Will Commisso’s money and bluster lure the grownups to the table?

I’m not going to devote a lot of my own time to reporting on and analyzing today’s revelation that New York Cosmos owner Rocco Commisso is pledging $250 million to, in essence, prop up the NASL as Phil Anschutz, Lamar Hunt and Robert Kraft propped up MLS in the early oughts. The ratio of “important stuff going on” to “number of people reporting on it” is higher in youth soccer than it is in pro soccer, so I’m sticking with youth stuff in the near future.

But you should check out the two big pieces on this today …

  1. In The Guardian, Graham Parker spoke with Commisso to follow up.
  2. At SI, Brian Straus has some additional reporting as well.

And Jason Davis will be chatting with Commisso at 1 p.m. ET on SiriusXM FC.

I received the letters at the heart of the matter this morning, just as they were tweeted out.

So you can read all that and get up to speed yourself. And you can draw your own conclusions.

And your conclusion will probably veer toward one or the other extreme, because I can’t help thinking this is political grandstanding that assumes the two calcified opposing stances on the NASL will remain intact. Most reactions will either be “See, there’s money to be made if USSF will just do what the NASL and pro/rel people want!” or “Great, yet another vaporware offer by a bunch of people who don’t even really want change but just want to inflate their own egos.”

One reason for that — as I peek through my email and sort through these attachments, I see Commisso included the danged “Fricker Plan,” which Steve Holroyd put in proper context nearly three years ago but is still trotted out every few months like some long-lost piece of Scripture uncovered in the dust of Bethlehem. (“And verily did Bethlehem Steel trot forth upon the pitch …”) Commisso is either unaware that we’ve all already discussed all this or just doesn’t care.

But while a certain amount of jaded pessimism is justified here, we shouldn’t be completely cynical and dismissive. Can anything good come of this communication?

Maybe.

Several managements ago, the NASL’s goal was to forge its own path. Former commissioner Bill Peterson often used a golf analogy, saying the NASL was focusing not on enmity with MLS but was intent on “playing its own ball.” And that path was to build a new way forward, eventually creeping toward a pro/rel pyramid, attracting investment regardless of divisional sanctioning.

Commisso is more or less offering to restart that process here. He says he’ll invest $250 million of his own money and is confident he’ll have a group putting forth $500 million. Forbes pegs Commisso’s “real-time net worth” at just shy of $4 billion, and other estimates have it higher than that, so he can indeed deliver on that.

Forming a pyramid in the “lower” divisions and seeing if that catches fire isn’t the worst idea in the world. It could eventually make MLS take notice and make a deal to join forces.

Now, in addition, Commisso pledges to buy USSF media rights for a higher sum than Soccer United Marketing is paying. I’m a bit more skeptical of that.

As The Guardian notes, this might be a PR stunt. “Like fellow NASL owner Riccardo Silva’s offer of $4bn to MLS provided they adopt a model of promotion and relegation, this tactic could feel like an offer made to be refused. This latest sum targeting NASL is more modest, but just as pointed a symbolic challenge to the existing ecology of soccer in the US.” (My original headline here, before I went in a more productive direction — “Rocco Commisso offers to give the NASL the most expensive Viking funeral in history.”)

And Commisso insists upon promotion/relegation “no later than the 2020 season.” Even a lot of the more obstinate, factually impaired Twitterati call for a 10-year plan. Silva commissioned a much-ballyhooed report from Deloitte that pro/rel zealots have held up as the definitive study despite a couple of flaws, and even that report says the following:

The opening of the US club soccer pyramid could present a number of significant risks. However, through careful consideration these could be effectively mitigated. …

(S)occer is now full of examples of effective regulation controlling costs (as is
common in US sports), such as UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations. The
implementation of cost control measures would be critical considerations for any
league. …

Clearly those who have invested in a league over time and/or through the payment of a franchise fee may feel that relegation represents a major new risk which would
undermine and unnecessarily jeopardise this investment. A managed transition with properly structured promotion and relegation could have upsides that could offset this loss and more importantly be of benefit to all stakeholders in the longer term. Equally the implementation of new equity structures and revenue distribution models for leagues may further offset and protect against any perceived or real losses.

Does Commisso’s plan address such concerns? (Jason, could you ask him?)

Carlos Cordeiro’s response is, as you’d expect, quite formal but also accommodating. Cordeiro himself is tied up with a World Cup bid that is anything but a slam dunk at this point, but he does want to open discussion. He’d like to know more about Commisso’s consortium, of course.

Commisso responds that he’s disappointed that Cordeiro can’t find time to meet, suggesting this proposal is really important and all that World Cup stuff can wait. (Is that too harsh a summary? It’s all linked above — read as you like and make up your own mind.)

So let’s consider a few things:

1. Commisso basically wants the same opportunity as MLS had to build itself up. One problem with that: Any soccer federation has a compelling interest in making sure its country has one substantive men’s professional league. What soccer federation has a compelling interest in bringing about two substantive men’s professional leagues?

2. Commisso, like many a politician, continues to make pronouncements that simply are not based in reality. One such comment to The Guardian: “I think of the rich investors in this country, I’m pretty unique in the sense that, besides the mind that I have, I’m the only one that played soccer.” Wrong. Meet Clark Hunt. The LAFC ownership group includes one of the best players of all time. (She surely doesn’t have as much money as Commisso, but wouldn’t it be nice if accomplished soccer players made as much as media moguls?) The Vancouver Whitecaps group includes Steve Nash, who’s better known for basketball but I’d bet was a better player than Commisso in his day. I haven’t done the research to know whether the owners in KC, Houston or New York ever played, but do you think Commisso has done it?

3. Would Jacksonville’s Robert Palmer be one of the investors in a Commisso consortium? I wonder how that would fit with Palmer’s current plans on the lower end of the pyramid.

4. We want to move forward, right? Why are we propping up the twice-tarnished NASL brand name?

So we have some interesting conversations. But I’m not sure Commisso, having shown a tendency to sue everyone short of MLS mascots when he doesn’t get his way, is someone USSF really wants to deal with at this point.

Here’s what I’m going to suggest. Start with this tweet:

So step forward, Mr. TV Exec. Maybe MLS would rather deal with you than Commisso. Maybe you can get MLS and Robert Palmer together to build a pyramid that’s based in reality, with a logical transition plan that addresses the concerns of the Deloitte report.

As cynical as this post may sound, I’m an optimist. I think we’re getting closer to having an open-ish system that would include all the benefits of a pro/rel pyramid — primarily opportunity for all. But you’re not going to get it by storming into Soccer House waving around your wallet and a half-baked plan while insisting upon firing everyone who ever worked with the NFL. You’re going to get it by getting everyone on the same page and talking.

And listening.

2 thoughts on “Will Commisso’s money and bluster lure the grownups to the table?

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