USL Super League round table: The biggest questions on our writers’ minds right now

The announcements have been made, the first press conference is in the books, and the USL Super League is now truly on the clock to finish building itself out ahead of the first game this August. Following last week’s Division I sanctioning decision from U.S. Soccer, more is coming into focus for the new women’s professional league — though not exactly what it might look like for the Super League and the NWSL to coexist atop the pyramid, yet.

“We congratulate the USL in their efforts to launch a professional league. We know the work and investment required,” the NWSL said in a statement, before it turned mostly into a reminder about who’s been around for a while now via a list of various accomplishments. The vibes do not feel warm and fuzzy, but that’s still just one piece of the puzzle to solve in the coming months.

While we know most of the basics around the Super League, there are a lot of lingering questions. There are also some lingering worries about how the U.S. can support two top-flight pro leagues at the same time that, in turn, prompt even bigger questions about the state of the game overall. Here we discuss all that and more. 

There’s a lot still TBD

Steph: USL Super League president Amanda Vandervort gave us a good amount of info on her call, but there’s still a lot that remains pending, including things like salary information, broadcast deal, and commercial partnerships. It makes sense that some of that would be contingent on confirming their Division I status, but it also puts pressure on the league to follow through now that they’ve had their big splashy announcement. 

What does “competitive” mean in terms of salary or overall compensation? Vandervort also said that they won’t bundle broadcast rights with the men’s side of USL, which I do think is the right move, but broadcast rights negotiations are a bear even when you have a much shinier product — just look at what the NWSL had to do amidst a landscape where the trend is fragmenting things across several services. And right now the USLSL is an untested product with an unproven audience.

There’s ambition and there’s reality; you look at the average quality of USL men’s broadcasts or streams until now, and I think you need to temper expectations all around in terms of what’s fair to expect from this league and each of the teams. I don’t know if the USLSL wants to lean more toward having a national footprint or if they’re going to stick to what’s served them well by leaning into local connections and letting each club focus on establishing a strong community footprint.

Jeff: Along those lines, it’s worth remembering that the Pro League Sanctions that were used to grant the USLSL first-division sanctioning are minimum operational standards. Although it ensures baseline expectations for ownership wealth, market size, stadium seating, and geographic spread, it leaves a lot up to each league in terms of its structure. Getting first-division sanctioning means that USLSL will have at least 75% of its teams in markets of at least 750,000 people, that each stadium has a minimum capacity of 5,000, that each principal owner (35%+ stake) is worth at least $15 million. 

It does not, however, say that the league must be operationally similar to the NWSL, or the FA WSL, or any other first-division league. That leeway is felt most on the sporting side, which is frankly all that most of us care about when we aren’t investors in sports organizations. And to Steph’s point: we simply don’t know what we’re about to see in just six months’ time!

Meg: This is not related to your main point, but “USLSL” is not my favorite acronym ever. Fun to type, weird to read. 

Super League vs. NWSL?

Meg: The Super League has been such a massive topic of discussion across the NWSL since they first announced their intent to form it, but especially when they said they were going for DI sanctioning. There’s definitely an emotional component to this too: an initial layer of distrust, apprehension, even fear about the Super League being a competitive force.

Honestly, that feels pretty understandable to me, knowing the history of women’s soccer in this country. It took three tries to get past a league that lasted more than three seasons, and it’s honestly over only the past couple of seasons the NWSL has felt firm enough to not question its existence or sustainability. The good news is the Super League forces the NWSL not just to be a better product, but a better operation.

But there are a few things I’ll definitely be watching: the incoming Brooklyn team posing a problem for Gotham FC’s long-standing struggle to win over the NYC market, and the differences in the leadership between Vandervort and NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman. I’ve been at a lot of press conferences over the years, with a lot of different folks sitting in that leadership chair, and Vandervort was one of the first to speak like a normal human and engage at a level I haven’t really seen before. That’s going to be an asset for the Super League.

Steph: I think maybe there’s been a perception of “Division I league” to mean a certain thing or being a descriptive title, when really the standards should be seen as a regulatory baseline. Just existing in a certain division doesn’t mean the exact same product; I focus a lot more on the DI requirements like, “Each team ownership group must demonstrate the financial capacity to operate the team for three years.”

Meg: Jeff, maybe you can speak to this better than either of us can — how much does MLS view USL as a threat? For instance, I’m up here in Vermont, going to Vermont Green games, and while still a Revs fan, I’m not about to drive four hours to go to a game. It feels like we could see a similar relationship, for the most part.

Jeff: MLS has built its league to be a glossy version of professional soccer. A lot of the league’s cues come from the NFL, from its gameday routines and atmosphere to its roster rules. The USL was a helpful partner in player development during the 2010s, and several MLS markets were plucked straight from the USL over the last decade, but at this point there’s no official relationship between the two worth mentioning. 

It’s a bit more complicated since MLS launched its developmental league (Next Pro) with third-division sanctioning and is now competing with the USL League One (also third-division sanctioned) for markets and players. Beyond that, however, it’s largely operating without the USL and its teams factoring into the calculus.

Steph: I know I said Division I status should be seen as a regulatory thing, but it still puts a target on the USLSL’s back, for lack of a better term, in that the DI label sets expectations much higher. That’s a double-edged sword, where you do want the league to be ambitious and to be able to secure better broadcast and commercial deals, but it also means harsher judgment if they fall short of the mark. I think there might be an expectation to be able to look like current-day NWSL right away, when in reality, this league might look more like year one NWSL because it is still a brand new product that needs to iron out the kinks and has comparatively fewer resources. 

Jeff: The sports and entertainment landscape doesn’t exactly reward patience, but some is going to be necessary as the league gets its calculus right. By giving access to top-flight professional sports to smaller markets, however, the league immediately has a chance to be unique and change how we look at major sports leagues. Whether or not that requires going toe-to-toe with the NWSL for fan interest will be fascinating to cover.

…but how does it scale?

Jeff: Ever since Friday’s announcement, I’ve been fixating on a more all-encompassing question that hasn’t been asked often enough: how do we want women’s soccer to look in this country? Specifically, is it in the sport’s best interest to have one sanctioned professional rung of the pyramid without lower levels to foster development and identify players, coaches and staff who can’t walk into the first division? While the USL W-League has some strong clubs, there’s still a massive gap between pre-professional amateur leagues and first-division leagues like the NWSL and, now, USLSL.

When the USL initially announced its plan to launch a professional women’s league in September 2021, it seemed like the best operating body imaginable to earnestly try launching a stable second-division in the women’s soccer pyramid. The organization has decades of experience at a similar level on the men’s side, having solely owned the second division space since 2018 and operating a third-division league since 2019. Over time, the league’s plans seemed to better jibe with first-division sanctioning, which culminated in Friday’s confirmation.

If not now, when will someone launch a professional lower-division league? If not the USL, then who would be equipped to do it in a sustainable manner? 

Meg: Maybe the better question is: is anyone incentivized to go for DII in women’s soccer? It just feels like everyone’s pushing right now to be a big part of the ~women’s sports rocket ship~ (insert appropriate emojis for your LinkedIn post here) and there’s not a ton of reward for investing in spaces that could be more practical in terms of filling out the pyramid. But there’s a much larger project overall that still needs to happen in terms of player development on the women’s side in the U.S., and there’s a ton of politics involved in that.

Jeff: The Pro League Standards were last updated in 2023 after the Yates Report, but detractors of the U.S. soccer pyramid have called for them to be wholly revamped for years. I’m not advocating for a flamethrower approach, but I do wonder if the USLSL’s decision to focus on first-division sanctioning calls into question if they’re formatted to encourage growth below the very top of the pyramid. New tournaments, leagues, and competitions have marketing and financial considerations at their heart; beyond the goodwill earned by growing the game, what reason is there for investors to invest at a level that they would perceive as having lower upside?

(Photo: Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Union / USA TODAY NETWORK)

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