“What’s old is new again”: how the United Soccer League upped its content game

The old industry adage that content is king certainly rings true for the United Soccer League (USL). With last year’s establishment of USL Productions, the league’s media production and broadcasting arm, North American soccer’s second tier is now a first-rate content factory.

“What’s old is new again”: how the United Soccer League upped its content game

“Our goal is simple,” says Tom Veit, the executive vice president and chief revenue officer at the burgeoning United Soccer League (USL). “We want to be one of the top second divisions in the world.”

Much has been written about the USL’s impressive growth in recent times. It’s been widely documented, for example, that the league has more than doubled in size since its inaugural season in 2011, growing to a wholesome 30 teams with more to come. It is widely known, too, that the former third-tier league was granted provisional division two status in January, putting it alongside the struggling North American Soccer League (NASL) in the North American soccer hierarchy, and one rung below Major League Soccer (MLS).

Across the board, the USL is turning heads. This year the league has reported record attendances, up 30 per cent on 2016 to an average of almost 6,000 per game. Expansion fees, currently set at US$5 million, are on the rise, piquing interest among billionaires and would-be franchise owners in cities right across North America. Meanwhile the league recently announced plans to launch a third-tier division in 2019, underlining its reputation as one of the fastest-growing and ambitious properties in sport’s most competitive market.

“I always say that divisions in America are all about floors not ceilings,” says Veit, speaking to SportsPro from the USL’s headquarters in Tampa, Florida. “For us, when we were in division three, we didn’t operate at the very bottom level of what you had to do for division three. We operated at the level that you needed to be to be at division two, so we thought it was vindication when we received it.”

Securing division two sanctioning from the US Soccer Federation (USSF) was all part of an overarching growth strategy the USL, led by president Jake Edwards, set out several years ago. Dubbed ‘Destination 2020’, the strategy was intended to enhance and professionalise every aspect of the league’s business, spanning everything from ownership and fan engagement to sponsorship and broadcasting.

Central to this self-improvement effort was the creation last April of USL Productions, a standalone media production arm that is responsible for producing and distributing all USL content across linear and digital platforms. Now in the midst of its first full season in operation, the unit will produce more than 1,000 hours of live coverage this year, plus a stack of ancillary programming such as highlights programmes and feature shows.

We might not be the smartest people in the world but we know how to copy the best.

“Because of USL Productions, I’ve probably seen all or part of almost every USL game played this year,” says Veit. “I see a quality of play that is becoming very, very good. We knew that would continue to grow. The second phase of that was, how do we now create the content? How do we produce this? We say network and we say broadcast and we say production, but what we’re really talking about is content creation.”

Veit, who served as president of the Philadelphia Union MLS side between 2008 and 2011, joined the USL in June of 2015, charged with overseeing the establishment of USL Productions from its conception. To get the project off the ground, he first called upon the expertise of Michael Cohen, the Emmy Award-winning producer and former ESPN executive who spearheaded the creation of MLS’ television production and programming operation after joining that league in 2002.

Together with Cohen, who now serves as a media consultant for the USL, Veit went out and struck up a partnership with Vista Worldlink, a media solutions company perhaps best known in soccer circles for having worked with MLS and Concacaf, the sport’s governing body in North and Central America and the Caribbean. The terms of the partnership were clear-cut: the USL and its clubs would invest US$10 million and other resources in the venture, while Vista would provide technical personnel, production facilities, and valuable expertise.

“Michael and myself, we went out and partnered with Vista, and then we brought in some of our individual teams and the production assets they have,” explains Veit. “We sat down and said, ‘if we can build this from scratch, how do we do it?’”

Looking back, Veit (left) says he drew inspiration from what other entities across the world of sport and entertainment were doing in the media space, including his former employers at World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), college properties like the Big Ten Network, and, of course, the North American major leagues. “We looked a lot at what they were doing and how they distribute internationally,” he recalls. “We might not be the smartest people in the world but we know how to copy the best.”

The USL’s partnership with Vista employs a model seen across the world of sport, where numerous entities have aggregated their content under a single, centralised unit with the aim of delivering an enhanced, more consistent broadcast product. For the USL in particular, though, the economies of scale are obvious. By pooling resources and bringing every team into a single operation, the league has been able to cut costs whilst ensuring its teams adhere to minimum production standards.

What’s more, the league has succeeded in streamlining the process of getting video content to market. Today, every piece of USL footage is fed through the USL Broadcast Centre at Vista’s recently expanded production facility near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where it is prepped for distribution across national, local and digital platforms - the three main “building blocks” of the league’s new media strategy, says Veit.

“All of our games - every game, whether they’re produced by Vista or produced by the local team - everything is routed back to the broadcast facility that we partnered with Vista to build out,” he explains. “Every bit of USL content flows back there, it’s archived, and then we can transmit it and deliver it anywhere in the world that we want.”

This season, the USL is being aired nationally in the US by ESPN, whose current one-year deal includes coverage of select matches across both digital and linear platforms. That agreement is an expansion of a prior tie-up that saw ESPNU, the broadcaster’s outlet which primarily caters for college sports, telecast the 2016 USL Cup Final last October. SiriusXM, meanwhile, is providing live radio coverage of one game per week on a national basis this year, as well as a weekly one-hour show each Monday throughout the season. 

“Two years ago, when we weren't doing anything, we started a relationship with ESPN,” recalls Veit. “They took a chance on us; they took our games last year for the championship. Now we’ve developed that into a very robust relationship, so it’s really about the partners we were able to come with, that believed in us and also allowed us to create something new.”

At the local level, coverage is being transmitted via the newly created USL Television Network. Launched last month, the network is founded upon an initial slate of local carriage agreements with over-the-air affiliates in 17 markets. Over 300 matches reach more than 10 million households through the network, with match coverage, featuring mostly local commentators, complemented by an array of supplementary programming delivered in both English and Spanish.

USL Productions is producing more than 500 matches this year, totalling more than 1,000 hours of programming.

“All sports, no matter what league or what level, begin locally, so we wanted to provide local content,” Veit explains. “We went from two or three teams with local television deals to 17 in year one.

“I’d like to say we’re geniuses and I came up with this idea no one had ever heard of before, but it’s really looking at the syndication models of 15 or 20 years ago,” he adds. “What’s old is new again. All of a sudden that old format can become relevant because of cord-cutting, because of digital television and the need for local content and the fact that RSNs [regional sports networks] have gone more regional.”

Besides securing broader linear coverage, the league has also stepped up its efforts in the digital space. Every USL match is now shown via the USL Match Centre, the league’s one-stop-shop online destination, as well as on ESPN3 and YouTube. The league has also experimented with streaming games on Facebook this season, while Veit says it is currently exploring the possibility of creating its own OTT app at some point in future. The ultimate goal, he adds, is to reach new fans by being universally accessible, providing video content however and wherever viewers want to watch it.

At the USL, whatever we do, we want to do at the highest level.

“We built the production system and transmission system to evolve because we have no idea what distribution is going to look like even three years from now,” he says. “We have an old school and new school approach. Our teams in Louisville or Charlotte are on local television, just like teams have been on for the last 70 years, and at the same time we’re cutting-edge, with YouTube, with distribution. If a new technology arises, we can shift into it almost immediately. This system is built to be flexible on all levels.”

If the work of USL Productions is set to play an important role in the league's growth going forward, the early results have been impressive. So far this season, the league says, USL content has generated 146 million impressions on Facebook and Twitter, with marked increases in overall engagement across both platforms. Viewership on YouTube for regular season matches has also increased by double digits on 2016.

The next step, says Veit, is to build out a sales operation to commercialise all the content. With the new production capabilities in place, a dedicated sales department will be established “over the course of this year”, with in-house staff likely to be supported by an outside marketing agency further down the line.

“It’s probably the untold story about how we launched,” adds Veit. “A lot of times you have to go out and you have to figure out how you monetise all this from day one. Our league made the investment knowing that we wanted to get this right before we went out commercially and started looking for partners. Because what we didn’t want to do is deliver something half-baked - not complete - to a partner. At the USL, whatever we do, we want to do at the highest level.

“Luckily, we had the support of our ownership, who said ‘go out and make this work right. Once we know we’re there, then we’ll go out and look at partners to bring in.’ And we’re there now.”

Though lower league soccer may never be an easy sell in overseas territories, the addition of household names on the field certainly helps. Veit says the recent arrival of Didier Drogba, the former English Premier League star who became a part-owner and player at Phoenix Rising FC in April, has thrust the league into the wider consciousness internationally, and has the potential to do for the USL what David Beckham’s arrival did for MLS a decade ago, albeit “in a different context”. He may have a point. Attracting imports of Drogba’s calibre is both vindication of the USL’s growth up to now and a clear statement of intent.

“When you have the stars, the Shaun Wright-Phillips, the Drogbas, the Joe Coles, obviously that ramps up the eyeballs on the league," says Veit. "We believe that if someone comes and sees us or watches on TV, they’re going to become a fan of our league.”