By Bill Beacon (CP)| Canadian Press
MONTREAL — Owners of teams in the United Soccer Leagues First Division are prepared to start their own league next season unless they get more say in how USL-1 is managed and run, Montreal Impact president Joey Saputo said Tuesday.
The eight-club Team Owners Association, angry that Nike passed them over last week to sell the league to a corporate owner, NuRock Soccer Holdings, announced they would «explore other options.»
Saputo said the teams, which include the Vancouver Whitecaps, can still reach agreement with NuRock to have more say in league operations, but if not, they are prepared to play a full schedule in 2010 in their own league.
«I’m not saying we want to own the league, we want to be partners in the league,» he said. «We want to make decisions on what direction the league needs to go.
«We want to make decisions on competitiveness and marketing. It’s what we’ve been trying to do for the last three or four years.»
The clubs are threatening to pull out just as the Ottawa Fury are looking to join USL-1. Team owner and CEO John Pugh, whose club currently plays in the Premier Development League, announced Tuesday they have applied for a spot in USL-1, likely starting in 2012. Their bid is contingent on the city of Ottawa giving the green light to a proposed new stadium at Lansdowne Park that the Fury would share with a CFL team.
«A dialogue has to start between the new owners and the Team Owners Association,» said Fury owner John Pugh. «I think people need to give the new ownership an opportunity to show what their vision is for the league.»
USL president Tim Holt declined to comment on the team owners’ demands.
«We don’t intend to debate the association in the media,» he said. «We’re excited about what we’re preparing for the future.»
Saputo was scathing in his criticism of the USL-1.
Unlike other professional sports leagues, it has a corporate owner which collects fees from clubs and decides which teams get in. Saputo said other clubs weren’t consulted when franchises were awarded to the Tampa Bay Rowdies and FC New York for next season.
He said the expansion fee has not gone up in 15 years because the league has done little to market itself or raise its profile in the North American market. The league has been left behind by Major League Soccer, even if the gap in talent on the field is not that wide, he added.
«We have no say on the type of owners coming in,» he said. «No disrespect to (some) other owners, but they don’t belong in this league.
«But we have no say. We find out at the last minute that teams are coming in, like the Cleveland Stars. It makes no sense. We want control of our destiny. There’s a reason the value of franchises goes up in hockey and baseball and every other sport. It’s because the owners are working to bring the value of the league and the teams up. We’re the only league that doesn’t do that.»
The Impact, in its second season playing out of 13,000-seat Saputo Stadium, leads the league in attendance and media coverage.
Saputo said he had a feeling that Nike, which got the league as part of the package when it acquired Umbro last year, would sell to another private owner rather than to the teams. He was unable to reveal the sale price due to a confidentiality agreement but said it was «absolute peanuts.»
He said starting a new league would cost about the same, as the teams are already in place.
The members of the TOA include Montreal, Vancouver, Atlanta, Carolina, Miami, Minnesota, St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Vancouver. Saputo said other clubs are prepared to join a new league so it would have between eight and 12 clubs.
He declined to discuss what other options the teams had, but in the end, he would prefer to stay in a revamped USL-1 that is controlled by the clubs.
«As bad as a the USL is, it has a brand and if we could just continue to develop the brand, as opposed to starting a new brand, that’s something we have to look at,» he said.
He said there was no deadline for a decision on starting a new circuit. He said USL-1 nearly came apart last November, but they had a schedule and 11 teams in place to start the season.
«The league exists because of the teams, not because of the league,» he added. «I think we have the power. We are united and finally, we’ve decided to take this strategy of looking at other options.»
Vancouver is to join MLS in 2011 and Montreal is also trying to get in, but the Whitecaps want to maintain a USL presence through a second team based somewhere in British Columbia.
Saputo said both clubs are set to play next season, in USL-1 or in some other framework, but won’t abandon the other clubs while working for more power in the league.
NuRock’ Bob Hoskins has taken over as chairman of the USL and Alex Papadakis, a former North American Soccer League player, is the new CEO. Nike and Umbro have stayed on as league sponsors.
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