On Enabling Change in the US Soccer Pyramid — Bottom-Up and Top-Down

Some notes on the CAS claim filed by Stockade FC and Miami FC

Just a few weeks ago, we wrapped up an incredible second season for Stockade FC. We won our Conference Championship (earning our club its first ever piece of hardware!), we broke our attendance record 3x (from 992 to 1,129 to 1,393 fans), and we’ve continued to tell our story of “open source soccer” in the hopes of inspiring the creation of other clubs like ours across the US. In a few weeks I’ll start working on another end of the season recap with full transparency into our financials and data. Until then, I wanted to talk about something much bigger.

Stockade FC hoists the NPSL’s Atlantic White Conference Championship Trophy — July 2017

Two years ago when we started our club from scratch in the Hudson Valley, we did so not just to build something great for our community and a platform for the best soccer talent in the area, but also to earn our seat at the table so we could get to work trying to fix the “closed” nature of the existing US soccer system. Over the past two years, we’ve written about the role that lower-level soccer clubs play in the sport and the opportunity for our league (NPSL) to serve as a vital piece of infrastructure within the US Soccer Pyramid. We’ve worked to create a blueprint designed to help people build lower-level clubs like ours in their own communities, focusing on being transparent about our process, our costs, our opportunities (and the lack thereof). We’ve written about how the US Soccer Pyramid, with its “closed” leagues and lack of promotion and relegation, hinders investment in the very things the sport needs to thrive, such as player development, youth academies, and more fields and training facilities across all parts of the country.

We think a lot about how a small club like ours can change things, and instead of lobbying the USSF (United States Soccer Federation) which sits at the top of all things soccer in the USA, our approach has been to try to change things from the bottom-up — through writing, documentation, and transparency. Our thesis has been if you can build a strong foundation of clubs and leagues in the lower parts of the pyramid, you can start to make change. And once you start to change the system at the bottom, you can start to push that change up to the top.

However, we’ve come to realize that there are also opportunities to try to change things from the top down.

Today, in partnership with Miami FC in the NASL, Kingston Stockade FC announced that it has filed a claim with the Court of Arbitration for Sport asking FIFA to require the USSF to follow FIFA’s own rules by adopting promotion and relegation within the US Soccer Pyramid. You can read the claim in its entirety here (24 pages, PDF)

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), based in Switzerland, is the independent judicial body for all sports worldwide. When there is a dispute about The Olympics, CAS steps in to resolve it. When there is a dispute at the Tour de France, CAS steps in to resolve it. When there is a dispute about FIFA’s rules, CAS steps in to resolve it. For any comic book nerds out there, think of the CAS as the Justice League, but for all sports worldwide.

If you were to read through FIFA’s statutes [source] — the set of rules and regulations that all countries who are eligible to compete in the World Cup abide by — you’d see that Article 9 (page 73) requires all members to practice a merit-based system of promotion and relegation.

“A club’s entitlement to take part in a domestic league championship shall depend principally on sporting merit. A Club shall qualify for domestic league championship by remaining in a certain division or by being promoted or relegated to another at the end of a season”.

Of the 211 members that belong to FIFA, only two members do not follow this rule: The United States and Australia. Today in the United States, the only way for a team to move from one closed division to another is by paying money — writing a check in the form of an Expansion Team Fee which can cost from $10M to $100M+ depending on the division.

The claim that was filed today on behalf of Kingston Stockade FC and Miami FC asks FIFA to address why merit-based promotion and relegation is not mandated by the USSF within the US Soccer Pyramid, per FIFA’s own rules. The claim focuses on opening the entire pyramid — from D1 through D3. While our club, Kingston Stockade FC, technically operates below this part of the US Soccer Pyramid**, enabling the mechanism that rewards the most ambitious and successful lower-level clubs with access to the upper parts of an open pyramid is something our club strongly supports.

** Although we refer to our ourselves as D4 or Division 4, “Division 4” is not an officially recognized “tier” within the US Soccer Pyramid.

Now, in full transparency, in addition to the love of the game, there are certainly additional motivations and incentives here. For example, Miami FC is currently the strongest team in the NASL and would clearly benefit by being able to turn their success on the field into promotion from D2 to D1. However, it’s important to note that the incentives tied to promotion and relegation are not limited to just the soccer giants — they also have the potential to trickle down to the lower levels (aka: to clubs like Kingston Stockade FC). Let me explain:

A little more than a week ago, there was much attention around the “$4 billion over 10 years” offer that was made for the media and distribution rights of D1, D2, D3, and US Open Cup soccer. Much of the attention focused on the provision that the offer was only on the table providing that a system of merit-based promotion and relegation was implemented between these divisions. Say what you want about the timing of the offer, but I looked at this proposal with great interest as I’ve written in the past about how a media rights deal for D4 could act as a driving force for investment in the league (and therefore investment in lower level soccer in general). Let’s break down the $4bn and make some educated guesses about what this could look like:

  • $4BN over 10 years = $400M/year (for D1, D2, D3)
  • Let’s assume D1 keeps 80% of that each year = $320M/year for D1
  • That leaves 20% ($80M/year) for D2/D3… and maybe even D4!
  • And let’s assume that a D2 / D3 / D4 split looks like: 60% / 30% / 10%
  • That’s means:
    D1 = $320M/year
    D2 = $48M/year
    D3 = $24M/year
    D4 = $8M/year
    $400M total * 10 years = $4BN

Again, these are spitballed numbers for the sake of example, but the point of this is that the resources that are required to invest in (and therefore grow) lower level soccer are out there, they just need need to be enabled. And while there’s a laundry list of things that could work as enablers, it’s hard to deny that any one of them would be as powerful as promotion and relegation. When teams have the ability to move from a lower-division to a higher-division — and chase the sponsorship and media rights dollars attached to those higher-divisions — there will be no shortage of incentivized investors and builders. And that will do great things for soccer (at all levels!) in the USA.

Before I wrap up this post (because I really got lost in the weeds up there), a few logistical details. The claim was filed today (Thursday August 3, 2017 @ 3:00 pm Switzerland/Central European Time time). We do not know how long it will take for CAS to respond to the claim (it could be months). We also do not know what the eventual outcome or ruling will be. But we do know that the USSF is currently not following FIFA’s own rules for promotion and relegation, across all divisions, and we feel that this is in disservice to both fans of the game around the world and to the lower-level clubs who dream big across the United States.

ps: This is admittedly a big step for a little club, but this is who we are and this is what we stand for. #WeAreStockade