Photo: Eileen Escarda"We've played a critical role in the development of soccer as Traffic. We are playing a major role today in what soccer will look like in this country." -- Aaron Davidson, president, Traffic Sports
Kick Starter: Aaron Davidson re-establishes pro soccer in Florida
Almost single-handedly, Aaron Davidson re-established pro soccer in Florida with his media company, Traffic Sports.
When Aaron Davidson, a lawyerturned- sports businessman, arrived in Florida in 2003, the state was a pro soccer wasteland. The nation’s premier league, Major League Soccer, had consolidated the state’s two teams, in Tampa Bay and Miami, out of existence two years earlier. Another league, the North American Soccer League, once fielded teams in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Jacksonville but had been out of business since 1984.
Davidson came to Florida as a sales and marketing executive with Traffic Sports USA, the Miami-based arm of a Brazilian company that organizes and commercializes pro soccer events and also owns teams.
At the time, the company saw south Florida as a base of operations, not a soccer hub, and Davidson and his sales team began traveling as far afield as Europe and Japan cutting deals.
Today, Traffic Sports’ core business — media and sponsorship rights — is “in the best position we’ve ever been,” he says. Traffic has the rights to a lengthy roster of properties, with sponsorship or TV rights and marketing duties for key tournaments and leagues throughout the Americas for years to come. In some cases, the rights extend as far out as 2022.
One tournament, Copa America, a championship for the Americas in 2015 that determines a World Cup representative, will be the biggest soccer event in the United States since the 1994 World Cup, says Davidson, 43, now Traffic Sports’ president.
Texas born and bred, Davidson grew up in a Spanish-speaking home. “I’m a Tex-Mex-Costa Rican Jew,” he says. His entry into the sports industry began during his years as an undergraduate at Emory University and a law student at Southern Methodist University, when he volunteered for the 1993 regional championship for North and Central America and the Caribbean, the CONCACAF Gold Cup, and the 1994 World Cup.
He joined a sports consulting firm, was associated with Traffic Sports briefly, helped start TV’s Pan-American Sports Network and was a board member and CEO of the Latin American PGA Tour, the Tour de las Americas.
Three years after returning to Traffic Sports and moving to Miami, Davidson turned his attention to soccer in Florida. “We felt the next growth opportunity was Miami and south Florida and U.S. pro soccer,” he says.
Davidson resurrected the Miami FC and later moved it to Fort Lauderdale, renaming the team the Strikers. The team was first affiliated with the United Soccer Leagues. But Davidson and other USL team owners, unhappy with that league’s structure, decided to re-establish the North American Soccer League under Davidson’s leadership. The NASL reached an important milestone when the U.S. Soccer Federation, a division of international organizing group FIFA, designated the NASL as the nation’s official second-division pro league.
Davidson’s move to re-establish the NASL meant there would be three separate pro soccer leagues in the U.S., with Major League Soccer as the sport’s top-tier league. NASL, the sport’s second tier, is operated collectively by the owners of the individual NASL teams [“Soccer Hierarchy,” page 154].
Unlike in baseball, the secondtier soccer teams have no “farm team” relationship with teams in the MLS. And unlike in international soccer, there’s no mechanism that allows for a team to move between leagues based on how it performs on the field. In England, by contrast, teams that finish at the bottom of the country’s Premier league are “relegated” downward to the second-tier league, while the top finishers in the second-division league are promoted upward.
In the U.S., if a team has a soccer- specific stadium, sufficient financial backing and meets certain attendance goals, it can join the MLS by paying a hefty franchise fee. And so third-tier USL team Orlando City Soccer is jumping to the MLS, not by performing the best, but by writing a check for $70 million.
Davidson, as he was setting up the NASL, looked at the MLS model and didn’t like it. MLS players were under contract to the league, leaving little autonomy for local owners on player personnel decisions. “We were not going to put ourselves in a system where we were handcuffed,” he says.
He still doesn’t like the MLS structure, and while he says that MLS clearly owns the top-league designation, he says things that indicate he sees the NASL as an alternative to the MLS rather than second banana. “From a business perspective, we feel we have a better model. Owners around the world, investors around the world, connoisseurs around the world, know our model is more consistent” with how pro soccer runs globally, he says.
Founded, incubated and operated out of Traffic’s office in Miami before moving to New York this year, the NASL held its first standalone season in 2011 with eight teams and Davidson as league chairman. The league’s Florida teams now include the Strikers along with the Rowdies in St. Petersburg and a team to come in Jacksonville.
Traffic Sports has worked hard and invested to keep the league and teams viable. It’s wholly or partially owned as many as four league teams while also running the league’s marketing. In September, Traffic sold the Strikers to a group of three Brazilian families and now owns only the Carolina RailHawks.
From his vantage point as chairman of the NASL’s owners group, Davidson knows team finances. He says some teams clear 20% to 30% margins but “a lot” of teams lose “a significant amount of money every year.”
Meanwhile, attendance at NASL games has grown steadily each year, rising about 13% this year and is expected to pass 1 million this year.
Davidson is at once optimistic about pro soccer’s future in the United States and realistic about its current situation. Young Americans now routinely play recreational soccer as they grow up but still tend to watch the NFL when they get home. Soccer’s moving more mainstream, but as a seller of TV rights and sponsorship rights, Davidson knows it still usually gets just a share of corporations’ Hispanic marketing budget, a fraction of the total budget.
Meanwhile, the quality of even the best U.S. soccer lags that of top international clubs: No U.S. born player is on The Guardian’s list of the 100 best in the world. In an age of streaming, satellite and fragmented media, passionate soccer fans in the U.S. have lots of alternatives to going out to see the local team. The English Premier League gets higher TV ratings in the U.S. than Major League Soccer, whose ratings are on a par with the WNBA.
“We’re in the business of entertainment. We’ve got to inspire these fans about the level of soccer” here, Davidson says.
He sees a possibility that one day NASL teams will be able to be promoted or relegated without paying MLS a huge franchise fee. NASL teams have shown they can be competitive with their MLS rivals. At the 2014 U.S. Open Cup, a tournament open to all U.S. Soccer Federation teams, both amateur and pro, two NASL teams, the Atlanta Silverbacks and Traffic’s own Carolina Rail- Hawks, each knocked off two MLS teams to advance to the quarterfinals. Europe shows the U.S. population base can support many teams, he says. (There are hundreds in Europe.)
“There are so many markets that are relatively untapped or wholly untapped from a pro soccer standpoint,” Davidson says. “There’s so much space to grow. The upside for this sport is unlimited in this country.”