort of idea that appealed to the USL before the pandemic but seems less viable now.

According to the U.S. Soccer Federation’s bylaws, a proper first-division league must have at least 12 teams with 15,000-seat stadiums, and three-quarters of those teams need to come from markets with at least 1,000,000 people. As currently constituted, the USL struggles to meet those requirements, especially in terms of the stadium regulations. Since the pre-virus 2019 campaign, the USL Championship is also down from more than 30 clubs to a more moderate 24 or 25-team size, making a branch-off league hard to pull off at scale.

That isn’t to say that a 12-team league isn’t theoretically viable under the standards. Start with Birmingham and Miami, expand the stadiums in Louisville, Phoenix, and San Antonio that are designed to grow, shift teams like Indy into bigger venues a la Lucas Oil Stadium, and you’re well on your way.

In the past, U.S. Soccer offered waivers to various leagues that fell short of requirements, and a similar scenario could occur here.

Still, there are questions of financial viability and the willingness of ownership groups to commit to such a venture. To start, the primary owner of each club must have $40,000,000 in net worth, and the rest of the ownership group must add an additional $30,000,000. I won’t claim an awareness of the average USL owner’s checkbook, but there are enough local real estate magnates and small business people to give me pause.

This limits the potential of a higher-spending league.

What’s more, I don’t imagine that a “premiership” itself would lead to a big enough gain to warrant the split. The USL isn’t exactly a sponsorship or television rights darling as is. Thus, creating a division that competes more directly with MLS at the expense of smaller but dedicated markets in, say, El Paso or Colorado Springs adds little value. Further, the more selective league would incur greater travel costs thanks to a more dispersed geographic makeup.

In terms of strategy, the USL has shied away from head-to-head warfare with MLS lately. The Charlotte Independence self-relegated when Charlotte FC came to the market and St. Louis FC fell by the wayside in a similar context. On the pitch, the gap is big enough that a new, more “elite” tier wouldn’t make a dent in MLS. The best players in the USL Championship – think Tyler Pasher in the past – are essentially MLS rotation players. Is it really worthwhile to completely reorganize your league structure to make a squad full of those types? Do fans perceive those differences at the margins?

Ultimately, a premiership is fun as a concept, but I doubt the viability for a number of reasons. Settling in with a stable Championship first tier and a League One second tier under the USL umbrella seems to be the preferred outcome at this point.

There are still routes to innovate and add competitive storylines as well as revenue streams. An inter-division cup competition or promotion and relegation within the USL would do just that without breaking the bank.