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Kick Starter: Aaron Davidson re-establishes pro soccer in Florida

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.”

Orlando Jumps to the Majors

Global superstar David Beckham captured plenty of attention with his bid to bring a Major League Soccer team to Miami, but the only Florida team certain to take the pitch anytime soon in the nation’s premier league lies about three hours north in Orlando, “the soccer capital of the south.” 

That title was bestowed by Phil Rawlins, president and minority owner of Orlando City Soccer, a third-tier team that gained a spot in soccer’s major league in part by paying a $70-million franchise fee. It will play its first MLS season in 2015 at the Citrus Bowl before playing in 2016 in a new, 19,500-seat, purpose-built stadium in downtown Orlando.

“About two years ago I stopped getting asked, ‘When will soccer take off? When will it arrive?’ The game is on such a growth curve right now,” Rawlins says.

Even though it has played in the third-tier league, Orlando’s attendance is bested only by MLS teams, he says. It draws the 18- to 35-year-old millennial demographic. Nearly half of attendees come from families making more than $75,000 a year. Some 41% are families, and 35% are Hispanic.

The team will enjoy the novelty of being the city’s first new major league team in 25 years and will compete for fans’ dollars and time against only one other pro franchise, the NBA’s Orlando Magic. Orlando, the nation’s 20th-largest TV market, will end up with two pro teams, while Miami, just a few notches up at 17th, already has four pro teams, with Beckham’s to come, according to Vanderbilt University sports economist John Vrooman.

“Orlando City makes sense because of the wide-open market demographic, whereas Miami’s market is currently saturated,” Vrooman emails, adding, “Miami will do fine if they can get a suitable venue.” 

The proof that Orlando’s ready for prime-time soccer, Rawlins says, is in the gate. One month after beginning sales of season tickets for its debut MLS season, sales had reached 7,500 tickets compared to the team’s 13,000-ticket goal.

Rawlins, founder of Orlando City, is a United Kingdom native who has lived in the states for more than 20 years. His background is sales and marketing consulting, and he also was owner and director of Stoke City FC, his hometown team in the English Premier League.

Orlando City’s majority owner is Brazilian native and team Chairman Flavio Augusto da Silva, who founded an English-language instruction company before investing in the team in 2013. In addition to the franchise fee, he and the other owners also will put $40 million into the $110-million stadium.

Changing demographics in the United States and increased “competition among cable sports channels desperately seeking inventory” are driving soccer forward, Vrooman says. “It was after all the coevolution with TV that allowed the NFL to become America’s pastime,” he says.

From the millennials to soccer families to Hispanics, Rawlins sees nothing but promise. When Orlando City launched a Facebook page in Brazilian Portuguese, it chalked up 720,000 followers. “We are the No. 1 team in the U.S. in Brazil, and we haven’t kicked a ball in Major League Soccer,” Rawlins says. “I think we’re going to do extremely well.”

Soccer Hierarchy

The U.S. Soccer Federation, a division of international organizing group FIFA, accredits soccer leagues in the U.S.

  • Major League Soccer: The league, founded in 1993 and designated by the U.S. Soccer Federation as the highest level of soccer in the U.S., has 16 teams in the U.S. and three in Canada. The teams aren’t independently owned — each is owned and controlled by the league’s investors.
  • North American Soccer League: Designated as the official second-tier league in the U.S., the NASL has 10 teams this year, adding the Jacksonville team next year. The league is also in expansion talks with various other markets with a goal of 18 to 20 teams by 2018. The league has the same name but no connection with the original NASL, which folded in 1984. The league was based in Miami before moving to New York this year. The commissioner is Jacksonville resident Bill Peterson.
  • United Soccer Leagues: The USL, based in Tampa, is a privately held company that owns the USL Pro league, with teams in cities including Charleston, S.C., Pittsburgh, Richmond, Va., and Rochester, N.Y. Average attendance at USL Pro games ranges from fewer than 1,000 for some teams to more than 11,000 at others. The USL also owns several other leagues with more than 12,000 participants, 7,000 of them youth, across North America. It employs about two dozen in Tampa. Nu Rock Soccer, led by Atlanta developer Rob Hoskins and Alec Papadakis, acquired USL from Nike in 2009. Major League Soccer wants all its teams to acquire or affiliate with a USL Pro league team. When Orlando City moves to the MLS, Florida will have no USL Pro league team.

The Florida Connection

Billionaire owners from America, a country never enthralled with soccer, own almost a third of the teams in England’s top league, the English Premier League. The Florida connection among those American owners:

  • The Glazer family, which owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, owns Manchester United.
  • Shahid Khan, car parts entrepreneur and owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, owns Fulham FC.
  • John Henry, the former Boca Raton investment manager, former owner of the Miami Marlins and current head of the Fenway Sports Group, owner of the Boston Red Sox, owns Liverpool FC.
  • Joe Lewis, the Englishman and Bahamas resident whose Tavistock Group is behind the Medical City development in Orlando, owns the Tottenham Hotspurs but reportedly was shopping it in September.

Florida Soccer Teams

Orlando City Soccer, (MLS) 

  • Owner: Flavio Augusto da Silva (majority owner) 
  • Home stadium: Citrus Bowl until 2016 season then into a soccerspecific facility 
  • Average attendance: 8,500 during play at the Citrus Bowl
  • Other Florida Soccer Teams

Tampa Bay Rowdies (NASL) 

  • Owner: Bill Edwards (majority owner) 
  • Home stadium: Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg 
  • Average attendance: 4,638 
  • History: The original Rowdies were around from 1975-93. The team returned in 2010 as FC Tampa Bay and for the 2012 season switched back to the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

Jacksonville Armada FC (NASL) 

  • Owner: Mark Frisch 
  • Home stadium: Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville 
  • Average attendance: Team begins play in April 2015.

Fort Lauderdale Strikers (NASL) 

  • Owners: Paulo Cesso, Rafael Bertani and Ricardo Geromel 
  • Home stadium: Lockhart Stadium 
  • Average attendance: 4,314

Miami ( no team name yet ) 

  • Investors: Group includes David Beckham, Simon Fuller and Marcelo Claure 
  • Home stadium: Negotiations continue as of early October.